Fear of the Unknown – Why Homeless People Avoid Shelters

Help the Homeless

So often, I am asked the question, “Why do homeless people stay on the streets instead of going to a shelter?” I thought I had a quick answer, “they don’t like the rules at shelters!” But I think there’s more to it than that.

What if they’re more afraid of shelters than the elements?

After all, you can know what to expect from the weather. It’s going to get hot, it’s going to rain, it will be windy, and it will get freezing. A statistic published by the National Coalition for the Homeless stated that “Each year, about 700 homeless people die from hypothermia,” and tons more are suffering from frostbite. If people on the streets are aware of this risk, why are they still sleeping in the cold?

Because they can live with the fear of not waking up, but can’t handle the fear of the unknown.

We’re all that way. We stay in jobs we don’t like, live in towns just because that’s where we live. Sometimes, like this example of staying in the freezing cold, we allow ourselves to stay in a dangerous situation because in some strange way, it’s more comfortable than the unknown. You know you have made decisions based on this paradigm.

When you add substance abuse, mental illness and the heavy emotional strife that comes with homelessness, the likelihood of making a comfortable decision instead of a good one shoots up. Previous experience can also inhibit good decisions. We all have fears built from past experiences. PTSD can cause a person to be easily overwhelmed, easily frightened and in this case, afraid of living in an enclosed place with people they don’t know. In an interview conducted by Boise State Public Radio, a gentleman shared his story of being homeless.

In his words, “All I can say is that my fear of the unknown, of what might be waiting for me at that shelter, was worse than my fear of the known risk, you know, of staying out on the street. That was where I was comfortable. And I think people, we’re creatures of habit. We get comfortable in the most uncomfortable positions, and that just becomes home.”

So many have heard horror stories about shelters being unsafe, bug infested and filled with drugs. If they can stay on the streets, at least they are in control, right?

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I would never have come here on my own, but it’s changed my life. I’m not afraid anymore.

I want to challenge you by first repeating myself.

700 homeless people died here in America, just from the cold weather. Imagine the lives claimed by heat and exposure, too! There is something you can do about it. Become truly educated on the shelters in your area. Visit City Light shelter for women and children, visit Lighthouse Men’s Shelter, and when you do invite someone in from the streets to go to a shelter, you can tell them with confidence that it’s a safe, welcoming place to stay. I recently visited City Light, and I can’t tell you how safe and welcome I felt. From the moment I walked in the door, there was peace, joy, and comfort, whether I was in the warm sitting area, or the sunny study room upstairs.

For some homeless individuals, they truly have chosen their lifestyle and don’t desire change. But for others, it is a matter of fear. Fear of the unknown, and that’s a fear we can all empathize with.

As you see homeless people on the street, avoid assuming they’re there because of laziness or because they simply won’t follow rules. Remember your compassion, and remember that everyone has a unique story.

This winter, this summer, any day of the year, please kindly invite homeless men, women, and children into the local shelters, and give them the encouragement they need to feel safe doing so. This isn’t an easy transition for anyone, so if you have the opportunity to build a friendship with a homeless person, go with them to the shelter, further alleviating the apprehension they hold. It is individuals like you who bring about individual change, and that person’s transformation could go on to change Boise for the better.