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‘You feel trapped’: One unhoused man shares why shelters don’t always feel safe for individuals struggling with homelessness

“I realized if I stayed in the shelter any longer, it was going to kill me.”

Tents line the sidewalk on Massachusetts Avenue in September. Craig Walker / The Boston Globe

Dani Beneker arrived in Boston in 2018.

He was searching for a new start on the East Coast, escaping a relationship in Arizona that had turned abusive. He chose the city because a brother living in the area suggested that Boston could be a good place to start over, to get on his feet after what he had gone through.

But when Beneker reached the city, it became clear that a stable living situation was not readily available. His brother’s small one-bedroom apartment, already filled with his own family, wasn’t an option.

“There was literally nowhere for me to go,” he told Boston.com.

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Seeking assistance, he walked into the Boston police station in the South End, asking about social services he could access, specifically as a survivor of domestic violence.

Beneker, who is transgender, said he was dropped off at the Woods-Mullins Shelter by police.

Since that day — Sept. 13, 2018 — Beneker has been living unsheltered in the Boston area.

For a time, he made use of the local emergency shelters as he sought a more permanent solution.

But in 2019, he had what he described as a “complete mental breakdown.”

“I had housing applications in and all that sorts of things, and I basically tried to commit suicide and nobody really cared,” he said.

He was taken to the hospital, where again, he felt that no one cared about what he was going through or experiencing.

“I realized if I stayed in the shelter any longer, it was going to kill me,” Beneker said.

The rules at the shelters were stressors. He was always worrying whether he was going to be attacked while staying there or even if he would be let in each night.

He decided he would live outside instead.

“I can come and go as I please,” he said.

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For a time, he lived down near Mass. and Cass in Boston. But now, he and his wife, who is also transgender, are in Cambridge.

The couple sleep in sleeping bags. They tried using a tent a few years ago but were quickly approached by police informing them that if the structure constituted an “encampment” that “they were going to do in Cambridge what they’re doing in Boston,” Beneker said.

“They made sure to single me out to let me know that … We didn’t do that again,” he said.

Beneker said since leaving Mass. and Cass, he still goes back every few months for various errands and needs, including dealing with his food stamp assistance and his health care.

He’s seen how much the encampment there has grown since he lived there.

“I’m not an addict and I don’t drink and I don’t deal with those issues on a day-to-day basis, but I lived down there for over a year,” he said. “And as soon as I got out of there, I was like, ‘I am not going back there unless I absolutely have to.’ Because it breaks my heart.”

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He still has friends who live there. But their number has dwindled since his departure, as one after the other has been lost to the opioid epidemic.

“Every time I go down there, it’s like, ‘Did you hear that so and so died?’” he said. “It breaks my heart, so I try and spend as little time down there as possible.”

Beneker said he’s saddened to see how local officials are approaching the crisis at Mass. and Cass.

Boston officials began implementing encampment protocols last week, established through an executive order that was issued by Acting Mayor Kim Janey that targets the removal of tents in the area.

City officials have stressed that since the goal of the mandate is to get people connected with resources and services, individuals at Mass. and Cass must be given at least 48 hours notice that tents must be removed and that no one will be required to remove their structure unless they have been offered a bed in a shelter or another service like a treatment facility.

But under the executive order, people who have been offered placement and refuse to remove their shelter may be charged with disorderly conduct. Boston police may also petition for involuntary commitments for people who “present a likelihood of serious harm to themselves or others” because of mental illness or substance use disorder.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
A member of the Boston Public Health Commission takes down a tent on Nov. 1 at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. – Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe

As of Friday, no one had been arrested associated with the city’s encampment protocols. But individuals in the area with open warrants are being arrested and brought into a special court established at the Suffolk County jail last week to process people taken into custody around Mass. and Cass.

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Beneker has been following the day-to-day reports of what’s happening at Mass. and Cass, both in the court and with the city’s encampment protocols.

He said it’s disheartening to see the approaches being taken by officials in the name of “public health.”

“Most days I’m in angry tears over the absurdity of the claims that got this whole thing started,” he said.

Both the effort by the city and the new court sessions have been forcefully condemned by advocates, who say the measures are only causing harm and criminalizing vulnerable individuals struggling with addiction, mental health issues, or homelessness. A coalition of service providers put forward their own plan for addressing the crisis at Mass. and Cass, and the ACLU is suing the city to stop what the organization called “large-scale evictions” of homeless individuals in the area.

Cassie Hurd, executive director of Material Aid and Advocacy Program, a nonprofit that provides support to individuals experiencing homelessness, is among those sounding the alarm over the city’s efforts at Mass. and Cass. She and members of her group have been providing support to individuals being pushed from the area.

According to the city, the first week of action at Mass. and Cass resulted in 21 people being placed in shelters, 32 people being placed in residential treatment, and 13 people being placed in permanent or transitional housing.

But Hurd said for many of the individuals at Mass. and Cass turning to a shelter is “not an option.”

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“It’s why they’ve created a community absent of housing and shelter options that meet their needs,” she said.

For many people, shelters feel institutional, she said. And the pandemic has reaffirmed to people that the congregate setting of the large shelters does not feel safe.

“Trauma is one major reason people bring up that a shelter is not safe for them,” Hurd said. “Because we know unhoused people are criminalized, and many have been involved in the criminal punishment system. People for years have been telling us that shelters are not safe and do not meet their needs.”

Charyti Reiter, director of programs at On the Rise, a daytime drop-in center in Cambridge for women, trans, and nonbinary individuals experiencing homelessness, said many of the shelters are “not particularly trauma informed.”

And the large shelters do not feel welcoming and warm to people who have experienced trauma, she said.

“It often isn’t very relational,” Reiter said. “And so I think people feel like that’s not really the space that they want to go into. There’s not a sense of community often in those spaces.”

Both Hurd and Reiter stressed that for people with active substance use or mental health issues, shelter rules are often a barrier to access.

“You have to be sober or have to be not under the influence when you come in,” Reiter said. “And without access to meaningful treatment, which I don’t really think there is for people, then it’s really hard for people to access those spaces. Because, especially people with untreated mental health issues, sometimes it’s hard for people to behave in a way that is ‘acceptable.’ People who are really struggling with their mental health are often not necessarily able to follow rules.”

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People dealing with addiction also aren’t able to bring in the harm reduction supplies they have collected from the Boston Public Health Commission, Hurd said.

She pointed out that other injectable medical supplies, such that individuals with diabetes or people who are transgender rely on, are also prohibited, resulting in what Hurd called a “medical bar” for some people.

“There are a ridiculous set of rules that go far beyond maintaining safety and that people have to follow,” she said. “People are barred very quickly from shelters. Sometimes people get a 30-day bar. Many people have lifetime bars from shelters.”

In the absence of spaces that are supportive and meet the individual needs of people living unsheltered, Reiter said it’s understandable why people might choose to be outdoors at Mass. and Cass when facing a lack of housing alternatives other than emergency shelters.

There is a sense of community among people living together on the street, she and Hurd said.

“People don’t necessarily want to leave that feeling of being around people who understand me and know what I’m going through because not everybody does,” Reiter said. “Not everybody in those shelter systems really does understand what people are going through, so I think that’s something that gets lost in the conversation.”

For Beneker, the option of going to a shelter was eliminated when he started to transition. Now, he’s no longer allowed at either the Woods-Mullin or Southampton Street shelters.

Hurd and Beneker pointed out that shelters also don’t offer space for couples to go in together, which is another hindrance for access when people want to stay with their loved one.

“The family shelters are for people with kids, so there’s no shelter available for couples,” Beneker said.

And when it comes down to it, for some, the shelters just simply are not safe, Reiter said.

“They’re certainly not safe for trans and nonbinary people,” she said. “I think a lot of those systems are not very educated about trans and nonbinary, the struggles that people face and the specific challanges and support that they need. So I think people are often forced to stay in a shelter that does not match their identity. And that can be really damaging and harmful to people.”

That’s the experience Beneker said he’s had with shelters.

“At the very basic [level], there’s hate speech that the shelter staff will do nothing about,” he said. “At worst, you will get people who will attack you. Or you get to the point where you get emotional and angry and you’re kicked out of the shelter for having an emotional reaction to being bullied. And the shelter staff will do nothing about any of it. Even though it’s against several of the regulations. They don’t see it, they don’t care about it. You bring it to their attention, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, you just have to ignore it.’”

Even separate from the concerns about physical and emotional safety in shelters, Beneker said there’s a host of reasons that he and other unhoused individuals prefer to stay outdoors over a bed in a shelter. 

There are restrictions on what can be brought in. For Beneker, he would not be allowed to bring in his knitting and crocheting materials, since the knitting needles and crochet hooks would be viewed as weapons. The only allowed activities are watching TV, coloring, or reading a book, he said.

“It’s institutionalization at its very basis,” Beneker said. “It’s not better than being forcibly admitted to a psychiatric ward that you can leave during the day but you have to come back at 3 o’clock in the afternoon to make sure that you get a bed or you’re stuck in a chair and you can’t sleep in the chair because they make sure you’re not overdosing.”

All the rules and regulations make people feel like they are confined, when many people have ended up there after an apartment fire, for mental health reasons, or because they are fleeing domestic violence at home, he said.

“You feel trapped and like you’re in jail, when you’re not in jail and you’re just trying to get put up … People are told, ‘Leave the partners who are abusing you,’ and there’s nowhere for them to go,” Beneker said. “Except for the homeless shelter.”

For people who are unhoused, there is a daily struggle to meet basic needs, which makes it difficult to move forward on supports to get into more stable housing.

Beneker pointed out that just going to different physical locations to access food, laundry, shower facilities, or other social services takes up much of his days.

“It takes all day just to meet my daily needs,” he said. “So trying to do anything outside of personal hygiene and food and seeking shelter for the night — I mean, I have a spot and it’s been good. But occasionally it’s not good and I have to find someplace else to sleep at night. So that can take time.”

That time means that trying to push forward other efforts to get housing “doesn’t always happen.”

Right now, Beneker has his Section 8 housing voucher. But he hasn’t had any luck with renting an apartment.

“All the landlords I have met and who have vouchers have disappeared into the hills and they either ghost me or all of a sudden the apartment was already rented and ‘their bad,’” he said.

As city officials continue to press forward in dispersing the encampment at Mass. and Cass, Beneker urged leaders to recognize that a large part of the problem is that people are being criminalized for having a record of any kind.

There is a huge need for more low-threshold housing and transitional housing that supports people as they sort out the issues they are facing, whether medical, legal, or otherwise.

“Just because you have legal issues doesn’t mean you no longer deserve the right to be housed,” Beneker said. “Just because you have sobriety issues, doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be housed.”

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