Photo by monica, used via a Creative Commons license
According to the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services FY 2022 Data Snapshot, 18% of the city’s homeless population is unsheltered and living in places unsuitable for human habitation. Each year since 2017, between 16% and 18% of the City’s homeless population has been unsheltered. The 2022 report also notes that on any given night, a total of 4,489 people experience homelessness in the city. At the same time, there are 4,938 beds in emergency shelters, safe havens, and transitional housing in the city. These numbers indicate that at any given time, there are enough emergency shelter beds for all people experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia.
Why do some people still decline the offer to go to a particular shelter? Why do some people avoid them altogether? Social science researchers have some answers that this article will highlight.
First, it is important to recognize that for many people, homeless shelters are a lifeline that represents the beginning of the end of their housing crisis. It is also important to recognize that many homeless service providers take seriously and exemplify the core values of the Social Work profession: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.
But the fact remains that entering shelter is not an easy decision. It often involves fear, threats to one’s health, dignity, and identity, and disruption of relationships, routines, or coping mechanisms. Therefore, when a person experiencing homelessness demonstrates ambivalence toward a particular shelter or the shelter system in general, it is inappropriate to blame that person for their homelessness or to imply that they “want” to be homeless. If we want people to come inside off the streets, we need to make sure that what we offer there meets their needs and addresses their concerns.
In some cases, mental illness is a key factor in the decision to avoid shelter. The most recently available data indicate that three-quarters of people experiencing homelessness have a mental health diagnosis, and that nearly a quarter of them have schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders. Some of the most common symptoms of psychotic disorders include auditory hallucinations, which occur in more than 70% of cases, and paranoid thinking, which often accompanies these hallucinations. A person with psychotic symptoms might decide not to go to a shelter because of delusional thoughts about the shelter itself (i.e., it is managed by the CIA). Alternatively, a person may also avoid the shelter because, even when taking their antipsychotic medications as prescribed, they find that the community shelter overstimulates them and exacerbates their symptoms.
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More commonly, however, people seem to avoid housing out of fear. Foremost among these is fear of violence. According to one study, twenty percent of shelter guests reported being victims of violence in a shelter, and more than half reported witnessing violence in a shelter in the past month. Sometimes the fear is related to bed bugs, lice and other pests, or hygiene concerns. Another study states, inadequate ventilation systems, unsanitary bedding, and overcrowding are common environmental issues in shelters that facilitate the transmission of bugs or infectious diseases. Often, the fear is specifically related to sexual violence. For example, the ACLU recently completed a yearlong investigation in California, that found that female shelter guests were repeatedly the targets of sexual coercion, abuse, and harassment.
Transgender individuals are particularly affected by the intersection of fear of violence, threats to dignity or identity, and religiously organized shelters. Nearly three quarters of transgender guests in shelters have reported being misgendered, required to dress as the wrong gender, asked to leave because they are transgender, verbally abused, physically assaulted, or sexually assaulted.
Some people avoid shelter because, as one study described it, shelter is a place that is “perceived as so defiled that using it seems to threaten one’s dignity or social identity.” According to another study, people avoid shelters because they want to differentiate themselves from other homeless individuals. For them, entering a shelter is not only uncomfortable or frightening, but actually stigmatizing. One study found that people feel not only afraid, but also “humiliated” and “disgusted” by shelters, while others feel infantilized by shelter rules that are perceived as controlling. Meanwhile, some people avoid shelters because the only beds available are in shelters that require participation in religious programming that violates their beliefs, morals, or traditions.
Other individuals avoid shelters for logistical, bureaucratic, or policy reasons. For example, people experiencing homelessness and who also own pets sometimes avoid shelters because of so-called “no pets” policies. Some couples avoid shelters because they may be unable to enter the same facility, given that shelters have traditionally been sex-segregated. Some people avoid shelters because it is not geographically near their other service providers, their workplace, or their daily responsibilities. In addition, some people avoid shelters because facilities do not accommodate behaviors associated with substance use disorders (e.g., intoxication). Finally, some people remain street homeless because they have been banned from shelter. One study found that nearly half of direct homeless service providers issue short- or long-term bans on clients each month, suggesting that this is a common practice.
Many people experiencing homelessness do enter shelters. Some choose not to. Given the available evidence, this decision is often rational. Even when people choose to remain unsheltered, it is a mistake to automatically assume that they have a better alternative at that moment. Beds in shelters may be technically available, but not realistically or respectfully available to a particular person.
So again, if a person experiencing homelessness shows ambivalence toward a particular shelter or the shelter system in general, it is inappropriate to blame that person for their homelessness or to suggest that they “want” to be homeless.
They have looked at the options and determined that what we are offering them is worse than the streets. If we want people to come inside off the streets, we need to make sure that what we offer inside is truly better, safer, cleaner, and more accommodating than the streets.
What housing issues are you experiencing?
What solutions do you have to support those experiencing homelessness?
In what ways should our government, businesses, foundations, and nonprofits support housing and homelessness in our communities?
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