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Why would someone choose a tent over the shelter?

Homelessness Network's Raymond Landry says it can be everything from violence, to privacy

Why would a person experiencing homelessness choose to sleep in a tent, rather than a shelter? This is a common question sees in comment threads about the local homelessness issue. So, we decided to try to find an answer.

The Homelessness Network’s coordinator of housing services, Raymond Landry, told there are a multitude of reasons; everything from violence, to lack of storage, to the avoidance of congregate spaces, both for a fear of bed bugs or lice and of contracting COVID-19.

The largest of the six active encampments being monitored by the city is located at downtown’s Memorial Park, just down from the Off the Street Shelter at 200 Larch Street, which opened in September 2020 after extensive renovations and a temporary, pandemic-related relocation. Directly adjacent to the Sudbury Action Centre for Youth (SACY) daytime cooling/warming centre at 199 Larch Street, the shelter is conveniently located near all of the services and resources available to those experiencing homelessness, using drugs, or struggling to manage their mental health. 

But there are hurdles, and personal preferences, that can influence decision-making.  

Limited space and managing sign up

The shelter space is limited. Though Pamela Naus, coordinator of social services for the Off the Street Shelter, owned and operated by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CHMA), told the shelter staff have expanded the cots into other areas of the shelter, there are a limited number of spaces available; 33 cots, with two additional cots for isolation. 

Beyond that, Naus said the staff do whatever they can to support those who wish to use the shelter, but they are not able to do much beyond contacting other community partners to see if there are options available, but often find themselves offering warmer clothes and blankets to those they are unable to provide space for. Right now, there is no other men’s shelter in the city. 

“Lately we have hit capacity very quickly,” said Naus, something she says is hard on the staff. “We try to explore where they were the night before, we can look at exploring and maybe trying to divert to another location — whether it's detox, or the women's shelter or family or friends  — but it's very hard on everyone. You really feel like you're letting people down.”

At first, entry to the shelter was on a first come, first served basis, but that proved to be too difficult to manage and left many people angry at the process. Now, shelter-users are encouraged to sign up at the cooling/warming station between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. each day, and must report to the shelter by 10 p.m. for roll call and their COVID-19 screening. Each morning shelter-users are awoken at 6:45 a.m., and asked to be off the property by 8 a.m.

And though the sign-up system is facilitated by the SACY outreach workers at the warming centre, it is still something that can be difficult to navigate for some clients who have more complex needs. As noted in Iain De Jong’s Encampment Response guide, created for the City of Sudbury, he notes that many people he encountered in the various encampments of Sudbury are struggling with drug addictions, which impairs thinking, as well as compromised cognitive function: an inability to think, process or prioritize steps within a series of requirements, making it difficult or impossible for some people to manage tasks most people would consider fairly simple, like signing up during scheduled hours or arriving at a specific time. 

But even if there were more spaces available at the shelter, there are some who do not wish to stay in a shelter, preferring to sleep outside, regardless of the temperature.

It can be difficult for many to understand, but something that the Homelessness Network’s outreach workers discuss with their clients on an ongoing basis. Landry discussed the resistance to shelters with the team, colloquially known as ‘red coats’ for their identifying outwear, and spoke to on their behalf.

A problem with violence

Landry said that violence is a problem. Even those who are not experiencing trauma, mental illness or even lack of sleep can be difficult to live with, or respond negatively to those around them, or perceived slights. There can be issues that carry from the street into the shelter, but also, there can be those who do not feel they have the “kind of personality” to be in a shelter. Landry also notes that while the shelter is low-barrier, meaning that everyone is welcome at the shelter, including those who are actively using drugs or alcohol or are intoxicated, that doesn’t mean that it is low enough for some. 

That comes down to the fact that the shelter is designed for sleeping, not simply as a place to be warm. Those who cannot sleep, who wish to use drugs or smoke cigarettes during the night may not want to stay at a place designed to be quiet for those who do wish to rest. Naus said shelter-users are free to come and go as they please, but are strongly encouraged not to disturb the others.  

In addition to this, learned while on night outreach with a local outreach provider that the evening and overnight are often the most social times, the streets are cleared of most people and those who are living downtown feel free of judgement. 

It can also be an issue that pets are not allowed in the shelter, and some of the encampment residents have dogs. 

Lack of storage and privacy

Naus said that while they do their best to provide a place for clients using the shelter to store their belongings, including a locker area in the main entrance to the shelter, there is not enough space. It was also a focus of an informal survey done of those who use the shelter, Naus added. Many said they didn’t want to have to leave items outside and would avoid the shelter so they could protect what they owned and needed. Landry said the outreach teams hear this as well. 

“If someone's hauling quite a substantial amount of their belongings, to leave it outside, unattended, is a very risky proposition.” 

Shelter clients told Naus that they feel they have to sleep ‘with one eye open’ because they’re worried about theft even while in the shelter. Dividers are now in place at the shelter to separate the cots in the main room. Originally added for pandemic protocols, they offer an additional bonus of privacy and some sense of protection.

“People can safely put their things underneath their cot and not have to worry about somebody reaching over and helping themselves,” said Naus. “Everybody’s just trying to survive.” 

But the pandemic is also adding to shelter-users’ fears of being in an enclosed space with strangers. Not only are indoor spaces primed for the transmission of viruses, but many shelters and congregate living spaces have issues with bed bugs and lice — though the Off the Street shelter has no reported issues with pests, and their COVID-19 protocols are strict and encompassing.

Not only is the shelter strict and clean, it offers services to those who cross its threshold, connecting with service providers and getting their name added to the coordinated access list, otherwise known as the by-name list, a list in place in Sudbury that triages those without secure housing and assists them in getting supported housing. 

But that offer of services is one that some offer as their reason to avoid the shelter, said Landry. “The housing focus on longer-term users of shelter seems to bothersome,” he said, though it is unclear why that may be.

Landry also notes that there is often a simple reason people who are homeless choose an encampment, rather than a shelter: independence. “Some appreciate the freedom of just being where they are,” said Landry. “And when they're outdoors or in tents, they can always do what they want to do.”