The Facts About Emergency Shelters

We were invited to tour a Red Cross Emergency Shelter that was set up during a mock disaster in our area. Jonathan and I participated in a class taught by Red Cross staff explaining the details of shelter operations. I came away with a burning desire to do everything in my power to prepare so that I never have to stay in an emergency shelter. Let me explain my thought process.

Why are emergency shelters a dangerous, last-resort-only option when disaster strikes?

  1. Police are not allowed in emergency shelters, which make them the perfect sanctuary for dangerous criminals.
  2. No weapons are allowed, which leaves you unable to defend yourself.
  3. It takes a minimum of 3 to 7 days to set up an emergency shelter, you need to be prepared to be on your own at least one week anyway.
  4. Close proximity to a lot of highly-stressed, possibly sick individuals.
  5. No pets are allowed, which means you have to make alternative plans. 

Emergency shelters are certainly a great blessing for disaster relief. We are grateful to those who volunteer and donate time and resources to help others in a crisis. They are doing the best they can under the circumstances. Here are a few things you might want to consider.

Chartered by Federal Government and Funded by Private Donors

The Red Cross is chartered by the federal government, but is privately funded through charitable donations. Many church organizations partner with the American Red Cross to provide needed resources and volunteers. The funding is limited and they do not have the resources to provide services to all disasters. They may not have the funds or personnel to take care of you.

Be Prepared to Survive on Your Own

The Red Cross does not deploy until they are officially called by emergency responders or government officials. After the call, they must round up volunteers and resources. They may be able to respond to a house fire call in a few hours or set up a disaster shelter in 3 days, but recently it took 2 weeks before they were able to respond after a hurricane.

Our tour guide repeatedly emphasized the need for individuals to have a 3 to 5 day survival kit and at least 2 weeks of food and necessities in their homes. Do not depend on any help to arrive for at least several days in the best of situations.

Once a shelter is established they usually provide 2 hot meals a day, snacks, a cot, blanket, and basic hygiene items to residents. Emergency funds may be issued to those who have lost everything to purchase necessities, usually at a local thrift store. Vouchers may be issued for medication or other critical needs.

You Must Obey All Rules

Anyone entering a shelter is required to fill out a very detailed application and disclose personal information. You are compelled to submit to the rules of the shelter management. No weapons, drugs, alcohol or pets are allowed in the shelter for starters. The official shelter rules include:

  1. Respect quiet hours.
  2. Control your children.
  3. Keep your area clean.
  4. Register when you arrive.
  5. Smoke ONLY in designated areas.
  6. Help keep the shelter clean.
  7. Sign in when entering and sign out when leaving.
  8. Keep food and beverages in designated areas.

These rules are only fair and should be obeyed. The shelter environment is highly structured and residents are required to comply. Structure provides needed security and predictability for those whose world is in chaos. Information is disseminated during scheduled resident’s meetings. Critical status updates are provided as needed.

Limited Privacy

Men, women, and families are separated into different sleeping areas. However, privacy is very limited. The Red Cross agent informed us that they will never disclose names of the shelter occupants. If a husband is looking for his wife or a mother for her children, they will not verify whether or not they are in the shelter. Messages may be placed on a bulletin board and later checked for a response. This may be very frustrating when trying to reunite family members.

I had a really hard time with the idea that my child could be in a shelter and I could be desperately searching, yet they will not tell me if my child is in the shelter or not. I would be expected to leave a note on the bulletin board and return to check for any possible response. The volunteer explained that it had to do with custody rights and protecting the residents of the shelter. I was not comforted.

No Law Enforcement Allowed

Police are not allowed inside of the shelter, even with a search warrant. This creates a safe haven for criminals. I had a hard time believing that law enforcement could be completely restricted from entering a shelter, but each of the volunteers assured me that information was correct. How safe would my family really be in a Red Cross emergency shelter? Criminals are protected and we are stripped every possible weapon we may use to protect ourselves.

Choosing to seek the benefits of an emergency shelter comes at a high cost. One volunteer disclosed that drug deals are common just outside of the shelters due to the lack of law enforcement.

Best Protection is to Be Self-Reliant

Recognizing the many dangers of living in the shelter environment, we have made plans to take care of ourselves in a disaster. It would be a really good idea for you to plan to be self-reliant and take care of your own needs to whatever extent you can when disaster strikes. Planning ahead can mitigate many of the challenges you may face.

We have created a network of like-minded people that will help each other in times of need over a large geographical area. If the disaster strikes in our neighborhood, our friends are prepared to shelter us at their home and in return we are ready to receive them. We have arranged with family or friends in our city, in neighboring cities and even in another state. We have supplies on hand and are ready to host each of these families should the need arise. They are also ready to host us, if we are ever in need.

Taking care of each other is a much better option than depending on well-meaning volunteers at an emergency shelter to meet your needs. That being said, I’m very grateful to all those who make these emergency shelters available in the event that my best efforts fail.

Prepare Survival Kits

One final point that this tour brought home is the need to be prepared to be on your own. Remember it takes at least 3 days to set up a shelter. One volunteer told us about a recent event where it took 2 full weeks after a hurricane struck before they were able to set up the shelter. What did all of those people do in the meantime?

We do not use the term 72 hour kit when it comes to describing our survival kits, because 72 hours is an unrealistic amount of time as reinforced by the Red Cross volunteer. Think about what you might need to survive for a couple of weeks away from home. Keep your home well-stocked with enough food, water and emergency supplies to last for at least one month to ensure you are ready for the unexpected. We recommend planning to be on your own for at least one year.

Take time to develop a written family emergency plan. Make sure that each member of your family understands what to do and where to go when there is a problem. Practice, practice, practice! Click here for a free template for a family emergency action plan.

Community is the Answer

The Red Cross volunteer shared a story with us that was quite inspiring. A recent fire had displaced hundreds of people and it took the Red Cross several days to deploy due to demands in another location. When they were finally available, they were told by local officials that they were no longer needed at this location.

Local members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had banded together and provided every one of the displaced individuals a home to stay in and emergency supplies. The community stepped up and made sure everyone was comfortable, safe and their needs were met until they were able to return to their homes. What a great example of the type of community we need to strive to be!

Read our post Community – Your Best Chance for Survival and learn just how important developing a strong community may be to your survival.

Are you ready to take care of your family when disaster strikes? Are your survival kits ready with fresh supplies? Could you survive without outside help for two weeks or more? Now is a great time to work on that.

Thanks for being part of the solution!


Kylene Jones is a blogger, content creator, published author, motivational speaker, homesteader, prepper, mother, and grandmother. She practices self-reliance, provident living, and emergency preparedness in her everyday life. She loves working with her husband, Jonathan, and is committed to helping our community be prepared to thrive during the challenges that lie in our future.

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