How Living In An Emergency Shelter Changed My View Of Homeless People

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homeless man

When you hear the word “homeless person,” an image probably comes to mind that doesn’t look much like the people you want to be around.

A dirty person; an ugly person; a lewd person; an erratic, unstable person.

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One little word — homeless — can hold so much significance.

As someone who was once a homeless person myself, this word has taken on a different meaning for me.

When I was in my early twenties, I found myself in between leases. It’s not an uncommon place to be.

Usually, someone in this position would book an Airbnb or crash with a friend until their next lease starts.

Unfortunately for me, I ended one lease without a second lease lined up. I thought that regaining my footing would be easy.

After all, getting an apartment had never been a challenge for me. At the time, my employer had just shut down my location.

It was a perfect storm: no job, no apartment, nowhere tying me down. I was, in a word, untethered. This didn’t feel nearly as liberating or adventurous as one might think.

At this point, I didn’t see myself as homeless. After all, friends let me crash on their couches at night. If only I knew that this temporary fix — "couch surfing” — frequently delays the inevitable.

Out of blind optimism, I caught a bus to the nearest city after weeks of fruitless job searching and apartment hunting. Being young and naive, I figured that the closest urban center offered better opportunities.

On my first day in the city, I linked up with a case manager. With my assumption that social workers wave a magic wand to remedy problems, I had high expectations.

After a few unproductive phone calls to local programs and shelters, my hopes waivered. Because of a partnership, they narrowly secured me a mat in a women’s shelter.

At the time, I identified as cis-female so it comforted me to be surrounded by those I counted as peers.

I took two buses to get to the shelter. Admittedly, I did not know the city very well. I was fresh out of cow country.

When I saw the stadiums and the fancy skyscrapers downtown, I believed this shelter must be in a safe place. Once I made my way to the shelter itself, well-maintained buildings turned into a dodgy alleyway with peeling structures.

If I was not a little ignorant and super desperate, I probably would have turned around before I made it to the door. However, I had nowhere else to go, so I stayed the course.

In the shelter, we had two makeshift beds: a cot or a mat on the floor. I opted for a cot, thinking it might be comfier.

It was like sleeping in a long canvas camping chair — not cozy.

I requested to sleep near the staff’s desk because I had PTSD and I felt safer that way. Looking back, I laugh bitterly inside at this request.

I truly thought I was a rarity in the shelter for having trauma. Everyone there had trauma–housing insecurity is a trauma in and of itself.

Often trauma leads us down a path that leads to housing insecurity.

My fellow residents were kind enough not to roll their eyes at my request right then and there. A more jaded group would have scoffed at me.

As a homeless person, my daily routine looked like heading to a coffee shop with my notebook, buying the cheapest menu item, and working on writing for a couple of hours among “normal” people before heading to a day center for homeless youth. 

Although it was not easy to reenter society, it could have been harder.

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In rebuilding my life, I had several key advantages.

Firstly, I had a friend who let me use their home address when applying for jobs. This was very important because a shelter address can raise red flags in the employment process and keep the unhoused from getting a job.

Secondly, I had a suitcase full of work-appropriate clothes and access to laundry facilities.

Thirdly, I was sober.

Many folks turn to substances when they have been homeless for a long time because these substances provide temporary relief from their unbearable situation.

They are not bad people or “worthless junkies” — they are humans who are surviving in the only way they know. Anyone could end up in their situation.

The fact that these homeless individuals with addiction started as doctors, lawyers, husbands, wives, and contributing society members shows that. 

It's worth noting that not all homeless people struggle with substance abuse; many homeless individuals who appear addicted may be starving or stressed out of their minds about their situation.

The stereotype of the homeless addict is another one that needs to end.

In this experience, I learned that the stigma against homeless people is real; it has real consequences.

Many of my fellow shelter residents struggled to get a job for various reasons, which prolonged their stint of homelessness.

The shelter only housed them for a month at a time. After that, they were out on the streets or forced to return to uninhabitable situations. 

When I hear people say that they would never “let themselves be homeless,” I bite my tongue.

I never thought I would “let” myself become homeless either. No one does. Then income decreases while expenses increase or a lease ends before another begins and we find ourselves where we never thought possible.

At least, not possible for us, as if we are different from the folks who line up at a shelter instead of walking through their house and singing “I’m home.” 

Being in a homeless shelter taught me that homeless people truly are people with feelings, wants, and needs.

Sadly, it took living in a shelter to realize that, but I’m glad that I know it now.

I hope that in reading this essay, other people will understand this truth without having to go through it themselves and treat the homeless people they encounter with respect.

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Maya Strong is a professional writer who has spent the last six years blogging about relationships, LGBTQIA+, mental health, lifestyle, and cultural commentary online.