Why Do So Many Homeless Refuse to Stay in Overnight Shelters?

It’s one of the most common questions we hear that’s related to our coverage of homeless sweeps and Denver’s urban camping ban: Why are so many people sleeping on the streets and refusing to use the city’s homeless shelters?

The city, after all, insists that there are hundreds of “beds” (truthfully, many are just mats or pads) that are unused and available each night in Denver’s shelter network. The city also has the capacity to open additional emergency shelters at city-owned recreation centers if overflow space is needed.

Although those claims of limitless shelter capacity have never truly been tested, the bottom line is that Denver maintains it can house all people experiencing homelessness each and every night. Indeed, Mayor Michael Hancock and his administration have routinely defended the urban camping ban using this rhetoric.

The inside of a city overflow shelter that used to be on Peoria Street.
The inside of a city overflow shelter that used to be on Peoria Street.
Chris Walker

And yet the question (and problem) remains: Why are there hundreds of people sleeping in tents and bundled up outside every night?

It's a question that will come up more frequently in the coming months since the “Right to Survive” ballot initiative was approved for the May 2019 municipal elections. Denver voters will be asked whether they think the city should essentially overturn its camping ban and allow people to eat, rest and sleep in public.

Around the same time that the ballot initiative was approved, Denver Public Works and Denver police officers dismantled a tent city on October 29 consisting of hundreds of campers that had formed in the Ballpark neighborhood right outside the Denver Rescue Mission and Samaritan House. About a hundred of those campers relocated to the South Platte River, and again the city dismantled their encampment, on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Homeless-rights advocates took a video of the latest sweep.

An encampment near the Platte River in late 2016.
An encampment near the Platte River in late 2016.
Brandon Marshall

Denver Homeless Out Loud, the homeless-advocacy group that documented this week’s sweep at the Platte and is the main backer of the Right to Survive ballot initiative, provided us with circumstances in which people might refuse to use the city’s overnight shelters based on feedback they've heard in the field.

Before we list them below, we should note that shelter providers —- both the city and a coalition of nonprofits —- have made efforts to increase storage options in shelters and have routinely denied charges that they aren't clean or are infested with bedbugs.

Here are some situations that would prevent someone from using a shelter, according to Denver Homeless Out Loud:

All those who love their husband or wife and feel safer together than separated as shelters do to couples…
All those who work late nights and can’t get into a shelter…
All those who work nights and have no option to sleep in a shelter in the day...
All those who work early morning day labor and can’t get out of the shelter in time to work…
All those women who are traumatized by male staff in the bunk areas waking women to kick them out…
All those with pets or service animals who are rejected from shelters…
All those who can’t conform to regimented rules…
All those who can’t handle being ordered around and degraded by staff…
All those with insomnia who can’t watch TV or read but must be in bed with no cell phones...
All those who have stayed in a shelter program for ninety days with a promise of housing to no avail and given up on service providers…
All those who have been kicked out at 3 a.m. for no fault of their own because staff failed to sign them in or enter their chores in the records…
All those who need food in the night and fear being kicked out for keeping food with them in bed against the rules…
All those who don’t want to sleep with bedbugs...
All those suffering a drug addiction that can’t pass a urine analysis to stay in the shelters…
All those don’t make it in the lottery to get a bed…
All those who can’t get down on the floor to sleep on a mat…
All those with more than two bags of belongings who either go into the shelter and lose their property, or stay outside to keep their property...
All those trans-gender folks who have been abused in a shelter or forced to strip to prove their sex…
All those who want their time back from waiting in lines for early admission hours to get into a shelter…
All those who don’t want to be preached to by shelter providers…
All those with mental health struggles who can’t handle being around hundreds of people in a tight space…
All those released from the hospital at 1 a.m. onto the streets…
All those physically unable to move about when police ask them...
All those who feel safer staying outside with friends than in a building with strangers…
All those who feel safer or happier staying by themselves on the streets than with hundreds of people in a shelter…
All those who prefer the dignity of a tent to the warehousing and dehumanizing treatment of a shelter…
All those who want control of their own life and choices…

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