Homeless Shelter or the Cold Outside? (by Rylee Mattson)

Have you ever wondered why there are so many homeless people on the streets rather than in a warm shelter? I have. Lately, I have been figuring out ways to help the homeless in any way that I could. Whether that’s making goodie bags to give out to homeless people I see on the streets, helping with the food bank in my city or helping serve food at the Portland Rescue Mission. Over the course of this term, in my writing class, we have researched, volunteered and figured out ways to help the community. I chose to have my topic be on homelessness. I would assume almost everyone has seen homeless people on the street’s holding signs, lying in their sleeping bag or just sitting down. It is fairly easy to notice a homeless person because usually they have all of their belongings by their side or a sign reading “Anything will help”. I tend to see the same people while in certain places, in the same spot as I saw them last. This led me to a question I wanted to find the answer too: why do some homeless people avoid shelters?  

It is very hard to determine the reason certain individuals choose to avoid homeless shelters, but there has been research done to figure out some of the reasons it could be. Pat Hartman from House the Homeless, Inc. writes “Check-in time might be as early as 5 p.m., and if you leave, someone else gets the bed. Depending on the rules, or the disposition of the staff, it might mean permanent banishment. The rules were established to help people with substance-abuse problems avoid the temptations of the dark streets.” This rule that Hartman mentions, could be both good and bad. It does make sense that if a substance abuser decides to stay in a shelter and tries to leave to go “use” he or she would lose their bed. In other words they are forced to go without a substance in order to sleep in the shelter. This could cause the individual to stay clean if even just for a night. However, this rule could also affect the homeless negatively. An individual could be trying to recover from a drug or alcohol addiction. They may need to attend a meeting, such as an Alcohol Anonymous meeting. If they were to go and get the help they desperately need they would be forced to sleep on the streets. This article also states that some shelters will not allow alarm clocks. So again, if a person has a meeting, whether it is a meeting to help with their addiction or a work interview, they will not be able to wake up on time. This could be a reason homeless people choose to avoid homeless shelters. They have to decide whether sleeping in a warm bed for a night, getting help with an addiction, attending a meeting or going to a job interview is more important. If homeless shelters are trying to help the homeless, are these rules helping or harming them?


Hartman, Pat. “Why Do Some Homeless People Shun Shelters?” House the Homeless Inc. 3 Dec. 2013. Web. 6 Mar. 2016. <http://www.housethehomeless.org/why-do-some-homeless-people-shun-shelters/&gt;.


On Oregon Public Broadcasting, there is an article titled “Why Some Homeless Choose the Street Over Shelters”. In this article there is an interview between a radio host, Ari Shairo, in Washington and a man who was once homeless, named David Pirtle. Shairo starts off the talk show by mentioning that “The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 700 people on the streets die from hypothermia each year in the US.” He goes on saying that everyday volunteer workers go out and try to get the homeless people to go into shelters, but many refuse. He then introduces David Pirtle and asks for him to tell his story about being homeless. Pirtle mentions that he was homeless in 2004 and had schizophrenia. Shairo then asks if he was homeless because of the fact he had schizophrenia and Pirtle replied “Part of the reason was, you know, the paranoia and the fear of large groups of people that comes along with schizophrenia, but part of the reason was, and I think this is more generally the case with people, is that you hear a lot of terrible things about shelters, that shelters are dangerous places, that they’re full of drugs and drug dealers, that people will steal your shoes, and there’s bedbugs and body lice. And yeah, unfortunately a lot of those things are true.” I think that is an eye opener and really made me think about shelters in a different way. It is hard to put yourself in that position and think about what you would choose to do. Would you go in the shelter and risk lice, getting your only pair of shoes stolen or sleeping in a bed with bed bugs?


Pirtle goes on saying “All I can say is that my fear of the unknown, of what might be waiting for me at that shelter, was worse than my fear of the known risk, you know, of staying out on the street. That was where I was comfortable. And I think people, we’re creatures of habit. We get comfortable in the most uncomfortable positions, and that just becomes home.” This too really opened my eyes and made me think. How could someone choose shelter, when they don’t know what they could be getting in to? I have always thought that shelters are all good and no bad, but here is a man who was homeless, proving me wrong.


“Why Some Homeless Choose The Streets Over Shelters.” Oregon Public Broadcasting. James Greene, 6 Dec. 2012. Web. 5 Mar. 2016. <http://www.npr.org/2012/12/06/166666265/why-some-homeless-choose-the-streets-over-shelters&gt;.

Another resourceful article I found that has helped me answer my question was written by a Kylyssa Shay, a woman who once was homeless as well. She listed many reasons as to why she, and probably others, avoided homeless shelters. Reasons such as the shelters hours of operation was not compatible with work hours, Danger of Rape or Assault, fear of contracting disease, lack of handicap accommodations, An Invasive and Disrespectful Check in Process, Separation of Family Members, Drug Addictions, Some Service Dogs are Barred from Entry, Staff Assumptions about Drug Use and Criminality, Danger of Theft, Religious Differences, Lack of Privacy and Fear of Crowds, Lack of Control, and Lack of Available Beds. Shay goes into detail about each reason one may decide to avoid a shelter. I think that is a very long list, and it goes to show why someone might avoid staying in a shelter. At the end of this article she writes “After reading this lens and getting some more information on the dangers and indignities you could face if you use a homeless shelter, do you understand why many people without traditional housing avoid using them? If you wouldn’t use a homeless shelter you can hardly expect homeless people to. I hope you will share this distressing information and help others see why things need to change”


Shay, Kylyssa. “Why Homeless People Don’t Use Shelters.” Word Press. 28 Feb. 2016. Web. 3 Mar. 2016.


I now realize that people who choose to sleep on the streets rather than a warm shelter have many reasons to do so. I hope that soon, we make a change and will start to make people want to sleep in homeless shelters rather than staying as far away from them as they can.




Hopefully by now you have realized, like I have, why a person may choose to avoid a homeless shelter. There are obviously a lot of reasons and we as a society need to get involved and provide care and help towards the homeless.



  • Here are some organizations that you could get involved with if you are more of a hands on person:






  1. Ethan Crisi

    I really enjoyed your blog post and had never thought of this topic before! In my mind I would have thought homeless shelters were something that all homeless people would like to use, however, after reading your post it has changed my mind. I found it really interesting when you stated that shelters don’t let people leave once they have checked in for the night. Personally, I think this is a good thing because it forces them to not do drugs or anything else dangerous at night like you stated. However, I can also see now why people would not go to a shelter on because of this one reason. Sometimes people are so addicted to drugs that they would rather freeze to death than not take the drugs they are on. Next, I also found it interesting when you said stuff gets stolen within shelters. Now that I think about it, shelters are probably very messy and hectic, creating perfect opportunities for people to steal things from one another. If I were homeless I would have a very hard time deciding what to do, especially after reading this post.Thanks for sharing you did a good job!

  2. Yana Kasim

    I live near and work in downtown which is heavily populated with a homeless community and like you have also noticed that the same people are usually in the same areas when asking for help. I have always just thought that there isn’t enough space for everyone in shelters, which is why they decide to stay on the streets. I also had never thought about the strict rules of shelters like not being able to have an alarm clock. I just assumed that shelters were there to provide assistance and support which would include helping someone be on time to a job interview that could help them in the long run. I feel that it is very easy to come to assumptions and judge homeless people as we go about out day and your blog does a great job of getting us thinking.
    We should treat others with compassion and think about how we would be feeling should we ever become homeless. Your post paints a picture that it isn’t just as simple to get into a shelter as checking into a hotel room. A persons privacy and dignity can be lost with the procedures required to have a roof over your head for only a night. Your blog post has a great direction and flow. The sources you provided give excellent backing to your post as well as resources for others wanting to learn more. It is shocking to learn how many people die on the streets from hypothermia each year because they either can’t get into a shelter or would rather not be exposed to a dangerous environment that the general public assumes is safe. Thank you for writing a piece on such an important issue.

    – Yana

  3. sayrah shelton

    You raised a lot of important points. I never really thought about the reasons why some people may be avoiding shelters. I just figured they were full, or they didn’t want to follow the rules. The alarm clock rule seems pretty silly, personally. It does make it hard for the homeless when they have to choose between getting better and moving forward like going to interviews on time over sleeping in a warm bed. Your post was great. It is organized and flows well, and raises a lot of points. There probably could and should be some changes to the way homeless shelters are run. Thank you for sharing!
    Sayrah Shelton

  4. Lilly

    This is a great topic, and you have some very important information that a lot of people are unaware of. It can be easy to look at homeless members of our community and think they are lazy, or that “if they tried” they could fix their lives and find jobs and homes. But the points you share are very relevant, especially with the amount of homelessness we have here in portland. There are many aspects of homelessness that aren’t apparent, and you do a really good job of pointing those out. While shelters have good intentions and are often a saving grace for people without homes, the rules and regulations, as well as sometimes difficult or unsafe environment, can make them a less than ideal option for those living on the streets.
    Thanks for sharing this topic–it’s an important one!

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