Why Do Homeless People Avoid Shelters?

A cold man sits with a blanket wrapped around his body.

Have you ever noticed how homeless people tend to sleep outside, even when you hear about local shelters offering beds and a safe place for them to sleep at night? Maybe you’re reading this because you yourself are about to become homeless and you’re wondering whether you should stay in a shelter or sleep on the streets.

I know from personal experience that staying in a shelter has it’s pros and cons, and sometimes the cons can outweigh the benefits. In my situation, I was homeless and decided to start sleeping on the streets after staying in a shelter for less than a week. So here’s just some of the main reasons that influenced my decision and reasons why others may choose to avoid shelters completely while braving the dangers of sleeping outside instead.

Early Check-In & Early Wake Up
For lots of homeless people, the schedules of most shelters are too much of an inconvenience for some. The vast majority of shelters require that people check in early enough so that everybody can be accounted for and everything can run more smoothly for the staff there. So lots of these places require that everybody is there at a certain time long before it’s actually time to go to sleep. In addition to this, there’s usually lines outside that can be rather long at some places.

So let’s say a person is living on the streets but working side jobs every now and then. If the shelters in their area require that people check in by 6pm, this may not be possible for them. If they have to take a bus from work to the shelter, and if they get off work at 5pm, this may not leave enough time for them to make it. This is of course assuming that they would be working normal hours.

Homeless people sometimes take the jobs nobody else wants to do, so a lot of these jobs involve working odd hours that variate regularly. There’s even some things they may do at night on their own, such as collecting cans and bottles to avoid the hot sun before the garbage trucks come out in the morning.

But a shelter’s schedule can be an inconvenience to anyone, not just those who may have jobs. In addition to an early check-in time, most places also have an early check-out as well. So everybody has to wake up very early and be out the door early. For those who have problems like insomnia or just a hard time getting up at 4, 5, or 6am, it may just be easier for them to sleep outside so they won’t have to worry about getting up early.

Whenever I tell people I was homeless and had a laptop with me the entire time, they always have a hard time believing this. People seem to think that homeless people don’t own things because homelessness is usually associated with poverty. But there’s obviously different levels of poverty and just because someone can’t afford to rent a room for $500 per month or rent a studio apartment for $900 or more, doesn’t mean that hey can’t afford a cheap used laptop or that they’ll sell the few things they have left when they become homeless.

So a lot of those who are living out on the streets do own things, and because they don’t make much money, they cherish these things more than your average person would. My laptop was about 4 years old and in very bad condition, but I guarded it with my life and kept it hidden in my bag most of the time. It was my livelihood because I was building websites and trying to earn a living online at the time to get back on my feet.

One of the main reasons that I chose not to say inside shelters was because they wouldn’t allow me to bring my bag to bed with me. They made us hand over our belongings to an employee who would lock them up in a storage room. I had a few problems with doing this. The first was that this employee was an ex-homeless person himself and used to have drug addiction problems. I’m a strong believer in second chances, but I don’t trust strangers since I have no reason to and more reason not to trust others in shelters based on my experiences. The fact that he was an ex-addict also didn’t sit too well with me, because I grew up around addicts and learned that even best friends will steal from you when they have a drug problem.

So it may seem judgmental or even hypocritical for me to not trust someone who was once homeless like me, but it would also be naive to trust a stranger with the only possession I had with me at the time. The second problem that I had with this situation was that the feeling of security was lacking. The person checking the bags into the storage room didn’t seem to be paying attention as much as he probably should have. So anybody could have grabbed someone else’s bag in the morning and claim it as theirs before the real owner of the bag would come out of the shower room and notice it was stolen.

So there’s a lot of people out there who have possessions that they’d rather not bring into a shelter, simply because they can’t keep an eye on them. I’m sure you’ve seen those who push shopping carts down the street all day and have all their possessions inside of them. Well if they were to stay the night in a shelter they’d have to leave all their things outside, so it’s just not to worth it to them.

For some people, they might be avoiding shelters because of the situation with the showers. In most places, the showers are set up in a similar fashion as they are in most high schools and prisons. In other words, you’re usually showering in the same room as the other people there and there is little, if any, privacy.

Not only can this be uncomfortable for some people, but it can also make someone feel unsafe. I say this because many of those who I showered around had criminal records and many of those were for sexual crimes including crimes against other inmates of theirs in San Quentin State Prison and crimes against children as well, which was the reason they were initially incarcerated. Many had tracking bracelets on their ankles as part of their release conditions. Many of their names and faces were plastered on the Meghan’s Law website where you can search for sex offenders in your area by name or other criteria.So although your average sex offender isn’t trying to go back to prison, the risks and feeling of being unsafe can be there for some people.

This was also one of the main reasons that I chose to not sleep inside my local shelters. In order to sleep at most of them, you have to take a shower with no privacy before being allowed into the room with beds. To avoid this, I learned to sleep outside and took my showers during daytime hours when less people were using them or at shelters that had private stalls when I was located near any of them during the day.Many shelters do have private stalls, but in my experience, this isn’t the norm and is somewhat rare.

But even with private stalls, a person showering at any shelter needs to be careful about athlete’s foot and other infections that can easily happen with so many people frequently washing off in such limited spaces. So sandals and foot spray became necessities for me during and after any showers I took. Some shelters allow you to use their showers at any time of day or during a certain hour range, while others only allow it immediately before you to go to sleep there. But almost all of them will not allow you to sleep there without taking that shower immediately beforehand.

In order to stay in shelters long term, there is often a fee or rent that must be paid after a certain period. For most places, they’ll let someone stay for free for a few days or maybe even up to a month. But after a person has used up their “free nights”, they will usually have to start paying either by the day or by the month.The rates will usually be much cheaper than it would normally cost to get an apartment, rent a room, or to book a hotel for the night in most areas. However, this can still be a significant amount, usually between $100 and $200 per month.

This may not seem like much to your average person with a job, but for homeless people, even those who are on welfare, it can be pretty considerable. So many people choose to avoid staying inside for this reasons. It could be because they simply don’t have enough money and have used up all their free nights, or it could be because they are trying to get back on their feet fast and don’t want to waste their money if they don’t have to.

In my situation, I didn’t want to use up all my free nights because I knew I might need them for nights when the weather would be bad. So I slept outside even though I still had many free passes left, as well as enough money to afford to sleep inside the shelter each month if I had to. There are many people like me out there who prefer to save their resources and prepare for times when they may need to use their free days or money when it’s absolutely necessary. But this was just one of the many factors that caused me to post up outside rather than inside.

As you would imagine, there’s a lot of drama and problems between people on the streets. Sometimes the politics of it all can be similar to problems between people in prison or between rival gangs. Homeless people can sometimes be very territorial or aggressive, and there can also be a lot of misunderstandings because so many have mental problems or a lack of manners while those their feuding with may really value manners and look for them.

So because of this, problems between individuals, or certain groups can and will happen from time to time. So some people may be reluctant to stay in a shelter or area because their enemies may be there or because they prefer to avoid other hobos and prefer the isolation that they can choose to have outside.

A lot of homeless people have a prison mentality because a good portion of them have been in and out of jail for most of their adult lives or have spent serious time in prison. I witnessed many incidents and somehow found myself in many as well when I was on the streets. I consider myself a generally easy-going and agreeable person to get along with, but drama can be unavoidable sometimes when you’re dealing with stubborn people and hostile personalities. So it goes without saying that those who want to avoid confrontations may do best by avoiding shelters completely as I had seen many fights break out in both the cafeteria area where we all ate, as well as in the lines outside when people were waiting to get beds for the night.

Bed Bugs
Lastly, the most dreaded thing one can probably encounter in any shelter is those dark red and brown blood-sucking bugs known as “bed bugs” (scientific name: Cimex lectularius). These bugs will generally bite a person in the middle of the night to drink their blood and the bites can not be felt since the bugs use a numbing agent that their body produces. The victim of the bites will then wake up in the morning with all sorts of red marks and welts on them which generally will itch similar to mosquito bites.

While bed bugs generally not believed to be very dangerous in terms of transmitting diseases, the jury is still out on this and researchers are still trying to prove that they cannot transmit Chagas disease as it’s generated some interest in recent years.

However, even if you view them as being completely safe, these nasty little bugs will often harbor inside beds and nearby bags and once a person gets an infestation of them in their possessions, bed, or furniture, they can be very difficult to get rid of. They are almost impossible to get rid of without an exterminator once you have a large infestation that has gotten out of hand and it only takes one or two bugs to start a full on colony in your room, hidden in the seams of blankets, or even in your backpack or other belongings.

So while you may think of homeless people as being somewhat more immune to these bugs compared to homeowners (since they can easily leave a shelter and go stay elsewhere), the bugs will often hide in their clothes and then get into everything else they own. So it goes without saying that these bugs are easily transmittable between shelters and places where homeless people sleep are much more prone to dealing with them than the average person living in a home.

Many vagrants stay in cheap motels once a month or so when they get a little money, just to get off the street, and end up picking up these bugs after just staying one night in these places. When I was deciding where I was going to stay when homeless, this was one of the main factors for me in why I decided to stay outside as there were reports from other homeless people I met about the shelters nearby all being infested with bed bugs.