What gives a homeless person that distinctive smell and how can they be cured of it?

Melissa Stanley, Self Employed

I am a homeless woman myself and I’m going to answer this question from that perspective.

First and foremost and whether intentional or not, I find this question offensive and I’m sure that others who are homeless would also.

Most of these individuals do not have access to bathing facilities and why they may smell of body odor is self-explanatory. Let us assume you don’t have common sense, shall we? and answer this question.

I’m going to indulge you an answer, however offensive this question may be because I like to give others the benefit of the doubt and assume that your query is honestly genuine.

I have been homeless since May of this year. That I am homeless is through my own actions and I blame no one for my situation but myself. I don’t, however, dwell on this as it’s not conducive to my well-being.

As I’ve answered some questions previously about my homeless experience and that I live in a drug and alcohol program within a homeless shelter is something that I’ve shared before.

Because I’m in this program, my life is a bit different from that of a homeless individual who actually sleeps on the streets (although I’ve done that before and that was certainly hard.)

I stay in a room that is shared by up to 5 women. Right now there is only 1 other female and myself in this room and they’re furnished much like a large bedroom would be and there is also a restroom in here so I have access to showers and hygiene as often as I’d like.

I also have access to a laundry facility within the building as well and I launder my clothing and bedding every Sunday in preparation for the week to come.

I work a full time job and no one in my life but my immediate family knows of my living situation; I’ll bet that they would be shocked!

While this isn’t something I’m happy with, I know how to get through it with a positive outlook and that goes a hell of a long way! I say this because no one with whom I work has any idea that I am homeless and I do not have this “distinctive smell” to which you refer.

Further, there are plenty of people out there who smell and they’re not homeless; why do you stereotype an already marginalized and at-risk population?

Now, I mention these things because lack thereof can and often is the reason why some of those who are homeless would have bodily odor. But then, who doesn’t know this?

In wintertime the shelter becomes “activated” which just means that the shelter is open to all who come, lest they freeze to death outside when the temperature is below freezing.

When the shelter is activated, people are placed on mats on the floor, cots and sometimes they’re just on a bare floor when all mats are in use.

This is a time when an odor is most noticable, something that’s a cross between dirty feet and body odor. It can get pretty rank in here and homeless men seem to experience this more so than females.

The shelter is separated between a dry side and a wet side, the latter of which means that alcohol and drugs are, while not permitted, everywhere.

During activation, it’s very common for those from the “wet side”, who would otherwise have to participate in a lottery to get a bed nightly, to be laid up just outside the door to the room in which I sleep.

There is a number pad-activated lock on the door to keep these men from wandering into the room at night and believe me, some do try! I can hear the door handle jiggle and it wakes me out of a sound sleep but that’s neither here nor there.

The smell can be pretty bad and many of these men will have thoroughly dirty socks on their feet. It’s sometimes so awful that, taken off their feet, these socks could walk away on their own accord.

Having access to facilities is vital to cleaning the body and otherwise we are ALL liable to smell badly at some point if we do not bathe.

This is quite evident when these men are outside the door, however, the way in which your question is posed makes it super offensive, as most people keenly understand exactly why some homeless folks smell badly.

The difference between your question and my answer is that while my answer is utterly compassionate, your question was not.

If you slept in the streets, in abandoned structures, park benches and the like, how badly would you want to bathe when you knew you had no clean clothing?

If you’d just made the lottery and gotten a bed for the night after struggling to keep warm all day on the streets, would you be motivated to shower or instead go right to sleep?

Don’t judge someone like this, I implore you! If you can’t think of anything nice to say, why not just be silent? These individuals have a rough life. No one “deserves” to live like this but nonetheless, they do.

This life is thoroughly enough to break someone’s spirit and it does.

Please, remember this. Also, allow those who are homeless to keep their dignity intact! No one needs your judgement on top of the other hardships that those who are homeless face.


Thanks to all who have upvoted this answer and/or contributed anything in comments towards this discussion; I’m so glad to have had an opportunity to discuss these various viewpoints about this, despite having felt initially offended at what seemed a disingenuous inquiry to me.

I answered from that standpoint and I am unapologetic about my initial feelings; however, please know that I am not so offended as to not be able to appreciate the value in the lively, civil, and honest discussion that the question/answer sparked!

Thanks again for all of the comments, no matter what you had to contribute! I can appreciate respectful discussion and if I’ve offered some information that you didn’t know and increased your awareness, I’m honored to have done so!

Namaste ❤️

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