Updated: Apr 7
When you're living in a homeless shelter, the last thing you probably want to think about is your personal security. But unfortunately, it's the first thing you need to address.
Having lived on the streets and staying in shelters, I’ve learned a thing or two about personal safety.
Homeless Shelters in America
Homeless shelters in America are used to house and provide living essentials, like food, hygiene, and personal security. However, because many of them are understaffed or lack funding to provide efficient support services, some quickly become troublesome.
Violence against women in homeless shelters is unfortunately a real problem. Additional resources and funding must be provided to make shelters safer for the individuals who seek refuge there.
Personal security is something you as an individual seeking shelter must consider. There are things you can do to ensure your safety in homeless shelters isn't compromised by the lack of resources at these facilities.
My Story: A Shelter for Women
I stayed in a shelter for a few days in 2002. It was a shelter for battered women in Denver, CO.
On the outside, the shelter was inviting. It looked like a large house. There were flowers out front, and the grass was well kept.
My first impression, this was a haven for women seeking refuge from abusive relationships. The intake process was simple, the staff was friendly, and there was food! Food—yes, not every shelter provides meals for its residents.
After being assigned to a bed, I was escorted to the room I’d be occupying.
Upon entering the dimly lit room, I noticed the crowd of beds.
There were bunk beds on every wall in the room, and the center of the room (well, the space that wasn’t filled by a bed or other clutter), was empty with little space to move. I sat down on my assigned bunk and just sighed.
The noise in the room was triggering, footlockers slammed, and I counted six other people in the small bedroom.
There was no privacy, not even in the restroom.
Anytime you went to do your business, you knew there was another person pressed against the door waiting for your exit. It was humiliating, to be honest.
When I first arrived, I’d leave my belongings on my assigned bunk every time I exited the bedroom. I quickly learned not everyone respected my things. I also learned that asking about the disappearance of your things could be perceived as blame, which warranted a fight.
After about three days of constant noise, missing belongings, and feelings of paranoia, I left.
I don’t think I slept the entire time I was there. That was my personal experience. Others may have had better or sometimes worse experiences than me.
I do know that I am not alone in feeling unsafe.
A Coalition for the Homeless Study found that personal security is a big reason that the unhoused often choose the streets over the shelters, even in severe weather.
Shelters are considered by many homeless individuals as providing an unacceptably low level of personal security. The incidence of theft, physical attack, or other types of violations in the shelters — whether experienced, witnessed, or simply rumored — clearly contributes to the perception of the shelter system as chaotic and unsafe.
Returning to homeless shelters as a volunteer years later allowed me to have a greater awareness of the goings-on within the shelter walls. I have been to some exceptional shelters, some with child care centers, barbershops, staffed with security, and full-service cafeterias. I’ve also visited some shelters operating with active code violations, no staff, and who did not provide any food to the residents.
Security and Personal Safety
Many people assume that just because an individual is homeless, they can sleep with one eye open.
On one hand, it’s true that many shelters are understaffed and may not have adequate lighting or cameras. However, even if your safety is at risk due to poor security at your local shelter, there are steps you can take to make sure your stay is as comfortable as possible.
Ask Your Shelter Director:
As soon as you arrive at a new shelter, ask how and when staff members check on residents overnight.
Some cities allow residents to use key fobs to signal if there’s an emergency—these key fobs act as a sort of panic button and alert staff immediately if an issue arises.
If you don’t see any visible security measures, look for surveillance cameras and make a note of their locations.
If You Feel Unsafe:
Tell someone at your shelter what has happened as soon as possible.
In addition to alerting others about unsafe conditions, talking about uncomfortable situations might help organizers develop solutions for making these spaces safer for all residents.
Asking others what makes them feel secure might also lead to safety recommendations from those who know first-hand what is needed in similar environments—that way everyone wins!
The Bautista Project Inc. Lives Transitional Housing Program
My experience of being homeless as a young woman has greatly shaped the personalized care we put into every unhoused individual we work with. I want my friends on the street to sleep safe at night. While we have plans for a safe and empowering transitional housing program the security and personal safety of those experiencing homelessness is always on my mind.
The Bautista Project Inc Lives Transitional Housing Program will provide people private housing (via individual rooms and tiny homes), permanent supportive housing, and emergency shelter. Our housing initiative allows homeless community members time to recover from trauma and restart their lives.
The idea behind transitional housing is that it provides previously unhoused people with resources that orient them away from homelessness. This includes training through the You Belong program, long-term case management, counseling, and guidance in obtaining affordable housing.
We are currently searching for the right location in Hillsborough County, FLA. If you would like more information on how to partner with us in this specific project email Marla@thebautistaprojectinc.org.
About the Author:
Marla Bautista's story is one of heartache, abuse, resilience, and empowerment. After losing both her parents before the age of 10, she was abused until adulthood.
By the age of 18, she was homeless with nothing and no one to turn to, from living in shelters to jail cells. She overcame homelessness and began to prosper. All while remembering those who are still suffering. She has used her experience to spread the message of love, hope, and perseverance to homeless communities everywhere.
As co-founders of the Bautista Project Inc, she and her partner formulated a strategy to end homelessness, one individual at a time.
A five-phase strategy that focuses on educating, empowering, and reintegrating homeless individuals into communities with sociability and long-term program support.