Why More Shelters Aren’t the Answer to Homelessness

Those who experience homelessness can face complex issues, both in their personal lives, and with navigating the services available to them. One of the rationalizations we, as advocates, often hear for those who oppose helping these folks,  is that ‘they’ don’t really want help, and ‘they’ won’t to go to available shelter spaces when they are offered. While wanting to remain on the street might be true for a small fraction of those experiencing homelessness, this is not true for many of these folks. We need to look at the deeper reasons around why someone would not go to a shelter when it is cold and raining outside, or anytime.

I delivered dry socks, clothes and coffee weekly to a small encampment in Fullerton during the rainy weather last winter. They told me that the conditions inside the shelters were unbearable. They would go in physically clean, and they would be assigned a bed next to someone with lice or bed bugs. Everyone said they went in well, and usually became very sick because of the people with flu and colds inside the shelters and the lack of basic sanitation. These are people living in harsh conditions and who usually have no health insurance. One illness can be catastrophic for them. Partners who aren’t married often can not stay together, even if one of them has a special need and can’t navigate their own care alone. Those who have irregular work hours are locked out of shelters when they work late shifts.
A study by the American Civil Liberties Union confirmed these stories and more. Here is an excerpt from their report: 

“A year-long investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California uncovered toxic and unsafe conditions inside three shelters, including too few toilets for the number of residents and broken toilets that went unrepaired for months; raw sewage flowing from porta potties; showers with no temperature control if they work at all; infestations of rodents, maggots, and other insects; an acute shortage of soap and cleaning products; a lack of heat on cold winter nights; and flooding during rainstorms.  Women residents were targets of sexual harassment by male staff members, including incessant, demeaning comments about their bodies and appearance, voyeurism while using bathroom facilities, and offers of special treatment in exchange for sex.” https://www.aclusocal.org/en/press-releases/aclu-uncovers-horrific-conditions-sexual-harassment-oc-homeless-shelters The best response to these problems is to advocate for supportive and affordable housing.