The YMCA as a Homeless Shelter (Showers, Lockers, and Beds)

People exercise in a fitness gym.

If you’re currently homeless and running out of options for places where you can go in order to shower, use Wi-Fi, charge electronics, or even sleep, your local YMCA may be just what you need.

Many people forget about their local Y’s when they’re looking for homeless shelters or thinking of organizations that offer low income options for the homeless, when it should probably be somewhere on your list of places to check.

Even if you’re not looking for shelter, it can be a great place to just clean yourself up a little bit and relax while using their Wi-Fi or their showers.

My Experience
I myself was homeless at one point in Los Angeles and would use the local Van Nuys (San Fernando Valley) location specifically for this. I was a bit worried before I went there, because I had always known this organization as being one that I associated with family activities. I felt that I would feel out of place by using their showers or that someone would maybe notice that I wasn’t using the gym and would realize I was homeless.

Before my first time going there, I was picturing a scenario where I’d actually have to work out a bit and exercise in front of others just to blend in before using the showers and other resources there. I soon realized that many homeless people use the YMCA for the same reasons I had to and all it cost me was a $40 a month membership. At the time, I was paying an acquaintance about $70 a week to sleep in the backseat of his car.

Although the particular Y location that I went to didn’t have beds available, I would still take a bus there every day after work to shave, shower, and use their Wi-Fi for an hour or two with my laptop before they closed. Then I’d return to the car to get some sleep at night and would wake up and go to work and start my day all over.

Without the YMCA, I don’t know where I wouldn’t have gone to shower each night as all other shelters were well out of my way and the times they were open and available did not fit in with my work schedule.

So if you’re in a situation like I was and you’re thinking about signing up for their services or checking them out, the following information should help you out. Now this is a bit of my personal review on my experiences there and how I did things when there, but I’ll also include a little background about the organization and what they have to offer.

The YMCA’s History and Homeless Roots
Despite my initial reservations about fitting in at the YMCA, they are actually quite welcoming to many homeless people in most places because it was originally one of the first homeless shelters in the United States.

It was originally founded as a program in London in the 1840’s by a young man who had traveled to the city looking for work and wanted to start an organization where other similar young men could have a safe place with cheap accommodation to spend their nights.

It was founded on Christian principles as well, which is why the YMCA stands for Young Men’s Christian Association. So one of it’s other original goals was to spread Christian values in the local community.

The founder, George Williams, noticed that young men didn’t have anywhere to spend their time after work other than in bars and places that did not uphold conventional Christian values. So he wanted to help better his community and create a place where men could go to participate in activities other than drinking alcohol and partaking in unhealthy vices.

Since then, the YMCA has opened it’s doors to both men and women from all different backgrounds, and it’s become known as a place where people can go to exercise, swim, or even stay the night (depending on the location).

Membership Fees
When it comes to membership, all locations are different as they all have different services they offer. Some offer mainly gym memberships, while others offer other types of activities and even housing options. So it’s impossible to say how much exactly it can cost you to use their services.

I was paying around $40 for a membership, but this only included use of their facilities during the day and no sleeping arrangements or housing. Your location may charge a completely different price, so your best bet is to simply find what’s nearby and call or email them.

In my case, they needed a debit or credit card that they could charge the membership too, and this was charged as a recurring payment. So I had to actually cancel service with them when I was finished and had gotten back on my feet, mainly to ensure they didn’t keep charging me for a service I was no longer using.

Accommodation, Beds, and Rooms For Rent
I didn’t actually stay the night at any locations as I only became a member to shower, shave, and to use the Wi-Fi. However, I have researched many of them, contacted a few, and found out a little bit about their history with people staying the night and what’s offered now.

From it’s founding onward into the mid-1900’s, the YMCA had what they call “residences” setup in most of their facilities with beds just like homeless shelters or hostels where young men could sleep safely and interact with each other for support.

Nowadays, there’s many Y locations that don’t actually have beds or sleeping quarters, but it really depends on which area or country you’re in. Many locations with beds or sleeping rooms available do still exist all around the world. The types of accommodations they offer can vary from youth hostels, to long-term housing (rooms for rent), to adult hostels and even emergency housing.

Most of the time there’s going to be some type of charge to rent a room or a bed, but those that offer emergency housing may work on a sliding scale or may not charge at all for their beds if it’s only a short-term stay. Interestingly enough, some of the housing options are specifically geared towards certain groups of people as well, which sometimes matches a common interest found in the nearby area.

For example, in Glendale, California there’s a YMCA that offers housing for artists and people who are low income and who have jobs. In Manhattan, New York you can rent a room with a bunk bed for about $80, or a room with a single bed for about $68. While this sounds expensive, hotels or motels in the area will most likely be much more expensive.

Another location in Cleveland, Ohio offers beds for opiate addicts who are in their recovery stages. Other American cities I found with hostels, transitional housing, or low-income housing programs include Columbus, Newark, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, Tampa, and San Diego. So while not every city or state has locations with programs or housing available, it is worth your time to at least research this if you need a place to stay as a YMCA nearby may be offering just what you need.

Outside the United States, there are all different types of accommodations and even more beds available than in the USA, since the organization was started in the UK. In England and Wales there’s a combined amount of over 9,000 beds available at various YMCA hostels and locations for those who are struggling. From London to Cardiff, it seems the UK has even more options and help available through this organization for those that need it. Even the country of Malta now has a brand new YMCA shelter available for it’s homeless population that recently opened just a few years ago.

Just keep in mind that all of these places normally operate on a first come, first served basis and beds will often become unavailable and taken in areas where accommodation is in high demand. An example of this would be the YMCA hostel located in Harlem, New York.

I performed a search for beds here online just to see what the availability and pricing is like for those who want to stay there and found that there were no beds available on the dates I chose. Also, the average price to stay at this particular location was quoted at around $100 per night for a bed in a hostel, but this may vary depending on the season.

Women
Also, while YMCA does have options for women as well at some branches, it’s important to note that women may find more options by searching for YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) programs and housing options in their areas or nearest cities.

While the two organizations have similar names and even similar goals, YWCA is a separate organization that did not originate from the YMCA. However, they both have similar goals as well and sometimes will even work in collaboration or have locations that are a mixture of both entities.

Shaving
When I shaved at the Y, I still tried to do it very quickly so that the people who weren’t homeless didn’t cause any problems for me by complaining to staff. I usually let my facial hair grow out for about a week and would just shave my neck with a razor before showering on the other days so I didn’t appear too rough on most days. There were other homeless people like myself who would also be there to shave and shower, but just like me, I noticed they tried to maintain an image of not being homeless.

When I did shave my face, it wasn’t an all-out shave as I liked to keep a little stubble there (similar to Jason Statham in most of his movies). So I’d use an electric beard trimmer very quickly while in the locker and shower area, and I’d try to do it when nobody was there.

Most of the time somebody would eventually walk in on me, but nobody ever complained or said anything. I tried to clean the hair up very quickly before anybody really notice it by using a paper towel and would always make sure the sink area where I shaved at was just the way it was before I used it.

Now, there were electrical outlets next to the sinks and there were about 8 or 9 sinks in the locker room with outlets next to each one. So if we’re not supposed to shave there, then I don’t know what the outlets could be for other than for hair dryers.

However, I still live by a “better safe than sorry” policy while at the Y because it was so vital to my success as it was the only place I felt was available to me. So I tried to be respectful and I didn’t ask the staff too many questions, as I didn’t want them knowing I was all-out homeless. Every now and then I’d still lift weights in the exercise room to make it appear that I was just the average exercise-enthusiast.

But the more and more I went there to shave and shower, the more I noticed that most people didn’t seem to care why I was there as long as I wasn’t bringing too much attention to myself.

Showers
The shower room at my specific location was a public shower room, meaning that there is no privacy. However, I have read of some locations having private showers for both men and women, but more commonly when it comes to the women’s shower rooms. When I walked in to the shower room, there was a toilet stall and a sink to the left and there was a room with showers on the right. I prefer not to shower around other men just because it makes me feel uncomfortable, and also because of a few negative experiences I’ve had at homeless shelters while showering around unsavory characters.

So I’d usually only use the shower as quickly as possible and Id wait until there was nobody in the shower room. In my experience, most others will wait until you’re out before going in there as well as most people prefer to shower alone. It probably wouldn’t be too strange if you prefer to shower in a pair of swimming trunks instead.

I’d put my shoes and my bag in a locker and keep my wallet and other really important small belongings in my pockets (I’ll discuss lockers later). After locking my locker up, I’d walk into the shower room with just my pants on while holding my towel, a clean pair of boxers, shampoo, and soap.

I then showered as quickly as possible with my pants within sight hanging on the towel rack. Then I’d change into the boxers as soon as I finished and put my pants back on before walking back into the locker room where others would normally be. I don’t usually mind walking around in my boxers, but the pants provided pockets so I could keep my wallet in them, so that’s why I wore them in the shower room.

After showering, I’d usually change into a fresh pair of pants and shirt that I had in my backpack and would then stand in front of the mirrors in the locker room and put moisturizer on my face and nobody ever stopped to stare at me or showed the slightest bit of curiosity as to what I was doing.

After this I was pretty much done with showering and I’d spend the rest of my time charging my electronics in an adjoining room that had chairs and outlets. This is also where I’d spend my time writing articles like the one you’re reading right now.

Lockers
Because YMCA membership is inclusive of most things, lockers were free to use. This was true at least at the YMCA that I went to, but there was a charge if I wanted to keep things in the lockers overnight. There were warnings on the lockers that if you leave a lock on it overnight (without paying)m then they would break the lock and remove your contents.

One night I did leave it on accidentally as my towel was hanging in there and I forgot it, but nobody broke the lock. So how often this is enforced depends on the facility or who notices it. The facility I went to had many open lockers and probably not as many members as they would like to have, so it didn’t get to the point where someone else needed a locker and mine was noticeable.

Locker Thefts
When I first started using the Y, I overheard guys talking about how their lockers were broken into and things were stolen. Unfortunately, with any organization like this, you’re going to be dealing with some shady characters in some instances, despite their efforts to provide a safe environment.

It’s really not the organization’s fault, because they can’t put cameras in the locker room where people are changing as this is against the law. I noticed many lockers looked like they had been broken into as the parts where the locks go through looked like someone had used brute force to open them in the past. I was unsure if this was from staff having to remove old contents when people abandoned their lockers, or from thieves.

Charging Electronics
One thing I really think was great about the location I frequented was how many electrical outlets there were. There was an adjoining room next to the locker room which had about 6 outlets in it and two tables with about 4 chairs. So there were enough outlets for about 2-3 people to charge without really bothering each other.

If I absolutely had to charge and there were other people already doing so, I would just go in the locker room where there was over 10 outlets spread out next to all the lockers. I did sometimes see people sitting on the locker room benches with their laptops sometimes or charging their phones near the sinks.

I preferred not to do this when possible, just because I didn’t like to spend too much time around other men changing as it made me feel awkard. But the option was still there if I was ever really desperate to charge my devices.

Now I didn’t even really explore the rest of the facility, so there was most likely other charging areas elsewhere in the facility. All of the things I’m describing were just in the men’s locker room area on the second floor, which was the first room I happened upon since I originally just needed to shower when I signed-up.

Maintaining an Image
This last section should probably go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyways. When visiting any Y, it’s still important that you try not to appear homeless and to keep up a “clean” image.

It’s true that this organization has a long history of helping those in need and have been associated with the homeless population for quite some time, but they still have other people who take their families to this facility for activities or who go there simply to exercise.

They also have people who are tourists and travelers who are not actually living on the streets, but who are just looking for cheap accommodation until they find something else on their trip.

Many of the employees understand the organization’s history with the homeless and people who are struggling, but just keep in mind that they also have to uphold a safe image to retain memberships as well. So you have to be mindful of your appearance and your behavior when using their facilities.

In urban areas, it’s common to see many homeless people’s shopping carts parked outside Y locations, but because they’re showering and shaving at these places almost daily, you wouldn’t be able to tell that they actually are living on the streets when you see them walking through the front entrance. They often appear just like anybody else who is there to workout or use the swimming pools.