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.

7 Common Misconceptions about the Homeless

Help the Homeless

When you spend any amount of time working or volunteering at the Rescue Mission, you start to see that some common myths about the homeless men, women, and children in our community are quickly debunked. I’d like to share these with you, and hopefully shed some light on 7 of these common misconceptions.

  1. “These people eat better than I do!

Your generosity allows the Mission to provide meals for homeless individuals. Our cooks may get a donation of 30 cans of green beans, spaghetti sauce, and some onions. You bet they’re up for the challenge of making a meal from what they have – just like you do at home when you want to use up what’s left from your last trip to the grocery store.

  1. They Are Unemployed

So many of the guests and programmers at our shelters are employed, and they are striving to save money in pursuit of their own apartment and other personal goals. Staying in a shelter allows them to sleep well and have a good meal in preparation for the next workday.

  1. They are Lazy

Laziness: the quality of being unwilling to work or use energy; idleness.

Homeless individuals are a lot of things, but lazy is not one of them. Whether they have fallen on hard times or choose to be homeless, they are on their feet all day, sleeping is nearly impossible due to weather, disturbances and the fear of having their belongings stolen at any moment, and nothing is ‘easy.’

  1. They are Uneducated

Once I walked into one of our Nampa shelters, and there was one homeless gentleman eating lunch. I began talking to one of the staff, and suddenly I heard someone playing jazz piano. After talking with him, I found that the gentleman, who was homeless, not only had a beautiful talent on the piano, but also had a Masters degree in Marketing.

  1. There Aren’t Homeless Children in America

It is heartbreaking to tell you, but this simply isn’t true. Mothers and fathers become homeless, and along with them, their children. These children are of all ages, and some parents make the decision to live on the streets or in areas like Tent City, rather than stay in a shelter and recover from homelessness.

  1. There is No Room for Them

I was talking to a friend yesterday, and she told me she always drives past places like Tent City and wonders, “is there really no room in shelters for those individuals?” “Surely there’s room somewhere in Boise!” There is room! Quite a bit, in fact. The disconnect is that some homeless individuals do choose to stay out in the weather, often due to a disliking of rules that accompany staying in a shelter.

  1. They are Not Valuable Members of Our Community

This is a tough one. If someone lives on the street and only has the ability to take, not give, how do they contribute to the community? They don’t. Not yet. But they have so much potential to do so. They might even have more potential than most. Should they overcome homelessness, maybe at the same time overcoming a life-controlling issue, they have experience and a testimony that can change lives.

Hopefully, you learned as much from reading this blog as I did from writing it, and I hope it has inspired a new way of thinking about the homeless individuals in our community.

Tent City – Is There no Room?

Tent City Boise ID
“This is third world right here, there’s no reason why an American child should have to live like this.”

Dozens of people driving to work, walking downtown, or riding a bike are passing Americana Boulevard, and in the same moment, passing Tent City. This makeshift city is comprised of tarps, lean-to shelters, tents, and trash mixed with an unpleasant smell created by a lack of bathrooms.

Who lives there? Anywhere from 50-110 men, woman and children. One gentleman, a resident, said, “This is third world right here, there’s no reason why an American child should have to live like this.”

This statement was made in September, and we’re now watching snow fall and make itself at home in the valley. With conditions worsening, do these individuals and families really have nowhere to go? Is there no room for homeless men, women and children in Boise?

We Always Have Room – and We Will Make Room

At the Rescue Mission, we don’t turn anyone away because of lack of room. We have warm safe beds, warm meals, and a community of individuals, both guests and staff, who encourage each other and build each other up.

Should tent city go away? That’s a question you can answer. But allow me to paint two pictures for you now. The first contains a crude tent struggling to stay upright, riddled with trash, covered in snow, and inside, an individual trying to stay warm. Maybe it’s a single person, maybe it’s a family with children.

Now let me paint the second picture. A warm welcome from a supportive family, a warm safe building, a warm hearty meal, and an opportunity to pursue freedom from homelessness. As President Bill Roscoe said “we have room to serve many more people….and not only will they find safe, clean shelter, clean clothes and three hot meals at the Mission, but also resources to help them recover from homelessness and help them attain their personal goals.”

We thank you so much for your support – it gives us the ability to offer help to those in need. As you come in contact with individuals sleeping on the street, kindly direct them to the Mission, and we’ll do all we can to help them.