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What would cause a person to leave a New York City shelter and try to find a place to sleep on the streets? It seems fear is the most common reason. 

New York’s homeless population are choosing the streets ahead of shelters. Photo: Richard Moore.

In a report from the Coalition for the Homeless, the organization states that of the 200 “unsheltered” people interviewed — three-quarters of whom had used municipal shelters — no fewer than 38 percent cited their own safety as being the main reason they did not want to return to the facilities. The next highest decisive factor, according to 25 percent of respondents, was difficulty in dealing with rules and procedures.

Three people were quoted in the report on the issue of safety.

L.G. said: “I stayed eight months. Too much violence, restriction, bad food, curfews, stealing – too controlling.

B.K. added: “A lot of trouble in shelter, [it’s] safer on the street.” 

Another said: “I was attacked . . . never going back.” 

Instead they headed back on to the streets to sleep rough and face all the inherent risks that means.

The report said the homeless “are vulnerable to harassment, robbery, freezing to death, being set on fire, or even being killed”. 

According to the Coalition for the Homeless people on the streets seemed well aware of the everyday fight to stay alive and “would sometimes reflect on their mortality and their fear of dying on the streets from exposure, violence, declining health, the impossibility of undisturbed rest, or a combination of these factors”. 

“Their responses suggest that they see the sacrifice of their safety, dignity, and agency as the unacceptable cost of entering the shelter system and so they are left with no choice but to bed down in public spaces.”

Hell’s Kitchen resident Sal Salomon has made his way out of the city’s homeless system. But, he told W42ST last year: “Getting from there is like coming from the pits of hell.”

Sal was in six different shelters in less than a year and  – after finally learning how to “work” the system  –  was relieved when he got to his hotel. “I learned how to keep my mouth shut and not call out their abuses and be quiet.” 

Sal said he had runs-in with management that ended in transfers to “bad spaces.” 

One example that Sal gave: “I approached the program director at one place. I told her, ‘Do you realize everybody here is on K2 or heroin, everyone’s selling drugs and taking drugs here?’ You know what she did? She had police officers surround me and take control of me. And then she had me transferred out to a worse place.”

The research for the Coalition for the Homeless included 200 short-form surveys (2018), nine long-form studies (2018) and 11 supplemental questionnaires in 2021.

New York’s homeless population are turning down offers of city shelters. Photo: Richard Moore.

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