What is it Like to Stay in a Homeless Shelter?

A homeless shelter serves meals.
Meals are served at a homeless shelter.

A few years ago I was in my late 20’s and became homeless for the first time in my life. I ended up sleeping on the streets and was homeless for about 6 months in the Bay Area, California. It’s a long story as to how exactly it all happened, but everybody has different reasons for why they become homeless.

I had tried sleeping on the streets at first, but it was a rough adjustment and was very cold outside so I checked into a nearby shelter in my area, before ultimately deciding to sleep on the streets again just 4 days later. This isn’t because there was anything particularly wrong with the shelter, but it really just came down to a matter of preference and time schedules for me.

The shelter I stayed at was City Team, which is an organization that has branches in different cities and states. I slept and showered at their San Jose, California location for a few days and frequented their cafeteria for breakfast and dinner almost daily for months.

I also went to other shelters nearby for meals as well when they were serving them as they were closer to the library where I’d frequently visit to get work done.

So if you’re in the situation I was in and you’re thinking about visiting a homeless shelter and feeling nervous about staying there or eating there, here’s an honest review from someone who’s been in your situation so you know exactly what to expect.

Overall, I would recommend this particular homeless shelter and I’m very thankful that their organization exists, as it greatly helped me to get on my feet.

With that said, this is still an honest review about my experiences in a shelter. So I’ll still be covering both the pros and the cons on what it’s like to stay in a shelter, even if the one you may be thinking about staying in is somewhat different than the particular one I stayed at.

City Team, the shelter I went to, serves breakfast and dinner, but not lunch. This makes sense as they normally want people to be out and about during the day and looking for work if they aren’t already working jobs.

If you have no money to buy your own lunch, then you should arrive about a half hour early in the morning for breakfast to get a spot near the front of the line. I say this because they usually have extra donated snacks you can leave with after breakfast like full blueberry pies or angel food cake, which may help to tide you over for half the day. But these types of extras go quick, so people at the end of the line may miss out.

Most of the food is cooked there at City Team, but lots of it is donated by companies like Trader Joe’s because it’s food that has surpassed it’s expiration date or is about to surpass it. But it’s usually beyond the expiration date by only a days so it’s still good most of the time and the staff are careful to only provide food that is still healthy and not expired.

Breakfast is served at 6:30am on weekdays and at 8am on weekends. A typical breakfast there would include a tray with eggs, ham, fruit, a muffin, potatoes, water, and either milk or chocolate milk. As I already mentioned, there is no lunch, but you can stock up on extras in the morning like bananas, apples, pies, and coffee cakes.

Dinner is served at 5pm every day. A typical meal you might find at dinner time would include some type of meat (which is usually chunks of beef or something similar), potatoes, fruit, green beans, and a piece of apple pie.

Similar to breakfast time, you’ll find lots of extras after dinner if you’re one of the first to receive them, such as pies, fruit, and other assorted goodies that have been donated.

Lining Up to Eat
When you first arrive, you don’t need to check-in with anyone. Just walk around to the back of the City Team building and get in line with the rest of the people. Both men and women can eat at City Team, although only men can sleep there.

Before you enter the cafeteria, there will be a person with a clipboard who is taking down numbers from each person. You need to give them your HMIS number (Homeless Management Information Systems) if you have one.

HMIS is a program created by the government to gather data about homeless people, so they know how many homeless people are in the city and what their usual routines are.

If you don’t have an HMIS number, you can just tell the person you’re new and don’t have one and they’ll let you pass, which is what I did at first. After staying there for a few days, they will issue you an HMIS number for future use.

Once you enter the cafeteria, just follow the rest of the people through the food line. The people behind the counter, many of which are people volunteering or doing community service, will prepare your tray for you.

You don’t have to do anything but follow the line of people and eventually you’ll reach a person standing at the front of the line who will hand you a tray full of food. You don’t get to choose what ends up on the tray, but you can throw away anything you don’t want or offer it to someone else once you sit down.

After you’re handed a tray full of food, you can choose extras at a table in front of you, such as bananas, red and green apples, or a donut. This is also the area where you can grab full pies if there’s any left. But don’t grab anything that’s uncovered.

There are people standing there with gloves on that will hand it to you. The bananas and pies you can grab yourself, but things like donuts are uncovered so the people with gloves have to hand those to you. I didn’t know this at first and one of the men standing there snapped at me when I reached for one of the donuts.

After you have all your food, look for a table with cups all over it. This is water, and aside from coffee in the mornings, the occasional carton of milk or rare bottle of juice, it’s pretty much the only drink available to you.

For water, there’s a person standing there filling the cups and they’ll hand you a cup if you just walk over to them. Once you’re all set, you can sit anywhere you like. But eat fast because you only have about a half hour to finish everything.

If you finish early, there’s usually leftovers and they will yell out “Seconds!” when it’s time to line up for a second helping.

Once people start lining up for their seconds, you’ll also hear someone yell “First Timers!”. This is the signal for all new people to come up to the front of the line. New people always go first at City Team, which is I feel is a great policy.

Once you’re completely done and don’t want to eat anymore, you can bring your tray and cup over to the area where you see a window with a dishwashing machine and room behind it and a garbage can in front of it.

Dump whatever you don’t want into the garbage can (except any leftover water in your cup of course), and place your tray and cup on the window ledge so the person behind the window can grab them and put them in the machine.

Lining Up for Beds and Showers
If you only want to shower or sleep at City Team, you can skip dinner if you’d like and just show up at 5:30pm. Just like with the food line, there’s a line at the back of the building for those who want to shower and sleep. This line is usually divided into two or three different lines and you’ll have to ask the people in line which line is for first-timers or free stays.

They have a policy of allowing you to stay for free for the first week or so, but after that you’ll have to pay to sleep there. So the people who have already used up all their free nights will be in a different line than those who are new and still have free nights available.

Sometimes they may run out of beds that are available and may have to turn you away. Although this is rare, it can happen so you may want to show up earlier than 5:30pm to be one of the first in line. But just remember that new people always go first at City Team. So chances are you’ll still get a bed either way over someone who’s been there longer than 7 days.

While you wait in line outside, there will be some City Team employees sitting inside and basically directing foot traffic. Once you see one of them signal for you to come inside, you’ll enter the building and be directed towards an office.

Once inside the office, an employee will establish whether you’re new or not, and if not, they will ask you to pay the $5 fee or whatever the current rate is at this time. It was $5 per night when I was there last but this can always change. If you’re only showering there and not actually sleeping in the shelter, then you won’t have to pay this fee at all.

After all of this, you’ll be given a poker chip with a number on it and you’ll be directed to the court yard where you lined up for breakfast or dinner. Only this time, you’ll be lining up for the daily sermon.

The Sermon
Because City Team is a Christian-based organization, they hold sermons on the same property where the shelter is located. The sermon lasts one hour and it’s mandatory that you attend if you want to take a shower or sleep there for the night. As for what you can expect, it’s basically a room filled with chairs and a small stage. There’s usually two City Team employees on stage who will read verses from the bible.

Most of the people on stage are ex-convicts or people who have had other problems in life, such as drug addictions or being homeless themselves. But before you sit down for the sermon, you have to leave your bags or backpack on the floor in the back of the room.

Every once in awhile, they will have special guests on stage and that can sometimes be very interesting and even fun. On one Friday night when I was there, they had a live band on stage which played Christian songs for the entire hour. Christian Rock is a bit corny to me and not the type of music I normally listen to, but this band was still phenomenal and helped make the night a little better.

After the sermon, it’s time to use the bathroom and take showers. For this, everybody walks over to the building where you checked-in and received your poker chip. They line up outside a room where a man will give you a pair of clean clothes, a towel, some body wash, shampoo, and a pair of flip-flops or sandals.

All of these are found in a crate he will hand you. But in order to get a crate, you must hand him your poker chip or throw it in a jar and tell him the number on it. Remember this number, because it’s not only your crate number, but your bed number as well.

Everybody carries their crates into the bathroom across the hall and in there, you can take a shower, use the toilets, or use the mirror and sink. There’s a 5-minute rule, which means you need to spend no more than 5 minutes in the shower. The showers are not private, so you’re basically showering in a room with 15 other men beside you, similar to a high school shower room.

The bathroom stalls don’t have doors on them either, so everybody can see you sitting there doing your business. It can be quite an experience for someone who’s normally a very private person. This was actually my most uncomfortable moment each time I had to stay there, but if you want a decent place to sleep and want to get out of the situation you’re in, this is just one of those things you have to deal with.

When you’re finished, you’ll bring the crate with your belongings back to the room you got it from, and put it on a shelf where your corresponding number is. If your number is 15, for example, then look for the 15 slot on the shelf on the wall and slide your crate into there for the night.

You’ll throw your wet towel into a bin nearby. Then, the employee that’s in this room will hand you a pair of sheets and a pillowcase. You can now enter the room next door and find your bed (remember the number on the poker chip).

Going to Sleep
You can bring a bottle of water and your cell phone into the room with beds if you need to charge it. This is the only place where you can charge it and all other belongings are not permitted in the room. They will be locked up in the room where you received your crate with everybody else’s belongings once the employee leaves that room.

The beds are bunk beds, so you may end up on the top or bottom. On your bed, you’ll find a pillow and a blanket. All you have to do now is make your bed and go to sleep.

People may talk a little initially, but everybody quiets down pretty quickly as most of them are respectful of others in this shelter and a staff member isn’t too far away in a nearby room if anything happens or if someone starts making noise.

The lights go out at 8pm. Once you check in to stay the night, you can’t leave until 5am the next morning. If you do try to leave before then, you won’t be allowed to stay at City Team again.

Waking Up
When the morning comes, you need to do what’s referred to as “securing your bed”. This means taking all your sheets and pillowcase off the bed, folding the blanket neatly, and then placing the pillow on top of the blanket at the head of the bed. Just watch what everybody else is doing if you’re confused. As for the sheets and pillowcase, you can throw those in a bin outside the room.

Then you can enter the room where you left your crate and grab it from the shelf. Once again, you will walk across the hall to the shower room and change into your regular clothes, then throw your dirty clothes in a bin in the crate room and return your crate to it’s slot on the shelf.

Congratulations! You just made it through your first night in a homeless shelter.

As you’re walking out the door, you may notice lockers against the wall. I asked if I could rent one of these to use for my bags and was told that they are just for those who stay and pay on a monthly basis. So unless you’re paying $150 a month to sleep there, you can’t use the lockers.

There’s a few storage places nearby for around $50-$60 per month for a unit if you’re really desperate to leave your belongings somewhere secure during the day while you’re out looking for jobs or doing whatever you need to do.

Outside the Shelter
When you leave in the morning, if you leave early enough, you’ll notice many cars, RVs, and tents surrounding the City Team area outside, mainly in the parking lots of the other nearby businesses. This is because many of the neighboring businesses allow squatters to camp there for the night as they seem to understand the predicament that many people at the shelter are in.

But if you setup camp on an area that is near any of the businesses, you must clear out by morning, usually around 6am. It must be early enough that you’re not disrupting that business and that you remove everything before any employees or the owners show up. Many people can’t afford to stay inside City Team every night or don’t like the rules and restrictions inside.

Then there’s the people who work jobs or can’t make it to City Team by the 5:00pm-5:30pm check-in time, or those who couldn’t get a bed because they were at the back of the line and there were too many people ahead of them. So those people may choose to stay outside for free or may have to.

I only stayed in City Team for a few nights and ended up sleeping outside for many months after that, due to a couple reasons but none of which are complaints about City Team itself.

The area outside can be similar to a trailer park community and most of the people are regulars and act mostly civil and friendly towards each other. However, I did see many acts of violence out there as well when people would get into arguments, so it’s not anywhere near as safe to sleep outside as it is inside.

One of the employees at City Team even tried his best to talk me into coming back inside because he feared for my safety outside, so I have to give them credit for caring about the people out there.

After spending months outside in the parking lots and near the railroad tracks nearby, I’d say that if you keep to yourself and don’t bother anyone, it’s unlikely that anyone will bother you. But still, the possibility of something happening to you outside is much greater than inside so it’s up to you on which one you prefer.

Also, if peace and quiet is what you need, there’s some nights where it can be a little loud when it comes to people talking and laughing all night in their tents and on their sleeping bags under the stars.

In addition to this, the area runs right alongside the Old Bayshore Highway, so you’ll have to put up with the sound of cars zooming by at all hours. On one occasion, a car had spun out of control in the middle of the night and flipped onto it’s roof directly across from where we were sleeping one night. A man crawled out of the car and began running away before the police showed up and everyone told them what had happened.

I myself couldn’t afford a tent my first two months, so I bought a mat and a sleeping bag for about $25 total (the sleeping bag was on sale for $15 at Sears and I purchased the mat for $10 at Big 5 Sporting Goods).

You can set up camp at any time of night as long as the nearby businesses are closed, but if you’re new, you may be woken up or interrogated by some of the regulars. Some people feel it’s their duty to maintain the safety of the area and the role they play is similar to a neighborhood-watch.

A regular there who was a known gangbanger in the area was the main enforcer of the area when I slept outside there, and when I first arrived he asked me who I was and why I was there and because I was friendly to him, he was friendly back.

He was a man about my age, in his late 20’s or early 30’s, and although he was in a gang, he was still civil and I felt he actually helped to keep some of the peace in this area.

Both he and his father were sleeping outside the shelter and many of the people they hung around with were in the same gang, but they mostly kept to themselves and were friendly towards me.

Many of the people who sleep outside were recently released from prison and have nowhere to go. So it’s important that some of the regulars keep an eye on anybody that’s new, so you shouldn’t be offended or defensive if someone is simply checking you out to make sure you’re OK.

Some of them may come up and introduce themselves just to check you out and make sure you won’t be a problem. They may even offer you blankets if they have extras. But for the most part, people generally will keep to themselves and mind their own business after they’re sure you’re not a threat.

The people outside the shelter are people just like anybody else and they have nobody to rely on but themselves. So the feeling of being part of a small community is somewhat important to them and some of them want to protect that.

My Only Complaint
My biggest gripe is the 5:30pm check-in time. Most homeless people do not have cars and obviously need to find work to get back on their feet again. Since most jobs are 9 to 5 jobs, this makes it nearly impossible for the residents to work normal hours and make it to the shelter in time using public transportation.

They do seem to be friendly and somewhat lax about people camping outside on their property and this is a major plus if you don’t have anywhere else to sleep, but it’d still be nice if the check-in time were a bit later.

My Overall Opinion
After sleeping inside and outside of City Team, eating breakfast and dinner, and attending the sermons, my overall opinion of this particular shelter is very positive. I feel that staying in homeless shelters can actually benefit you mentally when you’re on the streets and can help to uplift your mood a bit by being around others who are in the same situation.

Even though most of the residents at City Team (and just about any shelters) are ex-cons, druggies, or recovering addicts, many are friendly and social and the mood there is generally very positive.

Of course, when you’re living on the streets, you’ll always run across a few bad apples every now and then who aren’t very friendly. Just keep in mind that mental problems and homelessness sometimes go hand-in-hand as well and you should just try to do your best to keep cool if you do have any misunderstandings with anyone.

Luckily, many shelters like City Team have employees that act as a form of security when you’re eating or sleeping there, so I generally felt safe at this shelter and would recommend it for anyone who needs a warm meal or a bed to sleep in.