Have you ever asked “Why don’t they just go to a shelter?”
by Joel Wigelsworth
Board Member, A Light in the Night
Have you ever seen someone living on the street and asked yourself, “Why don’t they just go to a shelter?” That’s a great question, and I used to ask that same one before I began working with people who live on the streets, both directly and academically.
Homeless shelters regularly fill to capacity and have to turn people away (1). If a person is able to access a shelter, it is often a risky endeavor, as shelters can be dangerous and violent places. A resident of a homeless shelter often faces being robbed or assaulted by other shelter occupants (2). A person may also experience harassment, beatings, and abuse by people who work for the shelter (3).
In the event that a particular shelter is relatively safe, partaking of its limited amenities means being subjected to a number of what sociology professor and scholar of homelessness Talmadge Wright describes as “degradation ceremonies,” in which a person has to prove their sobriety continuously (in a guilty-until-proven-innocent manner), follow strict and pedantic rules and guidelines, and undergo judgement by shelter staff—all of which can have a diminishing effect on a person’s dignity, self-respect, and sense of freedom when treated like a child or prisoner (2).
Despite the fact that these services are designed to help, people who encounter “services that reinforce stigma and negative stereotypes are not likely to return to them,” says C. Denise Gauna-Wigelsworth, a licensed psychotherapist who has experience dealing with numerous city, state, and private service providers.
Violence, theft, degradation, and rigid regulation are understandable reasons many choose not to stay in shelters, even if there is space available in one to begin with.
Hopefully this provided some insight as to why a large number of individuals and families aren’t staying in shelters. When you see someone on the streets, kindness, compassion, and dignity are wonderful gifts you can give, and they don’t have to cost you a dime.
The above information reflects common circumstances in the U.S., and is not intended to implicate any specific institutions in New Mexico.
1 Gauna-Wigelsworth, C. Denise. Personal interview. 3 Mar. 2015.
2 Wright, Talmadge. Out of Place: Homeless Mobilizations, Subcities, and Contested Landscapes. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Print.
3 Kawash, Samira. “The Homeless Body.” Public Culture 10.2 (1998): 319-339. Duke University Press. PDF.
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