When I started editing a blog about homelessness a year ago, I knew I had a lot to learn. First was the answer to a very common question posed by people who see homeless individuals sleeping on grates and panhandling on street corners: “Why don’t they just go to a shelter?”
It’s a reasonable question, since the United States has a robust shelter system. It’s just not robust or flexible enough for many homeless people. It might sound obvious, but a shelter’s not a hotel.
Becky Blanton, a writer who was homeless from March 2006 to August 2007, says she had a lot of reasons to not enter shelters when she lost her housing. “Disease, violence, mental illness, and addiction,” she said simply before going on to explain that, in her experience, staying in many emergency shelters leads to scabies, lice, bed bugs, the transmission of hepatitis and tuberculosis, athlete’s foot from the showers, the common cold and lots of other things that “are no big deal if you can stay home in bed, but can kill you if you’re homeless.”
Sure, people living outside face exposure to extreme temperatures and violence, but “it’s six on one hand, a half dozen on the other,” said Joy Eckstine, the executive director of the Carriage House Community Table day shelter and resource center, in Boulder, Colorado, where six employees work with about two hundred people a day. “Communicable diseases go around like you wouldn’t believe in shelters. Everyone’s coughing and sneezing.”
While she was homeless, Blanton, now fifty-five, slept nearly everywhere but shelters as she traveled between Tennessee, Virginia, and Colorado—able to keep her van, she parked in Walmart and hospital parking lots, camped in the woods, house-sat and couch-surfed. She would try to scrounge up enough money to buy a spot in a campground a couple nights a week so she could shower, do her laundry, and “sleep without having to worry about a cop knocking on the van.”
She worked the entire time she was homeless—at a newspaper for awhile and then at odd jobs. The restrictive schedule of shelters would have made it impossible for her to work, she said, since once a person checks in sometime in the afternoon, she can’t check out again until early morning. Blanton’s not alone in this, says Eckstine. “A lot of shelters don’t let you use your own alarm clock or provide an early enough wakeup call.” For people working day labor, from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., or overnight shifts, they’re generally out of luck. Eckstine knows some who sleep in their cars just outside shelters, so they can get showers and meals without the curfews.
The restraints can also interfere with recovery programs. “I’ve talked to people who literally had to choose between going to their 12-Step meetings and going to the shelter,” Eckstine says.
Inside the shelter, there’s usually no place to store one’s stuff. Many people sleep fully clothed, shoes and all, to make sure that nothing is stolen. Add to that the questionable hygiene and probable mental instability of the person on the cot next to you, and it can be quite scary, Blanton said. Ask anyone with post-traumatic stress disorder. Being in an enclosed space with unpredictable people can be frightening, Eckstine said. Some Vietnam veterans she knows have trouble taking orders from twenty-two-year-olds, so they opt to stay outdoors.
That’s why Eckstine is studying the concept of trauma-informed care. “How do you build an institution in a way that still has some element of flexibility?” she asked. She and other social-service professionals are working to find out how to explain shelter rules in ways that don’t feel demeaning or disempowering.
It’s not just convenience and health concerns that keep people in the streets, though. Blanton, who kept a Rottweiler and a house cat while she was homeless, said she met lots of fellow pet-owners who refused to leave their animals, as well as families and couples who didn’t want to split up into male and female quarters in shelters. Several homeless alcoholics and drug addicts won’t enter a shelter where they can’t drink or use for an extended period of time, especially if they’re at risk of withdrawal symptoms.
Worse, some people don’t have any choice but to sleep outdoors or in friends’ homes. Shelters are routinely full in cities across the country, particularly since the recession has made many people homeless for the first time. As Eckstine says, “Most cities have vastly fewer shelter beds than homeless people.”
Originally published on Tonic