What Is It Like to Stay in a Homeless Shelter?

homeless shelter

An inside look at what it’s really like to spend the night in a shelter

Have you ever wondered what it was like to stay in a homeless shelter?

Maybe you even considered visiting one to find out for yourself, but didn’t because you didn’t know where to go. Or, maybe you didn’t want to take a bed from someone who really needed it, or had some other hesitation.

It’s a common question. So, I asked a few people with the inside scoop and put their answers together for the curious.

A Tale of Two Shelters

Homeless shelters are a bit like marriages.

If you think I’ve lost my mind, just hear me out for a second.

Choosing the right spouse can enrich your life in many ways. They can teach you new things about yourself, and put your life on an upward trajectory you could never have dreamed of before meeting them.

But choosing the wrong spouse can result in pain, misery, and in drastic cases can even ruin your life.

So it is with homeless shelters.

Only with them, you usually don’t have nearly as much choice.

My point is the quality of homeless shelters varies from region to region and from shelter to shelter. Some are run by great people who know what they’re doing. Others are run by well-meaning folks who don’t have a clue, and still others by people who are downright malicious.

Some are great while others are horrible, and sometimes you can’t know which one is which until it’s too late. All I can do is share the personal experiences of those who have been there.

Firsthand Homeless Shelter Experiences

While writing this article, several homeless and formerly homeless people connected with me to share a bit about their experiences. These are their stories.

Mark’s Experience

Invisible People’s own Mark Horvath was, of course, the first to offer me his insight. He said he had many stories, but his first shelter experience stood out. Here’s what he had to say:

“The first shelter I was in farmed us out as slave labor during the day. If we complained, they kicked you out. The shelter was eventually shut down by the FBI.

Most shelters are horrible places. There are some that are good.”

Wendi’s Experience

This is what Wendi from Houston, TX had to say about her shelter experience:

“The largest homeless shelter in Houston is the Salvation Army, or “Sally House” as it is commonly called. It has been shut down three times in the last two years due to bedbug infestation, abruptly forcing folks who were trying to get their lives together to abandon most of their belongings and head back to the streets. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Staying at Sally House means having a 5pm curfew, and being awakened at 4:30am to be ready for 5am church, in order to get a breakfast of cold cereal and sent on your way for the day. These hours are totally unrealistic for getting a job in the real world; thus the system forces you to stay in these conditions.

On top of all of this, you aren’t allowed to have any of your belongings. They are placed in a closet for ‘safekeeping,’ which is usually anything but safe. But more on that later. Instead of your sleeping bag or bedroll, you are given a thin hospital quality blanket, no pillow – and either a cot (if you are lucky) or a thin foam mat on the floor (like a yoga mat). This is where you will sleep, 6 inches from a stranger, after attending the 6pm church service in order to get a sack lunch for dinner.

Showers and laundry are allowed once per week.

Rarely does a ‘client’ get assigned shower and laundry on the same day, so both pretty much defeat the purpose. You either have to bathe and put dirty clothes back on, or do laundry and put your clean outfit on a dirty body. You can be kicked out if you are caught taking a sponge bath or rinsing out your undergarments in the restroom sink.

Please don’t think I am just picking on Sally House. These are the rules at every shelter in Houston. Times may vary a bit, but the main points are the same. Star of Hope is commonly referred to as Star of Dope because most of their staff is ‘former’ addicts who are not only still using but actively dealing. Restoration Hope Ministries forces its clients to panhandle all day and then confiscates the money. The list goes on and on. This is why many of us choose not to go to shelters.

When personal property is put in a closet, unless you are the first one there in the morning you risk things being stolen (if the staff hasn’t done so already). When the stranger bunked next to you (and the staff) are high as a kite on every substance known to man, you risk being assaulted, raped, or killed. Sleep doesn’t come easy when you have to live with these facts.

I sleep better on a sidewalk with my homeless ‘family’ around me than I ever could in a shelter.”

Brad’s Experience

Saw a rescue mission staff member wake up an old homeless man by putting his shoe on his face and saying, “Time to get your lazy ass up bitch.”

When the homeless man reacted upset, he got a “write up” for “disrespecting” staff.

Kendra’s Experience

Shelters are really difficult to get into here. Maybe everywhere but I avoid them like the plague at this point. The one time we stayed in a shelter for three days, we were treated terribly. Just too many people, not enough resources. My cell was stolen the second night (while I was sleeping btw). I wouldn’t ever even try to go again.

Derrick’s Experience

Derrick shared his worst shelter experience with me, saying:

“I first checked-in at (EOCP) East Oakland Community Project through Alameda County Social Services on April 12th 2013. I was newly Homeless. Once assigned my bed, I moved in with 11 other men in the dorm. Most in my dorm were seniors like myself, but two younger men soon joined.

My worst experience was shortly before moving out to my new housing, a 26-year-old resident “overdosed” inside of the dorm room. Needle was still stuck in his arm when found in the morning. Drugs and alcohol are forbidden, but are always plentiful in the dorm rooms.

Lots of rules and regulations that few follow. Lots of theft of belongings are normal inside this shelter. Even with video everywhere, people still get away with other people’s belongings. I knew of a newbie young couple that was separated, and the wife set her wedding ring down before showering. When she turned around they were GONE! EOCP staff did little to find the crook. By the time staff replayed the video, rings were already sold on the street. Couple was angry and upset that this staff was so uncooperative.

My personal experience has left me to avoid homeless shelters. Lots of pressure to accept sub-standard housing, get rid of your pets, etc.

I would NEVER consider any City County Shelters.”

Kip’s Experience

Kip wrote me to share a bit about his homeless shelter experience as well. He’s writing a book on his experiences in the Utah homeless community. This is an excerpt from a chapter where he recounts the story of a very sick man coming into the shelter where he was staying:

“He had on a long winter coat and carried a small bag and a yellow towel. This particular day he looked as though he were near death, no question about it. His gate was pained and slow, and he was filthier than when I had seen him previously, clothes soiled, weeds and dirt in his long greasy hair. I watched him shuffle slowly to an open spot on the floor by the laundry room door where he carefully lowered himself to the ground. His whole body shuddered and shook with one violent fit of coughing and retching after another. After a few minutes, he raised himself up onto his hands and looked right at me, unnervingly. His eyes seemed to be pleading. ‘I’m gonna be sick,’ he said finally.

There was a staff member passing by and so I called out to stop him, pointing out the man and telling the staff member that he may need help.

The staff member stopped and looked back at the man, but before he could even say anything the man on the floor insisted loudly that he was fine and that he didn’t want a ‘medical,’ at which point the staff member just looked at me and shrugged, ‘Well, he says that he doesn’t, nothing that I can do about it.’ He then turned and walked away…

‘Just mind your own fucking business.’

The man hissed, as he lay back down, resting his head on his dirty yellow towel. He launched into another brutal coughing attack, retching violently at the end.

As I watched him, he continued to have coughing spasm after coughing spasm, retching at the end of each of these, guarding his mouth with his hand. Eventually, I saw his hand as he pulled it away from his mouth. It was red with blood, but he just wiped it off on his clothing. He tried repeatedly to quiet himself, but he was shaking beneath his coat, quivering.

I was already alarmed, but what happened next was terrifying, as the towel on the floor started turning red, blood spreading rapidly through the towel and changing the color from dirty yellow to crimson. He then appeared to go into a seizure, violently shaking and moving outward toward me until he faced the door to the small laundry room. He went into another coughing spasm, spraying the door frame with blood. This happened two or three times and then he briefly faced me again, his eyes now wide with terror, blood pouring from his mouth and nose, pooling on the floor. His every cough sprayed more red coating onto the door frame and the floor inside the laundry room.”

Shelters Aren’t a Universal Solution

Knowing a bit more about what it’s actually like to stay in a homeless shelter, you may be starting to understand why not all homeless people choose to stay in them. Some would rather sleep in their cars or on the streets because of past experiences or fear of future experiences. And some won’t be accepted by shelters at all.

A lot of these have come up in the personal experiences above. But just to lay it all out in one place, some of the most common reasons people avoid shelters include:

  • Not being allowed to bring their pets in
  • Fear of possessions being stolen
  • Safety concerns
  • Being separated from other family members
  • Lack of privacy in communal sleeping rooms
  • Scheduling conflicts with strict shelter in/out times
  • Not wanting to hear religious messages

But They’re Not All Bad

Invisible People just did a video tour recently of San Francisco’s Navigation Center for Homeless People, which is a major step up from a traditional homeless shelter.

There, guests can access the facility 24/7. They can store their belongings safely, pets are welcome, and couples won’t need to be separated. They also provide a sense of community through ample public space, planned activities, personalized support, and access to services. Hearing a religious message isn’t a prerequisite for receiving any type of service at the navigation center. There is a separate area for women who prefer to only be around women also.

Guests typically stay at the navigation center for 30 to 90 days, with the primary goal being to find that person a permanent home before that time is up.

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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