Overall, more homeless people live in shelters than outside. Roughly two thirds of all homeless people live in shelters. One third of homeless people live outside. There are many factors that come into play that lead a homeless person in one direction or another. Where a homeless person stays is determined more by situations and conditions than just choice. It is a rare occurrence for a shelter to not be filled to capacity every day of the year.
Every situation and condition can be found in the homeless environment, regardless of the place. Still, no two places are the same. The situations and conditions of the homeless environment very mostly by degree. For example, in some cities there exists two or more types of homeless shelter, in other cities, there is only one. In the cities were there is only one type of homeless shelter, they will most likely be religious. In the greater Boston area, there are 21 homeless shelters, most of which are run by the city and have no religious affiliation. In the Nashville area there are four shelters, all of them are christian based, one is run by fundamentalist christians, one is run by many denominations, though it leans catholic, and the other is the salvation army. One is a family only shelter. The shelter run by the fundamentalist christians is by far the largest. In Las Vegas there are a half dozen shelters, most are religious some are not. But the largest shelter there is run by Catholics. And Catholics and Fundamentalist Christians run shelters very differently. The Catholic shelters tend to be more compassionate and work to meet the needs of the homeless, whereas fundamentalist christian shelters focus more on condemnation of sin, and on conversion to their denomination. As one director of the Nashville Rescue mission has said “I’m not here to end homelessness, I’m here to make christians.” There may be a correlation between this approach to homeless sheltering and the fact that fundamentalist christian shelters have a reputation of being the most violent and unpleasant.
So, let us now compare some of the differences between living in a shelter with living outside.
1. Autonomy – Perhaps “independence” would be a better word. Living outside allows a person to be themselves, and as much as possible, in control of their own lives. When staying in a shelter, people must relinquish control over what they do and where they go, while in the shelter. To many homeless people, this giving up of control is equivalent to relinquishing their sense of dignity and self respect. When a homeless person lives outside he is beholding only to himself and what he deems best for himself. When living in a shelter, a person must give up his own ideas of right and wrong, and must submit to the rules of the shelter. Certainly rules alone are not a bad thing, especially when operating a large facility. But most shelters create an excess of rules that even none homeless people would have a difficult time conforming to. Shelter workers usually work with very little oversight, or training, and they often distort the rules or make up rules to suit their personal ideas of right and wrong. These shelter employees, because of the lack of supervision, are likely to mistreat the homeless, against which the homeless have no recourse.
2. Safety – Often, shelters promote themselves as a safe alternative to living on the streets. But from all I’ve experienced, this is not always true. It all depends on how the internal operations of the shelter are managed. In a shelter I stayed at in Las Vegas, there were always two guards on duty within each dormitory. In Nashville, there were no guards in the dorms. The only person “on duty” during the night was in an office a good distance away from the dorms. And it was not unusual to find this person asleep. Without proper oversight the environment within shelters can be conducive to violence and theft and drug abuse. Shelters are always crowded which in itself can create stress, and the homeless become frustrated for having to wait long periods for services, usually having to stand in lines, on their feet, for hours. Then, when services are rendered, they are usually less than adequate for the homeless person’s needs.
Fights happen occasionally in shelters, but the stress of being in a shelter creates an environment where the homeless are constantly being aggravated, so anger is constantly being expressed by one person or another. Theft happens more often. And although drugs are not allowed in shelters, addicts can either partake of drugs immediately before entering a shelter, or will be able to sneak drugs in when shelter employees become lax in their duties. Still, within a shelter, when a fight does break out, usually there is someone around to break up the fight, and the offenders are removed from the shelter. That of course depends on the situation. It is not uncommon for the instigator of a fight to con the shelter workers into believing that he was actually the victim, and his victim is escorted off the property.
Although street predators do exist, homeless people can keep themselves safe by keeping their guard up and paying attention to their environment. This involves such things as deciding where and how to sleep at night, staying sober, and having a sense of their changing environment, to know who you can trust, and to know when a peaceful situation is about to become ugly. As with all people, homeless people don’t usually pick on random people to fight. Fights, for the most part, only happen when one homeless person feels they have been wronged by another. Keeping to one’s self is the best protection from such fighting and general aggravation. I can’t tell you how many arguments and fights I’ve witnessed because one homeless person asked another homeless person to watch his possessions while he was away, and that other homeless person did not fulfill that promise as expected. It starts out something like this:
“you said you’d watch my stuff for me while I went to the food stamp office. when I came back you weren’t here”
“well, you were gone for 4 hours, I wasn’t going to stick around all day waiting for your ass to get back, I had something I had to do too”
“I just stopped at the store on the way back to get some beer”
“Well, let me have a beer then”
“It’s all gone, we drank it already.”
Then the yelling starts, then perhaps shoving, and the fists fly. One or two punches later and it’s over. Revenge violence is more of a concern. If you have upset a homeless person, and they know where you sleep, they might attack you in the middle of the night. Still such occurrences are rare and most homeless people will never experience it. Just as often, it happens that two homeless people are drunk, one gets mad over something the other said or did. He shoves the other guy, the other guy, being drunk, loses his balance, falls and hits his head on a rock. Death wasn’t intended, accidents happen to a lot of drunks.
3. Mental Health – If a homeless person has certain mental health issues then he won’t be able to stay in a shelter. It’s not that shelters have rules against the mentally ill, it’s just that the behaviors of many mentally ill people are not allowed within shelters. Schizophrenics who have discussions and arguments with imaginary people will eventually cause a disturbance in the shelter. Others who don’t understand the behaviors of the mentally ill may feel threatened by them, and for this fights might break out. When you have a hard time dealing with reality, it’s hard to defend yourself from accusations, and for this you may be removed from a shelter. It just depends on how a person’s mental illness manifests itself. Some mentally ill people have no problem getting along in a shelter.
For some schizophrenics, drinking actually helps to alleviate symptoms of their mental illness. Getting drunk may help make the voices in his/her head go away. But in many shelters, a person is not allowed to be intoxicated. Only by staying outside is the person have to drink to his/her content.
And just the plethora of rules in shelters makes it nearly impossible for some mentally ill to survive within a shelter. And most shelter employees are not trained to deal with people who are mentally ill.