Where Do Homeless People Sleep?

One of the most frequent questions I get when I speak at schools is, "Where do homeless people sleep?" Another frequent question from both children and adults is, "Why aren't abandoned buildings used for homeless shelters?" And many people get confused by terms that those of us working with homelessness every day are used to: emergency shelter, transitional shelter, permanent housing, affordable housing, low-income housing, public housing, substandard housing, subsidized, SRO ...

This article is intended to clarify some of the terminology and the basic outlines of homelessness and housing.

What is a home?

It is easier to understand "homelessness" by taking a minute to define "home."

Most of us associate "home" with these essential things:

What is homelessness?

Someone is "homeless" when they do not have a place to live that is like what we just described as "home."

The obvious "homeless people" are those who are sleeping on the street, in doorways and alleys, on park benches or behind bushes.

Camping out by choice is not "homelessness" because you have a place to live, you just choose not to use it -- temporarily or long term.

Someone staying in a homeless shelter, a tent, an abandoned building, or a friend's unfinished basement is still homeless. This is called "substandard housing."

Even "couch surfing," or staying with a series of friends or family, may qualify as homelessness if you have no choice, no privacy, no place that is "yours", or you're uncertain how long each couch is available.

Types of Shelter

Temporary shelter
A term often used to describe tents, cardboard shacks, and other jury-rigged shelters.
Emergency shelter, sometimes called overflow shelters
Bare-bones indoors shelter. Required: warm, clean, dry, with toilet facilities.
This may be of many types:
  • A clean, warm place to get out of the rain. There are no mats and sometimes no blankets. Toilets provided, but no food. No storage facilities.
  • A mat on the floor with two blankets. Warm, clean, dry, with toilet facilities. Snacks may be provided. Meals and/or storage facilities are seldom provided.
  • Beds, storage and meals.
  • Emergency shelters may be staffed, volunteer-run, self-managed, or mixed-model. Different types of shelter are appropriate for different people.
  • Staffed shelters are usually run by service agencies.
  • Volunteer-run shelters are often provided by churches.
  • In a self-managed shelter, a church, school or other agency provides space that is not being used at night that is warm, clean, dry and secure, with toilet facilities. The people using the shelter let themselves in and out, clean up after themselves, and govern themselves. Self-managed shelters have very strict criteria, including sobriety, cleanliness, the ability to get along with others, and participation in governance and chores.
  • A mixed-model shelter is ... a mixed model. It may be staffed by paid professionals assisted by volunteers, or residents of the shelter may take a large amount of responsibility while staff or volunteers or both are still in charge.
  • Most emergency shelters are open during the night only. The doors open anywhere from 5:30 PM to 10 PM. Everyone must leave in the morning, usually somewhere between 6 AM to 8 AM. Shelters vary in whether or not they require everyone to come and go at the same time, whether they allow in-an-out privileges, whether they allow late arrivals in certain cases such as work or classes. Most shelters accept referrals only, not people who come and knock at the door. There are more shelters for single adults, then for youth, fewer for families (including single mothers with children), and almost none for single fathers with children or for couples without children. Couples often stay in co-ed shelters where they sleep separately.
    Winter response shelter
    A shelter that is open during the winter months, and accepts anyone -- drunk or sober, referred or knocking at the door.
    Severe weather shelter
    A shelter open only on nights when the weather is dangerous to the survival of people sleeping outdoors. Also accepts anyone.
    Beds for people who need bed rest but are not sick or injured enough to be in the hospital. Some are only day respite shelters; at night, the individual goes back to a regular night-time shelter. Some are 24-hour shelters. Most have a time limit, because there is more need than there is shelter. While perhaps a third of the people in Seattle's 2400+ shelters may be ill, for instance (700 people) there are about 70 respite beds.
    Referral center
    A central location that keeps track of available shelter beds, where people in need can go for a referral rather than canvassing the city. Some referral centers offer food and showers while waiting.
    Hygiene center
    A service center providing free toilets, showers, and laundry facilities.
    Day shelter, or day center
    A warm, clean, dry place with toilet facilities, that is open during the day when night shelters are closed. There are usually limited sleeping or respite facilities. Phones, food, showers and laundry are often provided. (Coffee and bagels are almost always provided.) At some centers, nurses or other services are available, and there are optional activities like games or study groups, AA meetings and other support groups. Some centers have temporary storage.
    Transitional shelter
    Shelter with more amenities, designed as a "transition" between emergency shelter and housing. Amenities usually include a room of your own, a common kitchen and laundry facilities. Transitional shelters usually have a set time limit for residency and program steps that must be completed, intended to prepare a resident for housing and self-sufficiency.
    Permanent housing
    This does not mean that you have been given a house for life. It just means normal housing: a home of your own. It is usually a rented apartment.
    Low-income housing
    "Low-income housing" is housing that anyone who has 20% or less of the median income can pay for at no more than 30% of their monthly salary. It is the type of "permanent housing" that most people move into out of homelessness.
    "Single Resident Occupancy" -- a one-room apartment (bathroom separate), usually small. This is the usual low-income housing.
    Affordable housing
    "Affordable housing" is housing that costs no more than 30% of an individual's income. It is usually used to refer to housing affordable to anyone at 150% to 50% of the median income. In Seattle, the median income is $65,000 a year.
    Median income
    The income level which half the people are above, and half below.
    Public or subsidized housing
    Housing where a government or private agency pays a portion of the rent to bring the monthly cost to a level within the income of those intended to occupy the housing.
    Full price, unsubsidized housing.
    Mixed-income housing
    An apartment building or housing development that has some units affordable to each income level.

    Isn't there really enough housing for everyone?

    There is no place in the United States where anyone earning minimum wage can afford a market-rate apartment. Low-income housing is defined as housing that is affordable by people earning 20% or less of the median income: in other words, 20% of the population. The number of low-income housing units in existence is far below the number of people who need them. The number of low-income and affordable housing units has actually been dropping ever since 1979.

    In a booming economy, housing becomes more expensive for everyone, but income doesn't increase for 60% of the people. Many working people and professionals, people who considered themselves secure and even middle-class a few years ago, are feeling squeezed.

    Why don't we use all those abandoned buildings for homeless shelter?

    Sometimes this is possible, and it is done. The SHARE Bunkhouse was originally a refurbished abandoned building. But it isn't always possible.

    Using an abandoned building isn't free. The process is as long and complex as opening any other kind of indoors shelter. Obtaining clear legal use of the building usually means paying somebody something, if only paying back taxes. To be a legal shelter, the building would have to be made structurally sound, cleaned, provided with heat and running water and enough toilets for the number of people staying there. It also has to be insured.

    Buildings apparently empty and unused aren't always abandoned. They usually have an owner who intends eventual development or sale, and is not always willing to let homeless people use the property in the meantime.

    Neighbors are the major factor in whether or not a building can be used. An abandoned building in Pioneer Square was used for awhile by a group operating self-managed emergency shelter (SHARE). When SHARE attempted to move back to the space a couple of years later, they were blocked by the Pioneer Square Council. On the other hand, the neighbors were supportive when the no-longer-operating Aloha Inn was purchased and made over into a transitional shelter.

    How Do Churches Host Homeless Shelters?

    If you know any organization with room to host a homeless shelter, please find out more about the process here.


    Homeless Page


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    Last updated November 30, 2002