What to do when shelters are full

It is very unfortunate, but the fact is that there are an estimated 500,000 people homeless each and every night in America. The shelter system, while it is comprehensive, can’t house them all. There is an even greater demand placed on the local shelters during hot summer months or cold winter nights, and they just can’t keep up. Below are some suggestions on what to do.

First of all, we are assuming that you have already contacted friends, family, long lost relatives, co-workers and anyone else you know. If you have not done this, then do it right away. Maybe someone you know will allow you to stay with them for a night or two…at least to get out of a cold winter storm. Maybe sleep on a couch or somewhere in their home. These are obviously better alternatives for short term housing than moving to a shelter.

Once that has been done, try a church in your town. There are some churches that accommodate the homeless. These services, including a shelter, may not be as well known, but if you live near a certain parish, or there is one in your neighborhood try them for support.

Churches also try to house more people on cold nights, or when a summer heat wave comes in. Even if they do not run a formal shelter program, they want to get people out of risk of freezing or a heat stroke. So they try to accommodate all that need it.

If the shelter is full, be sure to ask to be put on their waiting list. Many transitional housing type units or shelters do use them. While this may not help you for that particular night, maybe there will be a bed that becomes available the following night. Or maybe something will free up days (or even weeks) down the road. Hopefully your housing issue would be resolved in weeks, but if not then you want to be sure you are on the waiting list at the shelter.

Many overnight shelters will tend to provide basic supplies as well. Some may do this even if they are filled to capacity. So if you stop by a shelter, and maybe they do not have a bed open for you, they may still be able to provide other help. So be sure to ask! Examples may be as follows.

  • A free hot meal.
  • During summer months, maybe a bottle of water or two.
  • Clothing, blankets, and more may be given to homeless people that can’t stay in the shelter. These use local donors to do this.
  • Even a full shelter may allow a homeless person to wash up, such as use a shower, bathroom or laundry.

Staff offer outreach to the homeless. This can come in many forms. Shelters will pass out pamphlets on government benefits or meal programs. They will direct the homeless person to job programs or places to gain new skills. Shelters, whether they are full or not, will offer outreach to those in a crisis too due to exceptional circumstances.

Maybe you are a homeless veteran. Or a woman fleeing domestic violence. Or medically fragile. Shelters will always try to free up a bed or two for these vulnerable people, but even then there may not be a center that is open. So the local shelter will try to provide information on programs for their needs. Whether it is legal aid, transitional housing or help in applying for VA benefits for the homeless veteran, resources are available. Or to try this on your own, find a listing of transitional housing programs.

It is important to never give up. If one shelter turns you away, try another. Go to a local charity or church and ask if they suggestions. Eventually you will find a solution.

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