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On the Streets: Why Homeless People Refuse Shelter

In his new book, sociologist Jason Wasserman uncovers shortcomings of social assistance programs.

Written by John Davis

The vast majority of the street homeless population  interviewed said they would not say they had a drug problem just to access the shelter.

Wasserman’s new book uncovers a nationwide problem with homeless shelters.

Four years ago, a Texas Tech sociologist took a different approach by studying homeless people who preferred living on the streets to shelters.

When he asked why many stayed away from shelters, what he found uncovered one of the biggest problems with how social assistance programs deal with the homeless across the country.

Jason Wasserman, an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, chronicled the four-year research project in a new book, “At Home on the Street: People, Poverty and a Hidden Culture of Homelessness.” The book was co-authored by Jeffrey Michael Clair, an associate professor of sociology in the Department of Sociology and Social Work at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Discovering the Truth

The main reason why many homeless people shied away from shelter services was because submitting to a drug-treatment program was a prerequisite for admission. The vast majority of the street homeless population interviewed by Wasserman and Clair said they didn’t have a drug problem and would not say they did just to access the shelter.

The other reason many refused shelter assistance is because they felt like shelter workers treated them more like children than adults, he said.

Wasserman’s work spurred a documentary film. Take a sneak peek here.

“The book essentially covers questions including who are the homeless, how do they build their communities, what is their life like on a day-to-day basis, and why do they resist services available to them,” he said. “One of our key questions was why would someone choose to stay on the streets rather than a shelter. And we found some very lucid reasons as to why they stayed away.”

Wasserman and Clair accessed the homeless population living on the streets, rail yards and urban camps of Birmingham, Ala., Rather than the standard clipboard-and-questionnaire approach used in many homeless studies, the two stayed overnight with some groups and infiltrated the complex rules and regulations of the city’s homeless communities.

The researchers stayed overnight with some groups and infiltrated the complex rules and  regulations of the city’s homeless communities.

The researchers stayed overnight with some groups and infiltrated the complex rules and regulations of the city’s homeless communities.

Learning Through Experience

“Originally, we thought that the problem with homeless services was that they were not funded enough,” he said. “We became more critical of the services once we started looking into them. It seemed the shelters dealt with addiction and mental illness almost exclusively. That’s great if that’s your problem, but alienating if it’s not. One thing nearly all homeless people do want is jobs. They don’t want treatment or even meals. But they will work, and they will push and shove to get a job.

“Overall, we found the shelters followed a medical model of homelessness, where treatment is required to access services. This puts a band-aid on just a few of the individual symptoms associated with homelessness rather than being attentive to the way society contributes to the problem. In that way, social programs sometimes can make the problem worse.”

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7 Responses to “On the Streets: Why Homeless People Refuse Shelter”

  1. MPA Grad Student Says:

    In reference to this excerpt, ““Overall, we found the shelters followed a medical model of homelessness, where treatment is required to access services. This puts a band-aid on just a few of the individual symptoms associated with homelessness rather than being attentive to the way society contributes to the problems….”” I believe its an unfortunate thing, that by putting a band-aid on a few, implies that the city is unable to fully support any program that would accommodate the needs of the homeless in general, therefore, in order to curtail (treatments to access services) the actual need but be seen as helping some is better rather than all. Public Works departments that utilize city workers for general labor should consider offering employment to the homeless, however, its just an idea.

  2. DDP Says:

    MPA Grad student, just because someone is homeless doesn’t mean they are jobless. I have been there. Employed full time, but still homeless because I’d made the oh so foolish decision to previously have stayed with a husband, who turned out to be an idiot and took all my money behind my back for drugs. When I found out, I left.

    Where do you go when you have no money saved up for all the deposits you now have, because someone lied and cheated you? No money for a deposit or rent. No food. It is NOT a simple problem with a simple solution.

    The REALITY is that the average age of the homeless population is 9 YRS OLD. That absolutely does include Lubbock county. Single parents with their children who get stuck. It isn’t a simple solution. There are always complex issues that are behind any social problem.

    Oh, and for the record? I DO have a degree. I DO have a job. I have had that job for more than two years, working for the state.

    And in case no one has noticed, the homeless population increased exponentially when McDougal bought all that property and displaced people from what were affordable homes. There are not sufficient programs to help each situation, and those situations vary.

    The author is absolutely correct. In many of the shelters, even in Lubbock, grown people are treated as if they have no common sense whatsoever. We are not children. Is it wrong to want to trust your spouse of many years? Everyone makes screws up. The ones who pay for that are not the adults who willingly hang on to what pride they have left, but the children who are left behind.

    Again, EVERYONE makes mistakes. More people than you know are just ONE PAYCHECK away from the same situation.

  3. The Voice of Reason Says:

    DDP your story is one of strength and determination.

    I applaud your efforts and your success!

    VOR

  4. DMC Says:

    DDP, for future reference, churches can deal with a situation like yours and do so very often.

  5. Jolene Carter Says:

    ”The main reason why many homeless people shied away from shelter services was because submitting to a drug-treatment program was a prerequisite for admission. The vast majority of the street homeless population interviewed by Wasserman and Clair said they didn’t have a drug problem and would not say they did just to access the shelter.”

    This is absolutely true. I was in this situation– either pretend to be insane or drug addicted, ie degrade yourself and lie, to get shelter, or nothing. The irony is that this situation encourages people to refuse self control, and not to stop doing drugs or drinking if they do, because they are on a fast track to services and on a higher tier according to social services people than those who simply don’t have money and got evicted due to lack of a job. I was not only not “Dual Diagnosis”, I was an honor student who got into Brown, Reed and the CA UC system due to my intelligence. However, when I was homeless, age 19, the best thing to be to get services was a drug addict. Since no one could pigeon hole me, I simply remained homeless for quite a long time until I encountered a group of anarchists who chose to be homeless in order to make a social statement. I did not particularly favor this group of people over drug addicts, but since the stigma of homelessness was nonexistent with these folks, I was able to develop the consciousness to work my way into low paying jobs (the only available to me were inhome care, since housekeeping, general labor, nannying, and etc, were generally not open to a young non-Latino girl) and society in general. The degradation of the situation was such that being a highly accomplished classical pianist and straight A student was not enough to get help with getting a simple labor or clerking job. It never occurred to me that I could teach (which I do now, and am an accepted musician in my city) because of the shame. I was invisible, which is a big deal for a young person making her way in society. Not only that, I occasionally pretended to be an alcoholic in order to go to AA and get free coffee, and the assumption 100% of the time was that I was not worth helping because if I didn’t admit I was a drug addict, then why was I homeless to start? I was clearly “in denial”.
    I have never met another middle class, high achieving kid such as myself who ended up homeless due to lack of family support (I was an orphan and my family has not spoken to me since they threw me out at age 16). I have often thought how I would have gotten along so much better during the Depression, when my situation was not that uncommon at all. People did not want to help because they “knew every homeless person is an irresponsible addict.” Many are. Many are not.

  6. Pamela Says:

    Churches tend not to be willing to help you unless you are already well-known to them as a regular parishoner. Churches slam doors in your face or give you outdated information or send you on wild goose-chases if you ask for help.

  7. Ankara Kiralik ARaba Says:

    The REALITY is that the average age of the homeless population is 9 YRS OLD. That absolutely does include Lubbock county. Single parents with their children who get stuck. It isn’t a simple solution. There are always complex issues that are behind any social problem. -

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Jason Wasserman

Jason Wasserman is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work in the the College of Arts & Sciences.

View him profile in our online Experts Guide.

Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work
Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work

The Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work is a multi-disciplinary unit for those interested in the human condition –at home and abroad, in the present and in the past, theoretically and practically speaking.

Degree options include:

Bachelor of Arts

  • Anthropology
  • Social Work
  • Sociology

Master of Arts

  • Anthropology
  • Sociology

The department participates in the Latin American and Iberian Studies program leading to the Bachelor of Arts degree. The department also participates in the women’s studies, urban studies, ethnic studies, environmental studies, family life studies, religion studies, Asian studies, and substance abuse studies minor programs.