This article was originally written in fall of 2018.
People are sprawled ideally along street corners all across the United States of America, limbs stretching into the sidewalk in a manner that begs for attention. Their meager possessions are littered around them.
Many of these static individuals have tattered cardboard displays at their feet, a silent cry for help. One reads: “Homeless Not Helpless.” Another: “Help The Homeless.”
Despite how much they may resent their current living situations, on any given night over a hundred thousand homeless individuals and families remain on the streets instead of taking refuge in shelters or other housing services.
There were 549,928 people experiencing homelessness during one night in the United States of America alone in 2016 according to ProjectHome.org. Of these half a million plus people, 68% percent of them were residing in shelters or other emergency care. The remaining 32% roughed it out on the streets, which rounds up to about 175,977 people on any given night.
The more I talked to individuals living on the streets, one thing stuck out that they all seemed to have in common: all of these individuals complained about a lack of available resources and almost all of them had a negative opinion of shelters.
“A lack of available resources” is the hardest part about being homeless according to Chaz, of Philadelphia, who has been homeless in the city for one year.
“When you have to go to sleep at night” is the the part of the day that Belinda, who has been homeless for in Philadelphia for two years, has come to dread the most. Despite her fear of sleeping on the streets, Belinda stated that she would rather remain in them than have to conform to the rules of a shelter.
There are a number of reasons that homeless individuals seem to resent shelters. For starters, the application process can end one’s dream of having a bed to sleep in as quickly as it started.
Before clients are accepted by organization that offer shelter, they have to go through the process of waiting in line for extreme periods of time. Chaz claims that he has waited in lines for weeks at a time before giving up entirely and using that time to pan handle instead. Constance, a Philadelphia homeless woman of two years, says she has waited for months at a time to still never make it to the front.
“You have to wait a long time,” said Belinda, emphasizing that the wait to get into shelters is ridiculously time consuming. The shelters that Belinda has attempted to join typically open from 7 to 4p.m., even when she arrives at 7 she usually isn’t assigned a caseworker until 2 or 3 p.m. Every time Belinda reaches out to a shelter, she has a 6 to 7 hour wait ahead of her before she even talks to someone who can tell her if there are any beds available and what the next step is, if she is accepted.
This lack of efficiency is what causes many homeless people to resent shelters, it forces them to remain on the streets even though they are actively trying to improve their situation, discouraging them further.
Despite his patience, Chaz too has never made it past the threshold of a shelter. He explained that the organization of the actual lines is what makes it so difficult for him reach the front. He says that some shelters will pass out “green bands” before they actually open to the public, those with these bands will be the first to be admitted. The rest of the line is organized in the order of: the elderly, women and children, and, lastly, men. Chaz, of course, falls into the last category and eventually stopped pursuing admission to shelters because he feels that it is an impossible mission.
Belinda no longer attempts to join shelters because she says there are “too many rules.”
“At the shelters you have to do what they say to do, come in when they say to come in, when you leave you have to be back by a certain time…,” said Belinda. She actually prefers living on the streets over accommodating to the rules of shelters, this way her free will is not restricted.
Onslow Community Outreach, Inc., based in North Carolina, has a list of 23 shelter rules plastered on its homepage, which can also be found on the provided PDF download for, “Standard Operating Procedures for the Homeless Shelter.”
All applicants must adhere to these rules if they would like to utilize the shelter’s resources. Residents are limited to two large or three small bags of luggage. Calls are limited to ten minutes and permission needs to be granted. Residents are assigned a nightly chore and beds are to be made daily. Lights go out at 10 p.m. sharp and all activity must stop at this time. The list goes on.
Restricting rules implemented by shelters can make those experiencing homelessness feel as if they have lost control over their lives and, in turn, cause them to resent shelters.
“Violation of any rule may result in disciplinary action up to and including dismissal from the shelter. Residents who are dismissed for violation of any rule may not be able to return to OCO Homeless Shelter,” the bottom of the list reads in bold font.
Individuals residing in shelters, and even those who are simply waiting in line for entry, are subject to a number of penalties if institutional rules are broken.
“I had to sit up in a chair all night and wait for a bed,” said Constance about her pursuit of gaining access to The House of Passage in Philadelphia, Pa. One day Constance got tired of waiting and up and left the line. When she returned she was informed that she had forfeited her spot in line and that her name has been taken down. She would have to wait six months before she could reenter the queue.
At the Onslow Community Outreach, Inc. individuals and families must undergo a multi-step admissions process before they are accepted into this shelter. All applicants must fill out a form, participate in an interview, present two forms of identification, undergo a breathalyzer test, and have several different background checks performed on their names. If the applicant passes all of these steps their admission is still tentative upon approval of the shelter director.
According to Coalition for the Homeless, if there are claims that a shelter resident does not comply with an assessment, a social service plan, housing search requirements, or faculty rules concerning health and safety with faculty under the Department of Homeless Services in New York City, the resident can be ejected from the shelter system for a minimum of 30 days. The act of depriving shelter is considered a very severe punishment and has previously been debated by news organizations like the New York Times.s
The public opinion of the homeless and the stereotypes that have developed over the years have negatively impacted the self image of those experiencing homelessness and how they reach out for assistance.
When originally asked if she liked staying in shelters Belinda replied, “I really want my own home.”