There's a homeless crisis in the United States. In early 2016, almost 550,000 people experienced homelessness in a single night, according to a report by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. But despite these staggering figures, we're still a long way from understanding and talking about homelessness in a way that's not stigmatising and that provides constructive solutions.
That's one of the reasons why a Twitter thread posted late Saturday night from a homeless shelter in Portland, OR went viral. It illustrated the reality many homeless women face in shelters that otherwise are supposed to provide a safe space during a time of struggle. The first tweet reads, "Hey. As a homeless person staying at a salvation army shelter... Please don't donate to the salvation army."
The woman behind the thread was identified as Heather Snow by BuzzFeed News. She told the outlet she has been living in the shelter for the past four months.
Snow, who is transgender, also told BuzzFeed News she has experienced homelessness on and off for the past five years, partly because she's found it difficult to hold a job due to conditions such as anxiety, depression, and a debilitating back injury.
In over 40 back-to-back tweets, Snow described the alleged mistreatment by the staff at the Salvation Army Female Emergency Shelter in Portland, where she's currently staying. She also accused the Salvation Army of not providing clean facilities and basic services for the women at the shelter.
The city of Portland has a deep homelessness crisis. According to the most recent data, over 1,800 people sleep outside every night in makeshift shelters. Throughout the county, an estimated 4,000 people don't have a permanent shelter. Of all those people struggling with homelessness, about 30% are women.
And the situation doesn't get better if you're transgender. According to the National Centre for Transgender Equality, one in five transgender individuals are homeless at some point in their lives.
After Snow's tweets went viral, a lot of people started reaching out to the Salvation Army and demanded the organisation responded to the allegations.
Following the alarming allegations and the inevitable backlash, the Salvation Army set up a meeting between Snow, Chelsea Bender (who directs the shelter's program), and Lt. Jared Arnold, an Oregon community relations officer.
"It was the first time someone's ever listened to me," Snow told BuzzFeed News after the meeting took place.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Bender explained that she also understood some of Snow's frustrations, even if how Snow voiced them was shocking. For example, she said the new building where the Salvation Army relocated the women's shelter to in 2013 has many issues.
"I don't think that they really thought about the use of the building," Bender said. "The mould, bathrooms, poor ventilation, that's all 100% accurate."
She also said that the shelter's staff is being taught de-escalation and communication methods so they can intervene "with the women and not retaliate or lash back at them."
Bender added, "We're trying to serve the most vulnerable populations and it can be risky territory. We have a handful of staff who can be short and rigid and there was a history of escalation but we're changing that."
Meanwhile, Snow is not sure a lot will change. But the fact that she was able to reach so many people and spark an honest conversation about the reality of being homeless has given her some solace.
"I have a little hope," she said. "But it’s something. It’s more than I had before.”