First, many homeless people do seek shelter. There are more people living in city shelters than there have ever been; over 60,000 on an average night and over 100,000 over the course of the year. And though there are still thousands of homeless men and women living on the streets and sleeping on the subways, it is fewer than in the past though still significant. Every year BRC assists thousands to leave the subways and streets for more appropriate living situation. And every year thousands more become homeless.
As much as we succeed, there are many who decline our help, at least initially. Their reasons are several. Independence. Fear of the unknown. Concern for safety. Lack of confidence. Pride. These are not exhaustive, but they are representative of what many feel, who say "no" to shelter.
Living unsheltered isn't easy, but you're autonomous.
Shelters have structure and rules: curfews, schedules, no outside food, no alcohol, limited smoking breaks, and limits on visitors. This has a practical benefit; sensible from the perspective of maintaining health and safety. But it limits the freedom that comes naturally with living unsheltered, or in your own home. Living in a shelter also means living among people you don't know, may not trust, or even fear. Further, most of our clients have lived in shelters before, and often in other institutional settings as well (such as foster care, hospitals, residential treatment, jail and prison, halfway and three-quarter houses, etc.); their lack of success from these past experiences only reinforces their doubts that anyone wants to or can help them.
And those seeking shelter have no choice as to which shelter they go. Homeless people are assigned to a shelter after applying at a central intake center. There are good shelters and bad; shelters with access to multiple services, and others that offer less (see: "Are all shelters the same?"). Or perhaps people have ties to a neighborhood -- family, friends, a job, school or house of worship.
Finally, seeking shelter means both acknowledging you need help, and then believing enough in yourself and the shelter system that you will get the help you need and that it will change your life for the better.
That's a lot to embrace for someone who, for many years, perhaps their whole adult life, has survived on their own, still has pride, but perhaps not self-confidence in their own potential, and fears the unknown more than the known.
So it's understandable that someone concludes they will do better on their own than if they seek help at a shelter.
This is the challenge we face when we meet an unsheltered homeless person, and why we invest so much in our outreach efforts. BRC has well over one hundred staff working around the clock and across our city, motivating these men and women to seek and accept the help they need, and successfully help over 2,000 people a year take the first step and come in doors, to shelters and many other options we have to offer.
Statistics cited are from October of 2016.