The City of Tallahassee is opening up a temporary cold night shelter this week as temperatures drop below freezing. But even with the extra space, some people in need of stable housing won’t make it inside.
Marisa Milian left home around age 15. Four years later, she’s still trying to find a place to live. She’s stayed at Tallahassee’s Kearney Center, and at cold night shelters in the city. But they can be overcrowded and sometimes feel unsafe. Milian is transgender, and faces discrimination. So from time to time she sleeps outside, as recently as a couple weeks ago.
"It was very cold. I don’t even remember how cold it was. All I know was my hands were frozen, my toes were frozen. And I had like three sheets and one blanket, so I was extremely cold," she said.
She's not always prepared for the conditions, and has to borrow gear or stay at a friend's campsite.
“I don’t really have the stuff that I need to stay outside, but if it comes down to it and I don’t have anywhere else to go, then I would have to rely on sleeping outside in a tent or bumping up next to somebody because that’s the only option left,” Milian said.
Other young people resort to camping out too, even in the cold. Shelters geared towards kids have to report their stays to state agencies or law enforcement, which could send them back to the homes they ran away from.
Taylor Biro handles the Going Places street outreach program at Capital City Youth Services and helps run a drop-in day shelter for 11 - 21 year olds experiencing homelessness. She says reporting requirements keep some of the young people she works with out of shelters.
"What might discourage someone who's underage from staying there is the fact that their family or DCF or a foster site would have to be notified of them staying there. So until that's resolved I think people are more inclined to stay outside because they're afraid of being sent back to where they ran away from."
Age restrictions can keep kids out of adult-only shelters, leaving them with few options. Biro says many are faced with a slate of potentially dangerous decisions.
“You recognize that by putting them into a shelter it’s a possibility that they’ll be sent back home from the situation they ran away from. So just trying to give a youth all the options and let them know all the information and help guide them towards…the least harmful outcome,” Biro said.
For adults experiencing homelessness, Biro says there are a number of reasons why they would rather stay outside. Shelters can mean having large numbers of people with a range of personalities and needs in very close proximity. Mental health and substance abuse issues can complicate the cramped living conditions. Biro says others who have lived outside for years would simply rather be in their home, even if it's a tent.
"Some of these folks have lived in their camps for fifteen years and so to say, 'you need to leave to something completely different,' a lot of people would rather just stick it out and stay home," she said. "I think a lot of us would feel the same way about staying in our homes."