Braden Jenks: Calling the homeless ‘shelter-resistant’ blames the victims

We need to prioritize shelter for all until we have housing for all.

I walk the streets of Salt Lake City every day to engage with individuals who are experiencing homelessness. It can be tough to take in, even for those working in this field: shivering bodies, snow-dampened clothes, medical crises, hunger, cold desperation, in seemingly greater quantities than ever.

I’m finding people every morning who are cold and wet in 20-degree weather. This problem is exacerbated when they have cancer or other chronic health concerns and I, as one of the shelter experts on the streets, feel genuinely stuck on how to help them or what bed I can get them into, regardless of their condition or their desire to access shelter.

My colleagues and I recently spent weeks on 500 West and the surrounding streets near the Rio Grande area to aid unsheltered individuals before the camps got relocated by health department clean-ups. We offered food, water and other supplies while talking with them about shelter and related resources.

As it got colder, we were woefully undersupplied on cold-weather gear, shelter options were severely limited and barriers to accessing shelter were in abundance.

Female beds have been especially hard to come by. For couples, the Gail Miller Resource Center has been the only shelter they can access together, but the female beds do not become available often enough. This is disconcerting as the majority of individuals we talked with on 500 West were couples.

Recently, a temporary winter shelter option in Millcreek has opened and another in Salt Lake has included space for both individuals and couples. We heard more exciting news this week about plans for a potential shelter in Tooele. I’m excited to see the impact these extra beds are having and will have. All who are involved are working hard to create additional shelter options and to approach this complex issue with thoughtfulness and compassion. But we’re still falling short.

With a running tally of about 200-plus clients we were working with in the 500 West area, the new 180 overflow beds we have at present don’t even have the capacity to shelter everyone who was camped on that one street. And, those on that street made up just a small percentage of the city’s total unsheltered population.

The 60-person temporary winter shelter we hoped would be open before the 500 West cleanups was still not open by the time the camps got cleaned on a recent Wednesday. As those campers got told to leave, they were being told they should’ve chosen to go to this temporary shelter before the clean-up began. This was apparently a misunderstanding by some involved because it wasn’t planned to be open until the following night and because the process for getting into there doesn’t include an option for walk-ins. Even if it had been open to these camps, a street of 200 people can’t fit into a 60-bed overflow shelter.

Stating this seems painfully obvious, but there’s a narrative in need of change.

People who are sleeping outside are often called shelter-resistant, inferring it is their choice to sleep outside instead of making a “responsible choice” to go elsewhere. The logistics of this are much more nuanced. Unless there is a shelter bed available for every unsheltered individual on our streets, there should not be room (at least on a macro level) to call them shelter-resistant.

The term shelter-resistant absolves people, agencies, and systems of responsibility for those who continue to sleep in the cold. The term is a form of victim-blaming targeted at those who truly have extremely limited choices or options. If someone has legitimate concerns for not wanting to go into a specific shelter when shelter beds do exist for all, we need to roll with their resistance and find other acceptable shelter options.

For those remaining outside, we spend a lot of time and money and energy moving camps. Camps move from neighborhood to neighborhood in a cycle. Is there anyone in the community who isn’t fatigued from the constant shuffling and clean-ups of camps?

Camps do sometimes need to be cleaned. Trash, biowaste and more pose genuine safety concerns for our community. I stepped on a loose, syringe-less needle on 500 West in November in what I would call a rare, freak accident. Trust me, I understand as well as anyone the public health problems these camps can pose. We all want clean neighborhoods.

Giving people a safe and desirable place to go is the fastest way to bring cold people inside, reduce the number of camps on public and private property, and establish clean, revitalized neighborhoods. We need to prioritize shelter for all until we are ready for the realization of housing for all.

At the barest minimum, a code blue system needs to be put into place as soon as possible for emergency shelters to open when the temperature drops beneath a certain degree. People die in this cold and those who don’t die are often insanely miserable.

Shelter for all, not shelter for some, needs to be the only acceptable solution.

Braden Jenks

Braden Jenks works in homeless services in Salt Lake City and lives in Sandy. He is a graduate student studying human rights through the University of Arizona. He has a bachelor’s degree in addiction studies from Minot State University. He can be reached at braden.jenks@gmail.com.