As COTS’ CEO, each month I take a moment to consider what I want our community to know about our organization and our progress in serving Sonoma County’s homeless. I look forward to sharing these thoughts with you in this Virtual Cup of Coffee – my monthly communique about the business and mission moments of COTS (Committee On The Shelterless). In this issue, I focused entirely on why people prefer to live outside instead of getting a bed in a shelter. I hope you enjoy it, and I look forward to your feedback.

Please stay safe,

A Bed versus a Tent?

As the weather turns cold and rainy, and we hear about sweeps of homeless encampments, a frequent question we get is, “why don’t people come into a shelter instead of sleeping on the streets?”  The answers are many and complicated.

    • Fear and paranoia – Many suffer from mental health disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD, depression, or anxiety. One consequence is paranoia and fear of large groups, as in a shelter setting with 100 other people. That can set off major panic attacks and fear.
    • A fear of the unknown in a shelter – We are creatures of habit. Living on the streets is a known risk – you have some level of control of your day and become “comfortable in uncomfortable situations.” The streets become home and you adapt to the cold or the heat. Conversely, in a shelter, you don’t know what to expect and that fear of the unknown and not having control may be worse than being on the streets.
    • Another failed system or institution – Some homeless grew up in “the system” – foster care, residential treatment, jail or prisons, half-way houses. Problems they had with the system can be reinforced and triggering once in another institution (shelter), especially with the rules and structure that come with keeping a shelter safe and orderly. Likely, no one cared for or wanted them while in “the system,” therefore they feel that no one will care for them or want them while in a shelter.
    • History of abuse and violence – Many homeless women are victims of physical abuse or sexual violence. It’s little surprise that women do not feel comfortable in a co-ed shelter with male staff.
    • Drugs and alcohol – Sadly, drugs and alcohol are prevalent in shelters no matter how much you guard against it. For those wanting to get clean, life in a shelter can be tempting. I’ve seen people come back from treatment looking and feeling great. Days or weeks later in a shelter environment, they are back on drugs or alcohol.
    • Not leaving their pets – Dogs provide protection, especially for single women on the streets. Most shelters do not accept pets. Dogs are their best friend, their family, their protector, and so many will sleep outside instead of giving up their pets.
    • Crowded conditions – Typical shelters can have 50, 100, or more beds in one large room. With so many people, there are fears of violence and for their own safety, the spread of disease especially during cold and flu season, certainly the lack of privacy, theft of personal items, and again the prevalence of drugs. All of this leads many to prefer the safety of the streets, even if its cold, wet, or hot.
    • Feeling closed in – War veterans have commented that the war experiences made them feel unsafe when closed in, so they prefer to live outside.
    • So many other reasons – Some have insomnia and don’t like curfew or may want to read late into the night; some don’t want to separate from their husband or wife, as can happen in a shelter where men sleep in separate areas from women; some don’t want to be limited by the “two bags rule” that shelters impose simply because shelters don’t have space to store all of a person’s personal items; some just don’t want to abide by all of the rules of a shelter; and some just prefer the dignity of a tent and being outside with friends than in a warehouse setting with beds, rules, and strangers. They simply want control of their lives and to make their own choices. They prefer to make their own shelter and be autonomous.

Living outside causes significant harm to the environment and is a public health crisis due to the large amounts of trash generated, polluted streams and waterways, fires causes by trying to stay warm or cook meals, unhealthy living, and untreated diseases and illnesses. The 2019 Point in Time Count showed that of the 2,951 total homeless in Sonoma County, 1,957 or 66% of the total counted were unsheltered and living in vehicles, on the street, in tents, or abandoned buildings.

So what can we do to solve this? For starters, we can consider three possible solutions:

    1. Redesign shelters or shelter campuses to have separate living areas (rooms or buildings) for couples, people with animals, those trying to stay clean and sober, women, those that need specialty mental health services, and even an open-style shelter area for Vets. This scattered site approach could each accommodate up to 25 people or fewer so that people feel safe, dignified, can create a new family or friends, and feel like they have some control over their lives. Each area can offer specialized case management, counseling, and services that respect some of their challenges of trauma and adversity in their lives. One sized shelter for all no longer works, and we have to be respectful of each person’s needs and challenges.
    2. More comprehensive street outreach services – If 66% of the total homeless count are people living outside, then our funding for Street Outreach services must reflect this. This includes funding for law enforcement working together with homeless and other service providers. Part of the Street Outreach Team must include mental health providers and medical providers such as nurses and doctors. Creating relationships and building trust and credibility is one sure way to help those on the streets move into shelter and eventually housing.
    3. Create an Interagency Street Outreach Network that meets and communicates with each other to coordinate the outreach and care for those on the streets. Some may not want to go into a specific shelter but may agree on another shelter if it can be coordinated. This would be part of a public health approach for the unsheltered.

More homelessness is one consequence of COVID. Doing something different makes urgent sense. It is also good public health.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez