What to Expect When You Go to a Homeless Shelter

The Basics: 

For many people who have lost their home through foreclosure, natural disaster or some other unforeseen circumstance the next steps for finding housing may seem very limited and very scary.  Images of living on the street may appear as the absolute bottom, with living in a homeless shelter being one step up from that worst case scenario. 

You may have preconceptions about what living in a homeless shelter would be like - with pictures in your mind of many people crammed into a gymnasium with no privacy; or some dark, dirty place filled with drug users.  This article attempts to dispel some of the myths about homeless shelters and give you a real picture of what types of facilities they are, what programs and services they offer, and most importantly what you should expect when you walk in the door.

If you don't know where to find a homeles shelter there is an article on the site "Where to Find a Homeless Shelter" that provides a lookup widget to find a shelter in your area.  You can also call 211, which is a community service hotline that will direct you to homeless shelters in your area.  Using either of these resources will give you a list of several shelter alternatives.  Once you have your list you should at a minimum call each shelter to find out about the facility.  If you have a computer, you should go to their website.  There you will often find pictures of the facility as well as information about the staff and programs they offer.  Finally, if you have transportation, you should make a personal visit. 

To help with your research, the following are some myths about shelters that should be dispelled to help you get comfortable with the process of finding an appropriate facility for you and/or your family.

Myth - The shelter will be dirty.  Most shelter facilities are clean.  This is probably the first negative preconception about shelters and facility managers know this.  They take care to keep a clean (and sanitary) facility complete with bathrooms and shower facilities.

Myth - I won't have any privacy.  Nearly all shelters have living quarters separate from the common areas and public facilities.  You and your family may share a room with 1 or 2 other families but you certainly should not expect a floor full of cots in an open gymnasium.  That is the scenario for emergency disaster relief, not the standard condition for homeless shelter housing.

Myth - I can only stay for 1 night, max a week.  Many facilities are geared toward helping you find permanent housing and will allow you to stay until you get on your feet financially and find a new home.  This could take anywhere from 3 months to a year and many facilities will let you stay there for that duration.

Myth - The homeless shelter is just a roof over my head.  Most shelters offer at least 1 and more often 3 meals a day for its residents.  In addition, many of the larger more established shelters offer several programs to help you including job placement services, and on-site childcare.

Myth - People will think I'm a loser.  Everybody has a story to tell explaining why they need to use shelter facilities.  From job loss to foreclosure and illness to welfare, every person there is a victim of some unplanned circumstance and is using the facility as a means of support.  There are no losers there, only normal people very similar to you.  Most importantly, the staff knows the world we all live in. They have usually seen it all and are not there to judge you.  The facility exists to help you and the workers are usually compassionate to your situation.

What you may not know: 

Unfortunately many shelters do not take single black men.  There is a much greater focus in the shelter community on families (and in particular women and children).  In addition black men can "age out" of a shelter, meaning that after a certain age (anywhere from 13 to 21 years old) they are no longer eligible for shelter housing.

Many shelters allow families to stay for up to 18 months

A shelter can provide dinner for a group of 75 people for around $40.

Many shelters have "kids rooms", or supervised play facilities for toddlers and youngsters.  These facilities are usually staffed with childcare professionals to allow parents time to go job hunting or take care of other matters.

What you need to know: 

Most homeless shelters are non-profit organizatoins and many of the people who work there are volunteers.  This means that the shelter and the staff want to be there.  They are not there to judge you, they are there to HELP you.


Tracy Reed, Case Manager at the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program (GRIP) is a contributor for this article.

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