A Shelter For The Night? Or Just Jail-Lite?

rules at shelters

Needlessly Restrictive Shelter Rules Serve Power-Tripping Staff at the Expense of Actual Residents

We’ve all been in situations where we’ve had to follow stupid rules just to get by. Whether at work, in school, or as a kid, there are a lot of situations in life where the rules are made by someone else, seemingly arbitrarily, and we just have to live by them.

But for most adults, that rule-heavy environment is only present in a portion of our everyday lives. We can usually get away from it once we’re out of the office or the classroom and have some time to ourselves to decompress.

Imagine if you couldn’t.

Thousands of residents in highly restrictive homeless shelters don’t have to imagine. They live every day attempting to comply with pages-long manuals and signs full of highly specific rules dictating every aspect of their lives. These rules dictate when they must sleep, wake, eat, shower, and use the bathroom. They even demand compliance for which religious services they attend, who they’re allowed to talk to, and even where their paycheck goes.

The Role of Rules

Rules are an aspect of daily life in every society. To a certain extent, we need them to function well together. But the best and easiest rules to follow are those made thoughtfully, with respect for and input from the community who will be bound to them.

Good rules serve the purpose of keeping everyone safe and all systems running smoothly. Bad rules only control people, make them feel less than the people handing down all these rules, and prevent inconvenience to the rule-makers at the expense of individual autonomy for the rule followers.

Unfortunately, far too many rules at homeless shelters fall into the latter category. In fact, a lot of homeless shelters choose to enforce an endless code of draconian rules by design.

Not to keep residents safe and happy, but rather in a condescending attempt to “teach them responsibility” or “provide structure for their unstructured lives.” They have strict rules just to have strict rules, and of course, to indulge the staff’s paternalistic tendencies.

The Cost of Overly Restrictive Rules

Homeless shelters have long asked for a lot from their residents while subsequently offering less and less in exchange. That’s one reason why many unhoused people prefer to take their chances sleeping out on the streets rather than subjecting themselves to a homeless shelter.

At a standard shelter, you may be offered three meals a day, limited bathroom facilities, a bed, bunk, or space on the floor, and some counseling services to help you get a job or housing.

In exchange, you’ll often be expected to give up your:

  • Privacy, whether it be while sleeping, showering, using the bathroom, or all of the above
  • Pets, as most shelters do not allow residents to have animals
  • Relationship, since many shelters separate people by gender and explicitly forbid “fraternization” between residents
  • Paycheck or benefits check, in whole or in part
  • Right to not have your living space and belongings searched without permission
  • Control over when you sleep, wake, leave and return to the shelter
  • Ability to decide when and what you eat
  • Health, as shelters often have outbreaks of infectious diseases and pests
  • Religious preference since many shelters expect or require residents to attend or participate in religious services daily or multiple times per day
  • Sense of safety, as even with all of these rules, highly-restrictive group shelters are still often susceptible to theft and violence, which often goes unmitigated by staff members
  • Dignity, since you spend your days at the mercy of staff who often show little respect for you as a fellow human being

Now is that a deal you’d be willing to take? For most of us, the answer would be no. Or at least it would be after a night or two of real experience in a shelter like the ones I’m describing here.

And how do any of these rules “teach people responsibility,” as is allegedly the goal? They don’t, and they’re not supposed to. They just allow staff and executives to control and dehumanize residents, seeing them more as mindless cattle that need “guiding” with a firm hand rather than real, individual, vulnerable people with thoughts and feelings, the same as themselves.

Out With the Old, In With Fewer Rules

Thankfully, some shelters are catching on to the fact that more rules do not make for a better shelter experience. The opposite is often true. The people who actually care about providing help and relief for their unhoused neighbors are streamlining their rule books. They are taking down the endless signs and posters reminding residents to wash their hands, brush their teeth, and throw away their trash like they’re in an elementary school classroom. Instead, they are moving toward an atmosphere of trust and respect for the residents they serve. 

Many shelters find when people are treated like humans, they don’t need pages of prescriptive rules for every situation. Residents can work through issues within the community. Staff can make allowances on a case-by-case basis. That approach produces better results for everyone involved.

Of course, those shelters run by executives who pay themselves and their family members seven figures a year aren’t doing any of this. They’re sticking with the traditional model of providing the least possible service. They then extract the maximum possible profit from the poor people their tax-exempt institution preys upon.

But it’s good that there are at least some good options opposing this mindset. Hopefully, seeing how homeless shelters could run will open more eyes to the exploitation baked into how most homeless shelters have been running up until this point – the way most homeless shelters are STILL running.

And once you see that, you can’t help but get angry and make some noise, right? 

Kayla Robbins

Kayla Robbins


Kayla Robbins is a freelance writer who works with big-hearted brands and businesses. When she's not working, she enjoys knitting socks, rolling d20s, and binging episodes of The Great British Bake Off.

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