Are Homeless Shelters Safe?

A camera watches over a homeless shelter cafeteria.

With homelessness being at an all-time high around the world and in the United States, many people are having to stay in homeless shelters for the first time in their lives. This can be a scary and nerve-racking experience for most people, especially those who have social anxiety or who worry about their safety while staying in such facilities.

Homeless shelters are similar regardless of where you live or where you go. Whether you’re in the UK, South Africa, South America, or the United States, they are all often set up the same way as it’s normally the same types of people that run these types of organizations and programs.

I’ve personally stayed in homeless shelters in California before and have a bit of experience with them. So in my experience, I feel that homeless shelters are generally safe.

However, that doesn’t mean that there is no risk at all with staying in them and if you’re inexperienced and have never stayed the night in one, here’s a few things that you should probably know about before you do.

Physical Assaults
In general, physical assaults, attacks, and murders within homeless shelters are not very common. Every so often, two people will get into an argument and you may see a fight break out and either one or both participants will normally be kicked out or banned from the shelter when this happens. It’s best to keep to yourself or at least be friendly when others speak to you when staying in a homeless shelter to avoid confrontations.

But you also don’t want to be friendly so much so to a point where others might assume that you are weak and will not defend yourself or stick up for yourself. But murders and attacks do sometimes happen and I would say that based on my own experiences and cases I’ve researched, your odds of being attacked or murdered in a homeless shelter are only slightly higher than they would be if you were to walk the streets of you city once a day during daylight hours.

One such case where a murder did occur was in 2017 when a 34-year old man in Denver, Colorado fatally stabbed another man in the sleeping quarters room of a shelter after the two had an argument while the victim was awake and lying in his bunk.

The 34-year old man had left the room after the two had an altercation and then returned with a knife that he had taken from the nearby kitchen.

Some shelters have security guards specifically trained to handle altercations, but the majority of homeless shelters have the regular admittance staff watching over the residents. These are not exactly trained security guards, but are the people who admit you into the shelter in most cases and many times these are people who are former residents who were once homeless themselves.

Normally there will be one man or one woman, depending on if it’s a men’s or women’s shelter, who watches over the residents and even sleeps in a room adjacent to the residents in case trouble breaks out.

This is the most common scenario that you’ll find at most places and there are normally cameras or other security devices in the room that are being watched, listened to, or that will otherwise alert this staff member to any problems happening in the other room.

Most people staying in shelters need a place to stay and do not want to anger the staff and be kicked out, so they normally behave themselves when inside the shelter. Police regularly visit shelters because of problems that do often happen outside and to check warrants, so it’s common for the staff to have relationships with the police in the area and to basically have them on “speed-dial” in case any problems do occur.

While the overall risk of catching a disease from other people in a homeless shelter setting is low, the possibility still exists and this is why you should be very careful when it comes to shaving and brushing your teeth at shelters or in any group home settings. Diseases like the various types of hepatitis can be spread in environments like this and the fact that the shower areas are already overcrowded with people in some cases doesn’t help.

Hepatitis A is usually spread through fecal matter when people come in contact with contaminated fluids or food, but the possibility is still there in a restroom as well where you have 50 to 100 people walking back and forth between the shower, the toilets and the sinks on a daily basis. It’s easily spread when an environment is overall unsanitary.

Hepatitis B can be spread through most body fluids. So you’ll want to avoid getting your razors or toothbrush anywhere near parts of the sink where the last person may have touched or spit at.

Hepatitis C can be spread through blood. So it’s important that you don’t share any razors or anything else that could cause open wounds and this would include electric razors and toothbrushes as well. This may sound like something you would never do, but you’d be surprised how many people actually do this in shelters, particularly with electric razors on their faces.

Bed Bugs
Bed bugs are quite common in homeless shelters to the point where they’re synonymous with them. If you’re going to be staying in any group home or shelter, you should pretty much accept that there will be bed bugs.

Granted, I’ve stayed in many places where there were none, but the majority of them in California do have them and I’m sure this is common in other places around the world as well. Homeless shelters normally wash the sheets in their beds once a day and majority of them try to combat and prevent bed bugs by wrapping their beds with bed bug resistant covers that go around the mattress and stay zipped close.

Bed bugs typically come out at night when you’re sleeping to suck your blood and then quickly go back to their hiding spot when finished. They hide in places where they normally won’t be disturbed, such as in the seams of mattresses or inside bed frames or even in nearby crevices or holes in walls.

They’re considered by most people to be more of a nuisance than an actual physical threat, and researchers have had a had time proving that they can transmit diseases as there’s no proven cases. Bed bugs have been studied to determine if they can spread HIV and hepatitis but researchers have found no proof so far when it comes to these particular diseases.

Still, researchers believe it may be possible for them to transmit certain diseases such as Chagas disease, and even without the ability to transmit diseases, they can cause significant mental health problems as they can make you paranoid to go to sleep and this will cause anxiety, stress, and sleeping problems.

Anybody who has dealt with a bed bug infestation before knows just how stressful it can be when you know you have to sleep in a room where they exist. In the city where I was first homeless, one shelter did not have bed bugs but the other two shelters did as other people had told me this. So I stayed at the one shelter for a few days that didn’t have any bugs before I started sleeping outside due to other reasons.

So if you are homeless and are thinking about staying in a shelter or are already staying in one, it’s best to make sure your belongings are nowhere near the beds and I would even go as far as to wrap my wallet, phone and other belongings on me in plastic bags and make sure any clothes you wear are washed well the next morning.

You don’t want to bring bed bugs with you wherever you go and be stuck with them as a bed bug infestation can be very hard to get rid of once they get into your belongings.

Former Inmates
Many homeless shelters have a larger amount of ex-cons than you would find in any other area of the general population. Sometimes just being at a shelter and lining up to eat food or take showers can feel like prison because many of the people standing around you have recently been released from prison and have prison mannerisms and mentalities as if they are still institutionalized as inmates.

At the shelter I stayed at briefly and where I ate lunch at everyday (after I had begun sleeping outside), the majority of people there were ex-cons who had been released from nearby prisons such as San Quentin. These were people who had nowhere to go and no family to take them in once released from prison, so their case workers would bring them to this specific shelter upon their release.

Because many shelters are non-profit organizations and government-funded, they are often listed in directories and resources that case workers and judges use to determine where an inmate should be sent as part of their probation or parole.

It’s more common that they would go to live in a halfway house or a sober living home, but sometimes homeless shelters can serve the same purpose if they can be monitored there and if their release isn’t dependent on some type of drug rehab program.

I had made many friends who were recently released from San Quentin and heard many stories about their crimes and how they ended up homeless afterwards. Some of them were brought to the shelter as part of their parole and a means to keep an eye on them, even if they had family willing to take them in and were ordered by a judge to stay in the shelter for a certain amount of time while getting their lives back in order.

A fair amount of them had ankle bracelets on their legs which they had to charge every day outside the shelter so the authorities could keep track them if there were any crimes in the area against minors or children due to the particular types of crimes they had committed that sent them to prison.

So it should go without saying that there’s a lot of machismo and a lot of egos standing outside homeless shelters waiting to be fed. There’s a lot of arguments between people and some people are simply trying to stay out of trouble and avoid going back to prison, while others seem determined to make things harder on themselves.

This is why it’s best to remain humble and keep to yourself for the most part when staying at shelters, no matter how many things you think you’ve been through or how well you think you can defend yourself.

It’s good to be friendly, but you don’t want to be too friendly to where people think they can take advantage of you or to where you might have problems with others. Your main goal when staying at a shelter should be to get back on your feet, not to make friends and settle in there for a long time.

But on the other hand, sometimes it’s good to socialize with others in the same situation as it can build morale when you get support from others who you can relate to.

When you hear about shelters being dangerous or about violent things happening at them, these occurrences normally happen outside the actual shelter when lines to get in form on the street or while people are sleeping there at night in the parking lots or on the sidewalks nearby.

As mentioned already, there’s normally security inside shelters and these security employees are normally very effective at keeping people safe when eating or sleeping there.

However, murders and violent attacks often do happen outside and this is why it’s often safest to sleep inside. When I was homeless myself, I slept outside a local shelter most of the time instead of staying inside and witnessed many violent things happening.

I would estimate that at least once every 2-3 weeks there was a violent incident. I saw people stabbed and I saw many fights break out on a regular basis. It was normal for the police to come and arrest people or stop altercations once they happened outside the shelter as they were there almost every other day and were familiar with all the people sleeping outside.

People like myself and others have different reasons for staying outside, but if you want to ensure that you stay safe when you’re without a home, you may want to consider making the inside of the shelter your actual home temporarily and spend as little time as possible directly outside.

It’s best to arrive for meals and check-in as early as possible so you don’t have to wait in line or miss an opportunity to get your cot for the night, but at the same time, you don’t want to spend so much time waiting outside to where you’re more likely to encounter a problem with someone in a social situation.

All it sometimes takes for a fight to break out is for someone to strike up a conversation with you while you’re standing in line, and then to misinterpret something you say as being rude or confrontational, even if you’re just trying to be friendly.