How Homeless Shelters Work

An emergency homeless shelter.

If you’re down on your luck and thinking about staying in a homeless shelter, you’re not alone. Millions of people are now without a home, and while some live in their cars, RV’s, or on the streets, many stay in shelters at night when they have nowhere else to go. Staying or living in a homeless shelter can definitely be a strange experience for anybody who has never done it before. Most people who have never stayed in one don’t know how homeless shelters work. I’ve stayed in a few of them in California (Salvation Army, Inn Vision, and City Team), and although they aren’t exactly the same everywhere, most of them do share certain similarities. So if you’re living on the streets already or just curious, here’s a basic run-down of what you can expect to experience when staying in a homeless shelter.


Most shelters have a time where everybody checks-in. This time is usually in the evening but with some places it can be early, while others require you to check in with them in advance early in the morning. The places I’ve stayed at would usually require you to show up somewhere between 5pm and 7pm. You’ll usually wait in line outside and almost all of them are based on a first-come first-served basis, so sometimes it’s best to show up early. At many places, it’s free to stay the night at them for a certain amount of days or weeks, but then you’ll have to start paying them eventually for each night after that. They may split the waiting lines up into two different rows; Those who are staying for their first trial period for free, and those who already passed the trial period and who have to pay. Once you reach the front of the line, you’ll find out if there’s any more beds available. If so, then an employee there will check you in, usually by asking you either for your name and birthdate, or your homeless record number. In California this number is known as an HN number, or Homeless Number, and it’s how certain counties keep track of their homeless populations. You may be asked to give ID as well, depending on whether you’ve stayed there already or if you have an HN number or not. The employee will enter this information into a system, usually on a computer, and from there there’s a number of rooms or places you’ll go depending on which shelter you’re at.


Sermon or Introduction
Some places, mainly the religious-based shelters, have a sermon or some form of church event either daily or weekly. Other places that are not religious may have introductions every night for those who are newbies and staying there for the first time. At one place I would stay at, there was a daily sermon every day before we could take a shower or go to sleep, usually after eating dinner. Those who ran the sermon would usually be ex-homeless people themselves or those who spent time in prison, “found god” while there, and wanted to work with people socially once they were released. About once a week the group that ran the shelter would have a Christian band come play for the people staying there, which most of the people looked forward to as a way to get out of sitting through the actual sermon. When they did have sermons, they would often call on people in the crowd to answer questions about the bible or to ask them to stand up and tell everyone a little about themselves or to talk about the things they want to change in their lives. This can be embarrassing or irritating for someone who isn’t religious or who doesn’t like sharing their personal life story with a group of strangers. But this will differ wherever you go and if you want to avoid it all together, you should just avoid any religious-based shelters, depending on how hard that is to do.

Most shelters will require you to take a shower first and brush your teeth or use the bathroom. You’ll typically stand in a line before entering the shower room, so that staff can supply you with a clean towel, a small bar of soap (generally the motel-sized bars) and sometimes even other things like shaving cream, a toothbrush, and toothpaste. The showers are usually like the types you would find in a high school or prison, meaning that you are showering in the same room as everybody else and there’s no privacy. But some shelters do have private stalls, so sometimes I would purposely stay at those so I could have more privacy. Majority of places will not let you sleep in the beds until after you’ve taken a shower, so they can ensure that you’re not getting their beds dirty. Showering can be one of the most uncomfortable situations for a person who is newly homeless or even a street veteran. For me, I felt an uneasiness showering in front of other people, many of whom were recently released from prison and listed as sexual offenders for various crimes. Depending on where you go, there may be a long line to take a shower or no waiting at all. Where I would go, one of the places that had a large group stall, there was always about 10 minutes of waiting involved after I shaved and got ready for my shower.


Locked Up Belongings
After the shower you will usually go to an area where they hand out pillows, sheets, and blankets for your bed. This is usually when you will lock up your belongings in either a locker or a private room where the staff can make sure it’s locked up and safe from thieves. This may even be done before the shower, but most people need things like razors, shampoo, soap, moisturizers etc. for when they take their shower, so it usually takes place after showering. This is the shelter’s way of making sure your things are not stolen during the night while you sleep, and it’s even more so a way to keep the sleeping area clean and free from bugs (which I’ll discuss shortly). Not all shelters do this, as some will let you take your possessions with you to your bed, but most require you to lock them up. In my situation, we would finish showering and stand in a line outside a room, at which point the employee working there would sit in the room and check our belongings in. He did this by having us put our bags one by one into tubs or bins which were numbered, and then he would give us a token or plastic coin with a number on it that matched. In order to get our belongings in the morning, we would usually need to show him the number to enter the room and claim our stuff. This can be both a good and bad thing, depending on the employee who is working there or how strict their policies are. At one of the places I stayed at, the person working there didn’t always do a good job making sure that people’s coins matched up with what they were grabbing, so it was still fairly easy for someone to steal your stuff in the morning if they wanted to or thought you had something valuable in your bags.


Once it’s time to go to sleep, you will probably be handed sheets, a pillow case, and maybe even a pillow. Most of the time, the pillow will already be on the bed and you will just enter the sleeping quarters and put the sheet on the bed and pillowcase over the pillow. If you do not put these things on the bed and pillow first, you may be asked to leave since they might be trying to keep the beds clean that way. In most cases, you are responsible for your sheet and other bedding and will usually be held accountable for them if you don’t return them to the staff before you leave. However, if a sheet is stained with bodily fluids or otherwise damaged, the staff usually won’t do much about it since they know it was probably an accident and that you probably can’t pay to have them replaced.

Bed Bugs
One major concern for homeless people staying in shelters is the thought of bed bugs in the beds or cots. Bed bugs have become an epidemic in the United States and many other countries, but those staying in shelters are especially vulnerable to these nasty pests. The bugs will typically travel in the bags and clothing of people who are infested with them, and then spread to the bags and belongings of other people that they come in contact with. With homeless shelters, you have hundreds of people coming in and out of these types of places every day and many of them are sleeping in the beds. In my area there were about 3 main shelters where people could sleep, and one of those places was known to be infested with them. Word spreads quickly amongst homeless people when there’s a problem with a local shelter or an infestation of some sort. So those of us who stayed in or near other shelters would still receive news about the place on the other side of town that had an infestation. It wouldn’t take much for a person to stay in that place for a night and then visit another shelter the next day and spread the bugs everywhere they go. This is why many people who are down on their luck prefer to stay outside the shelters rather than inside. While outside, you may deal with crickets, flying insects, spiders, or ants, but none are as feared and as hard to get rid of as bed bugs are so avoiding shelters or sleeping around groups of people is an easy decision for some to make.


Charging Electronics
There’s even some shelters that have chargers right near the beds, and depending on an organization’s policies, you may be allowed to charge your things there. At one of the shelters I frequented, people were only allowed to bring a few things with them into the sleeping room. One of those things was a wallet or money and ID cards, and the other was a cell phone. All cell phones would have to be set to vibrate or silence, but residents staying there could let them charge at night while they slept. This probably isn’t the best thing to do, since anyone can steal your phone while you sleep, but some people would just put their phones under their pillows as they were charging to protect them from that. In some cases, there may only be a few electrical outlets in the room where you can charge at overnight, so those who get there first and shower first will usually have dibs on these first.


Lights Off, Early Awakening
Shortly after going to bed, the lights will usually turn off at a certain time after everybody is in bed or near their sleeping area. After this happens, anybody who is talking may be asked by staff to be quiet, or people may talk at a low volume amongst each other for a short time before falling asleep. But once the night sets in, majority of people will remain quiet and the room you sleep in will mostly be quiet until the morning. Once the morning arrives, the employees will turn on the lights when it’s time to get up. They may give you as long as an hour or so to wake up and get ready to leave, but most of them will only give you about 20 minutes maximum. Some organizations will ask you to leave the sheets and other bedding on the actual bed, but most will ask you to take it off and put it into a bin so it can be cleaned. If you don’t do this and leave the sheets on the bed when asked not to, you may be banned from staying there again if they mark your name down in their book as being uncooperative. After the lights are on and you leave the area where you slept, you can go get your belongings from wherever they are stored and leave for the day or go wherever you would normally go each morning.


Sleeping Outside
Outside the majority of shelters you’ll usually see people sleeping in the general area, in sleeping bags, tents, or even just on the street in nothing but their clothes. Sometimes the shelters themselves allow people to sleep in their parking lots or on the property, but other times it may be the surrounding businesses that give permission for people to sleep on their lots at night. Sometimes it’s even illegal, as they might not even have permission, but law enforcement will generally leave the people around the shelters alone unless they get a call or a specific reason to come out to the area or stop people. I would often sleep outside these places when I was homeless and I spent some of the time in a sleeping bag and later I even stayed in a small tent. There were probably at least 20 people in the immediate area around me who were sleeping there just like me. Some of them would sleep in their cars or trailers if they had them, while the rest of us would be outside under the stars. This can obviously be much more dangerous than staying inside, so it’s not recommended unless a person can really take care of themselves in that type of environment. Sometimes there’s benefits or reasons for staying outside, so people will camp out in the vicinity so they can take advantage of the shelter’s resources during the day without having to travel too far from where they camped the night before.


Just about all homeless organizations or shelters offer some form of food service for the poor. They may serve hot food, or just offer a bagged meal for the day, depending on their resources and what types of donations or funding they get. Most places will not serve three square meals a day, so you may have to travel between two or three different shelters each day if you want your three meals (assuming you have no other income or food stamps to buy it yourself). Most of the time, people will line up outside the room or building where they’re serving, even as long as one hour before the food is actually served. Most places will not run out of food during the day, but it does happen from time to time, so it’s best to make sure you’re there early in advance. After everybody is lined up outside, the line will then move inside when it’s finally time for the staff to start serving everybody. At that point, it’s similar to an elementary school cafeteria. There will be a few people serving different types of food to put on your plate or tray and you’ll move down the line and tell them what you want on your plate and what you don’t. There are times when the plates will already be made and you’ll just decide what to eat on it and what to throw out (or give to other people around you who may want more food). It’s very common for a place to serve seconds and sometimes even thirds if there’s enough food left, so this is another reason why it’s beneficial to show up early if you’re really hungry.


When you’re staying in shelters or frequenting them, you’re bound to see a lot of things you wouldn’t normally see as often in other walks of life. Violence, arguments, drug use, and even dead people are some of the things you may see around shelters. Since people on the streets live a rougher life and have less to lose than most other people in society, they’re sometimes quicker to handle a situation by using violence rather than working their disagreements out with each other. The fact that many people on the streets have mental disorders also plays a role in this. It’s not uncommon to see fights break out randomly while you’re standing in line waiting for food to be served outside or inside some of the shelters. It’s also very common to see people using drugs like heroin, crack cocaine, and crystal meth around shelters, however you’re more likely to see this on the streets immediately surrounding the shelters and not in the actual buildings themselves (though it can obviously happen anywhere). Another thing that you’ll probably encounter is situations where people die right in front of you, either because of violent situations and stabbings, or because people on the streets don’t seem to take care of themselves and their health as well as other people. Drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning are very common amongst homeless populations, in addition to violence. As long as you don’t piss anyone off and try to remain respectful and non-aggressive, you probably won’t run into any problems with anyone. Just keep in mind that you don’t want to come off as being a pushover either or the aggressive ones may take advantage of you or feel they can attack you.