Denver, CO

Why Denver homeless people won’t stay in shelters

David Heitz

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A tired soundbite that many have used for years when describing homelessness is that many people don’t want to stay in shelters. If they turn down a bed, why feel sorry for them, some argue.

The familiar refrain is that most people experiencing homelessness are addicted to drugs and don’t want to follow shelter rules. But that only tells part of the story, and most are not addicted to drugs.

In a recent inquiry to its staff, the board of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, or DDPHE, asked why many people decline shelter services.

“The reasons are varied and are different for each person,” the DDPHE responded. “Some barriers are stigma/shame and self-reliance/pride based, others are rooted in behavioral health issues, substance misuse, or a desire to live outdoors.”

'A desire to live outdoors?'

"A desire to live outdoors?" Does anyone really believe that? With few exceptions, I knew of no one who preferred to be outdoors while experiencing homelessness. Especially during the winter months in Colorado.

“(Department of Housing Stability) is committed to utilizing the shelter system as a critical part of its work to end homelessness,” DDPHE explains. “Sheltering and emergency services should function as a component of rehousing, not as an end point for persons experiencing homelessness. To better understand the limitations of the current sheltering system and provide a framework for the future, the city commissioned the three-year shelter expansion plan, which outlines recommendations and strategies for moving toward an efficient, accessible, and compassionate sheltering system that works to end homelessness.”

When I stayed in city shelters, they were anything but compassionate. If you reported someone threatening you or making noise in the middle of the night, sometimes you would be asked to leave. It was as if the gang-bangers and thugs had intimidated staff members into letting them run the shelters.

Shelters often do not feel safe

I almost never felt safe in the shelters.

“Anecdotal data from outreach workers, shelter workers, substance use navigators, health care providers and others contribute to the data source,” DDPHE explained. “DDPHE, (Department of Housing Stability), and other agencies are working together to refine the collection of the data and questions asked during outreach to develop the data.”

Here are some real reasons why people experiencing homelessness don’t want to stay in shelters. The homeless advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud alerted these issues to public health staff in a letter.

1. Having a husband or wife. Couples want to stay together. It feels safer. It goes without saying that people want to shelter with their loved ones. Most shelters do not allow men and women together.

2. Working late nights and can’t get into a shelter. If you get off work past 10 p.m. or so, you can only get into most shelters with a doctor’s note. I remember one night I arrived at a shelter late as did another man. The other man had a note from his attorney explaining he works late, but Salvation Army Crossroads homeless shelter would not let either of us inside. We spent the evening sitting in an all-night diner. My friend happened to have a little bit of money so we could drink coffee.

3. Working early morning day labor and can’t get out of the shelter in time to work. Most shelters are on lockdown from about 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.

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4. Women being traumatized by male staff in the bunk areas waking women to kick them out. The wake-up process in shelters can feel cruel and unusual. The loudness of it all can be triggering to people with PTSD.

5. Having a pet or service animal who is rejected. Nobody wants to leave their pet behind, but shelters don't allow them. Many people do not have the resources for required shots for their animals or have long ago lost the paperwork.

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6. Not desiring to conform to regimented rules. It is true that some, but not all, homeless people are drug addicts who use narcotics in the shelter. Some shelters drug test and people experiencing addiction can’t pass the UA screenings.

7. Can’t handle being ordered around and degraded by staff. Partly because they must be, some staff members are unfriendly toward people staying in the shelters. Many people pick up on this bad attitude and react poorly to it.

8. Having insomnia but not being allowed to watch television or read. After around midnight or earlier, it's lights out. Residents must be in bed with no cell phones. Salvation Army Crossroads homeless shelter in Denver has a library where you can go to read the during the night.

9. Having stayed in a shelter for 90 days with a promise of housing to no avail. At some point many people just give up on service providers.

10. Being kicked out at 3 a.m. for no fault of your own because staff failed to sign you in or enter your chores in the records. No, it's not a sob story. It really does happen.

11. Needing food in the night and fearing being kicked out for keeping food in bed against the rules. Sometimes diabetics need to eat at odd hours. When you're homeless, you eat when you can.

12. Not wanting or being able to sleep with bed bugs. The bed bug infestations at many of the shelters can be severe at times.

13. Not making it in the lottery to get a bed. Some homeless shelters such as Samaritan House in Denver and Comitis in Aurora had sign-up times early in the morning when I was experiencing homelessness. You either manually put your name on a list or called in to put it on a list. Later in the day, you called a hotline to find out whether you were selected. Sometimes, it would be difficult to find a telephone to use for follow-up. Other times you simply weren’t chosen.

14. Not being able to get down on the floor to sleep on a mat. Some people suffer from physical limitations that prevent them from sleeping on a mat on a concrete floor. Many people cannot get up and down easily.

15. Having more than two bags of belongings. Even having more than one bag of belongings will present problems for you. There is nowhere to store belongings in some shelters. You must keep them close to you or they may get stolen. Many people in shelters tie their belongings around their feet while they sleep.

16. Being transgender and having been abused in a shelter or forced to strip to prove your sex. The abuse some transgender people sustain in shelters is terrifying. Gay men and lesbians also experience discrimination in homeless shelters.

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17. Having mental health struggles and being unable to co-habitat with hundreds of people in a tight space. For many people with PTSD, a shelter can be an extraordinarily triggering environment.

18. Being released from the hospital or jail at 1 a.m. onto the streets. This happens more than anyone ever could imagine. Why a jail or hospital would discharge a person experiencing homelessness to the street at 1 a.m. is a good question.

19. Feeling safer staying outside with friends than in a building with strangers. One of the reasons homeless encampments are popular is because there is perceived safety in numbers.

20. Feeling safer or happier staying by themselves on the streets than with hundreds of people in a shelter. Some prefer the dignity of a tent to the warehousing and dehumanizing treatment of a shelter, according to Denver Homeless Out Loud.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

Denver, CO
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