What is it like living in a homeless shelter?

Answer by Christina Devol:

Tacoma Homeless Shelter:  What to expect:

  • The first visit.

    You show up in the alley on your first night.  Aim to be there roughly 4:45 or 5pm.  DO NOT expect to get in that night, unless it is the first of the month (and sometimes not even at that point).  Find the staff member or security guard (usually in uniform, with a badge on, carrying a clipboard) and ask to have your name put on "the list".  Wait until 7pm.  The staff in the dorms will do a final count of how many beds they have remaining and pass that information along to the person outside.  S/he will then begin reading off names.  If your name is not called, you will be sleeping outside (unless you have friends/family with whom you have made other arrangements).  If your name is called, congratulations!  You've got a place to stay!

  • Intake.

    Through this process the staff gets answers to questions that can help them earn money to keep the place open.  One of the staff members will call you into the office and close the door so you can have privacy.  Expect to be asked how you wound up there, about your substance abuse history, as well as showing photo ID.  Some shelters make this a requirement.  If you don't/won't/can't provide current ID you will be turned away.  No exceptions.  The staff will also use this time to go over the rules for the shelter (see below) as well as offering you names and phone numbers of other agencies in the area that may be able to help you with food, medical care, laundry facilities, housing, financial aid, recovery from substance abuse, and a variety of other resources.

  • Drugs and alcohol.

    Despite the fact that many shelters explicitly forbid persons to enter their facilities with these substances, or under the influence of them, the people still get in with/under the influence of them.

  • You're going to shower.

    Naked. In front of approximately thirty other women (if you're female) or over 100 other naked men (if you're male).  If you are a woman, the shower will be ice cold.  If you're male, you might wind up going to the hospital with first or second degree burns.  This is not an exaggeration — this has actually happened to people I've known.  You have five minutes to shower.  Refusal to do so will result in your being expelled from the shelter for the night.

  • Public restrooms.

    There are no stall doors.  Your activities (or lack thereof) are completely visible to other staff and residents.  If you have a "shy bladder", too bad.

  • No cell phone usage in the dorms.

    Because there have been issues in the past with people taking and sharing inappropriate pictures of other residents, cell phone usage is limited to the areas outside of the dorms.  This includes the smoking area and garage.

  • Your sleeping arrangements.

    So now you're showered, maybe you've had a bite to eat (see below) and you're all ready for bed.  So you just crawl into any open one, right?  Wrong.  You'll most likely be spending the first night on the floor (and probably several thereafter).  You can ask to be put on what is called the "bed list".  When people who have been occupying beds don't make it back to the shelter in time for last call (remember that 7pm activity I mentioned earlier?), staff will go down the bed list and ask each person whether they want the available bed.  Sometimes only top bunks will be available.  If you can't/don't want to reach one of these beds, decline and they will move on to the next name.  Be aware, however, that by declining your name moves back to the bottom of the list.

  • Welcome back to high school.

    The men and/or women you will be staying with come from diverse backgrounds and have diverse personality types.  Some are quiet.  Some are friendly.  Sadly, these types of people make up the minority.  Most of the other people you'll be spending the night with are gossips, cliques, bullies, thieves, and/or drug addicts (and that's just the tip of the iceberg!).

  • Your bedding.

    In the office are scores of blankets and sheets. For the most part, the staff hand these out fairly readily, especially if you're unlucky enough to have to be spending the night on the floor.  There should be a pillow available as well.  However, don't expect anything better than you might find at Goodwill.  These items are almost exclusively second-hand.  (But when you're homeless, they're a real luxury).

  • So… Bedtime?

    Not quite.  If you have any valuables (purse, medications, cell phone, etc.)  Be sure to turn it in to the office.  They will make a note of it in their log and attach a piece of paper with your name on it (usually via a sticky note or piece of scrap paper rubber-banded to the item).  The staff will have movies or TV playing (the subject of which is usually put to a vote — simply raise your hand when what you want to watch is called out and the staff will take a count).  There is also a table set up near the front with a microwave and some plastic eating utensils.  These things are free to a good home, though it is considered poor manners to hoard them for yourself.  Any food that is left up there is considered "donated".  You will often find pastries, cups of noodles, and other goodies available.  Also, on certain days, the garage outside plays host to different volunteer groups that provide meals (sometimes it is really good — Pizza or barbeque!  … Other times… well… there's this group known as "the vegetarians" … but if you're really hungry, it's better than nothing!).  Seconds are sometimes available from these groups (while supplies last) after everyone has had a chance at firsts.

  • I'm signed in.  I'm showered.   My "bed" is made.  I'm full.  Can I go to bed yet?

    That depends.  Technically everyone is supposed to stop talking/making noise at 10pm ("lights out").  You aren't required to go to sleep, but the lights won't be on (except in the bathroom, so you can see your way to the toilet) and others around you will probably be trying to sleep.  Some of the other residents of the shelter may have "invisible friends" due to drug use or mental illness (or both) and may stay up late talking to said friends.  Staff does an okay job of keeping this to a minimum, but every night is different.  Also, you're sleeping with 30 other women or 100 other men — people who fart, snore, talk in their sleep (I'm guilty of this), cough, sneeze, vomit, have seizures (or other medical emergencies), and may even die (yes, I've seen it happen) throughout the night.  If you're a light sleeper… well… you're pretty much on your own… Good luck with that.

  • The morning.

    Hopefully you got a little sleep at least, because 6:30am comes quicker than you might think!  The staff from the night before will have gone home during the night and the day staff will have taken over for them.  You have until 7am to change out of your nightclothes, brush your teeth, do your hair/makeup, and be out the door.  Failure to do so can mean  that you lose your shelter privileges and will have to spend time sleeping elsewhere.  If you want your bedding washed, throw it into the large grey trashcan at the front of the room (if you aren't sure where to put it, feel free to ask staff).  Retrieve all other belongings!  Anything you walked in with, has to walk back out with you!  Failure to do so may result in you losing the item(s) or your shelter privileges.  The exception is if you're able to get a locker out in the garage (you can sign up for this at night when you check in with security; there's a waiting list and you have to provide your own lock).  In this case you may leave whatever you can fit in the locker for the time that you stay at the shelter.  If you leave the shelter — either through finding new housing arrangements or losing your shelter privileges) you lose your locker (they have a specific number of days that they hold things, but I can't remember it at present).  You can spend your day however you like, but make sure you're back to the shelter by 7pm, or you'll lose your spot inside!  If you have a medical emergency or work scheduling conflict and cannot make it back in time for roll call, notify the staff as soon as possible.  They may be willing/able to work with you.  Note that the shelter is not staffed between 7am and 4:30pm.

    I think that's about it… If you have any further questions or comments, feel free to send them my way.  I spent over 3 years homeless… I'm quite well versed as to the ins and outs of that world.

    Edit to Add:  There is only one emergency shelter in Pierce County.  So if you can't get in here, you're pretty much screwed.

What is it like living in a homeless shelter?


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