Why would they prefer to stay on the street?
As a nonprofit 501(c)(3) public charity helping people who are experiencing homelessness, Brighten the Corner encourages unhoused individuals to take advantage of opportunities to enter a shelter. Of course, many shelters have long waiting lists, and they are intended to be only temporary solutions. Homeless shelters typically have a limit of three months per person in order to help more individuals who are in need. Staying in a shelter for an extended period of time could take up resources and opportunities that others are waiting for.
Additionally, the federal Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) program that provides funds to states and localities to assist people experiencing homelessness, generally requires that shelters limit the length of stay to 90 days. We believe that the primary benefit of temporary shelter is availability of assistance with finding employment and arranging longer-term housing solutions to become more self-sufficient, such as the Rapid Re-Housing program.
In spite of those opportunities, many homeless people don’t want to go to a shelter. That viewpoint comes as a surprise to some first-time charity volunteers, who have a tendency to assume that all homeless people would jump at the chance to get a roof over their head even temporarily. In our experience at Brighten the Corner, it takes time getting acquainted with people who are experiencing homelessness and really listening to them, to understand that some of them may “have a point” when they say that they would prefer to stay on the street than to go to a shelter.
Here are twenty-five common reasons for reluctance to enter a homeless shelter:
- Fear of violence or theft in a crowded shelter: Homeless individuals are often concerned about the safety of their belongings and personal safety in a crowded and unfamiliar environment. They may have heard of or experienced incidents of theft, violence, or abuse in shelters and are therefore hesitant to seek refuge there.
- Lack of cleanliness or proper hygiene in a shelter: Homeless individuals may avoid shelters due to the lack of cleanliness and proper hygiene facilities. The unsanitary conditions can lead to health problems and further discomfort.
- Feeling of insecurity due to the lack of walls or locks in a crowded shelter: Homeless individuals may feel insecure about their belongings or their personal safety in a shelter that has no walls or locks in a crowded dormitory.
- Feeling of being unsafe due to the lack of security or supervision in a shelter: Homeless individuals may feel unsafe due to the lack of security and supervision in a shelter. They may feel that they are at risk of theft, abuse, or violence without adequate protection or supervision.
- Lack of privacy and personal space in a shelter: Homeless individuals may feel that they lack privacy and personal space in a shelter. The crowded conditions and close proximity to others can cause feelings of discomfort and a lack of privacy.
- Anxiety or depression caused by the crowded and noisy environment in a shelter: Homeless individuals may experience anxiety or depression due to the crowded and noisy environment in a shelter. The unfamiliar surroundings, lack of privacy, and constant noise can exacerbate mental health conditions and cause further emotional distress.
- Feeling of being judged by other people in the shelter: Homeless individuals may feel that they are being judged by others in the shelter. They may feel embarrassed or ashamed about their situation and feel that they are being looked down upon by others.
- Embarrassment or shame at having to stay in a shelter: Homeless individuals may feel embarrassed or ashamed about having to stay in a shelter. They may feel that they have failed in some way and are not living up to their own or others’ expectations.
- Not wanting to leave familiar surroundings: Homeless individuals may not want to leave their familiar surroundings established on the street. They may feel more comfortable and secure in this familiar environment despite its challenges.
- Fear of being separated from a beloved pet: Homeless individuals with pets may avoid shelters if they cannot bring their pets with them. They may fear that their pet will be taken away or that they will be separated from them.
- Difficulty accessing mail or important documents without a permanent address: Homeless individuals may have difficulty accessing mail or important documents without a permanent address. They may also face difficulty obtaining government benefits or services without a stable address.
- Feeling of insecurity about personal belongings: Homeless individuals may feel insecure about their personal belongings and may not have a secure place to store them. They may also fear that their belongings may be stolen while they are away.
- Feeling of being unsafe due to lack of security personnel: Homeless individuals may feel unsafe in a shelter due to a lack of security personnel, especially at night, and may worry about being the target of violence or theft.
- Embarrassment or shame at having to stay in a shelter: Homeless individuals may feel embarrassed or ashamed about having to stay in homeless shelters, and they may feel like they have failed in some way. They may also feel like they are being looked down upon by others in the shelter.
- Difficulty getting proper rest in a shelter: Homeless individuals may find it difficult to get proper rest in a shelter due to the crowded conditions, lack of privacy, and constant noise. This can lead to feelings of fatigue and stress.
- Not wanting to leave familiar surroundings: Homeless individuals may feel more comfortable and secure in familiar surroundings, despite its challenges and difficulties, and may not want to leave them.
- Fear of being separated from a beloved pet: Homeless individuals who have pets may be hesitant to stay in a shelter if they cannot bring their pet with them. They may fear being separated from their beloved companion.
- Difficulty accessing mail or other important documents without a permanent address: Homeless individuals may have difficulty accessing mail or important documents without a stable address, which can make it challenging to receive government benefits or other services while in a homeless shelter.
- Difficulty finding a shelter that caters to specific needs: Homeless individuals may have specific needs, such as disabilities or mental health conditions, and may find it difficult to find a shelter that can accommodate their needs.
- Lack of transportation: Homeless individuals may live in areas with limited access to transportation, making it difficult for them to reach a shelter or to travel to look for employment or to go to work.
- Difficulty sleeping or getting proper rest in a shelter: Homeless individuals may find it difficult to get a good night’s sleep in a crowded and noisy shelter environment with little privacy. The noise (including snoring from other residents), unfamiliar surroundings, and close proximity to others (not to mention the thin, inadequate mattresses) can disrupt their sleep and leave them feeling fatigued and stressed.
- Strict rules and regulations: Shelters may have strict rules and regulations that individuals must follow, such as curfews, drug tests, and searches, which can feel invasive and may deter some people from using the shelter.
- Fear of being separated from a support system: Homeless individuals who have formed supportive relationships with other homeless individuals may not want to enter a shelter and risk being separated from their support system. This can be especially true for individuals who have been on the streets for a long time.
- Preference for more freedom and independence: Homeless people are like anyone else: they value freedom, independence, and self-sufficiency. Some individuals feel that going to a shelter would reduce their ability to enjoy those qualities and make them more dependent.
- Resistance to authority: Homeless individuals may resist entering a shelter due to past negative experiences with authority figures, such as law enforcement or government officials. They may view shelters as an extension of the government and be wary of giving up their autonomy by staying in a shelter.
If we put ourselves in their shoes, we might find that these reasons make sense. At least they have a point. Although we encourage homeless people to take advantage of shelter opportunities, it is important to understand how they may feel about it. Homelessness is not a crime and those who are homeless should be treated with dignity and respect.
The list above is not exhaustive. There are many other reasons why homeless individuals may be reluctant to go to homeless shelters and may prefer to stay on the streets; we could easily list another twenty-five reasons (and we may do so in a follow-up post). But the key point is this: by understanding and addressing these barriers, communities and charities can work towards providing more effective and supportive services for individuals experiencing homelessness.
Brighten the Corner helps to address such barriers by making friends with people who are homeless, visiting them every week, listening to them, and showing that we care about them personally. We respect their dignity and autonomy as we share words of hope and encouragement and offer to help connect them to resources that can assist with getting back on their feet — including homeless shelters and the services available through them such as employment and rapid re-housing assistance and various Housing First initiatives. If you want to do something about homelessness but are not in a position to get involved directly, you can still play an important role by supporting the work of Brighten the Corner.