Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
It is hard to come here and not feel guilty. So I come bearing gifts: a bag of navel oranges and three pairs of warm socks (from my overstuffed drawer, yes, but clean and only slightly worn). In the morning they will all be snatched up, along with half of the oranges. Meanwhile, I stand outside in the dark and drizzle under the lamplight, waiting to be let in. My pillow’s stuffed in a white trash bag as deep blue splats form on my sleeping bag. It’s 11:00 p.m., January 6.
There are only four women staying at the shelter tonight, Maria tells me. Should be pretty quiet. Maria is paid staff — paid to stay awake and make sure everyone abides by the rules, which include getting out the door by 7:00 a.m. I’m just a back-up volunteer in case of emergency, which the city mandates in order to operate the place. Hot showers available three times a week. Free snacks, a TV, and a friendly caretaker. The generous Methodists opened this, their newest building — large gym with full kitchen, bathrooms, and fellowship hall — to the community, and other local churches provide volunteers to help house the homeless there during the winter months. Our parish has signed up for January. The women are all asleep (presumably) when I arrive, tucked safely in to a large open dorm room with twelve single beds. Clean sheets, blankets, pillows. The real deal. Lights out at 10:00 p.m. Then Maria locks everyone in until morning. Compared to the average shelter, not to mention where these women usually bed down, it must seem like the Hilton.
Maria is fortyish, a single parent for years, and like many artists, she works multiple jobs to make ends meet. A dancer by training, she teaches a couple classes during the week on days she’s not scheduled at the shelter. I ask her when she finds time to sleep. She shrugs. You do what you have to do. Maria’s elderly parents live in Arkansas. She wishes she could visit them more often, stay for a few months rather than days. Her only daughter is away at college in California. You can tell by her face that Maria’s a survivor. She’s probably only a few degrees away from the women who sleep on the other side of the locked door. I like Maria immediately. Our conversation flows easily, but I’m very tired. I feel guilty that I get to sleep.
In the end, sleep will not happen tonight. The bed for volunteers is quite comfortable and tucked into a small alcove at the far end of the gym. But the dim recessed lights in the ceiling, and the reading lamp over Maria’s puzzle, and the just audible voices on TV, and the buzz of the microwave when she heats soup all keep me awake for hours. Just when I’m finally drifting off, one of the women gets up shouting that she can’t sleep. She’s itching all over from some allergic reaction, throwing off clothes. Can she please take a shower? She begs Maria. It’s the middle of the night, maybe 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. I’m groggy and far away from the dorm, so I think all the commotion is someone outside who wants desperately to come in from the rain. This is never allowed past 8:00 p.m. One of the regulars is being stalked by a hostile guy who knows she sometimes stays here. She’s not tonight, thankfully, but for a split second I think it might be him, drunk or high, in a very bad mood. After this incident, I give up trying to force myself to sleep. If it happens, it happens. In the back of my mind I know I get to go home in a few hours. Home to my beautiful, comfortable house, where I can safely sleep as long as I choose.
I came here yesterday evening for orientation. Several women from my church whom I know well and others I know by face were also here. After the tour we got hand-outs on fire safety and emergency phone numbers, and crisis intervention tips. The shelter manager asked if we had any questions. One of the women I didn’t recognize asked if we should allow people to keep their lighters and matches when we search their bags at check-in. I almost said aloud what I was thinking. Are you serious? They’re homeless, for Pete’s sake, not arsonists, not criminals. Though I understand the fear behind her question. Many people are afraid of the homeless in their communities. As their numbers swell more and more public places fill with strange, often unkempt, occasionally violent folk. One rough and tumble man in our city sits in a downtown park half the day yelling obscenities at people walking by. He looks drunk or stoned all the time and I avoid him, always. While a couple of the women are familiar to our local police department most of them don’t have any kind of record. They’re ordinary people who lost jobs or mental health benefits or partners who worked, and just couldn’t afford their rent anymore. They certainly didn’t plan on being homeless. Remove a few major props like these from my life and I might be here too.
Someone is whistling cheerfully, but I don’t want to open my eyes. It’s Maria waking up the sleepers so it must be 6:00 a.m. She gives them a full hour to rise, gather their stuff for the day, eat a little breakfast if they like, and be gone by 7:00. A small food cart holds a pot of coffee, tea and cocoa mix, instant oatmeal. There’s a toaster and some whole grain bread. Most of it goes untouched except for the coffee. That’s where I’m headed too. I spy my bag of oranges next to 4 lunches Maria has made during the night — peanut butter sandwiches, bags of Goldfish crackers, fruit. I join a couple women who sit at a round table drinking coffee. One of them is very chatty and fidgety, the one from last night who was itching all over. She’s sixtyish, thin as a rail, but full of spunk and good humor. I introduce myself and ask their names. The other woman is brand new to the shelter. She doesn’t want to meet my eyes, but tells me her name and says this was the best night’s sleep she’s had in months. She’s maybe thirty-five but looks fifty. Her hair is dry, bleached blond. She’s dressed in a camo jacket and has the telltale voice of a heavy smoker. She sits sideways, so I can’t see her front teeth. She might not have any. I lay the three pairs of socks out for them to choose from. She immediately picks the fun, though least warm pair with roosters on them. Miss Chatty grabs the brown knee-highs. And the purple crews.
Another body emerges from the dorm room, a very pretty young woman who can’t be more than twenty. She looks more troubled than tired and says nothing to anyone. She wears a black leather jacket and her eyes are ringed with dark mascara. I say good morning. No response. She goes straight to the coffee pot, pours herself a tall paper cup, and heads for the outside door. All overnight guests at the shelter have short, simple chores they’re supposed to do before they leave for the day. Easy stuff: empty the trash and recycling, wipe down the tables. The sad-eyed girl slipped out before I could stop her. Miss Chatty suddenly offers, she’s pregnant, you know. I report this to Maria, who did not know.
The last and slowest person finally stumbles out from the other room, a very large young woman whose age is hard to guess. She might be twenty-five, she might still be a teenager. Her hair is a wild mass of muddy tangles. She limps when she walks and mumbles or grunts when spoken to. I can’t catch her eye. She dangles an unlit cigarette from her mouth and stares at the floor. It’s almost 7:00. I ask if she wants one of the lunches to take with her. She says no. But stuffs one into her backpack anyway. There’s one more left, the one meant for the pregnant girl. Do you have a friend who might want this, I say? She says no. But grabs it when she leaves.
I’m wearing the same clothes I came here in, the same clothes I slept in. Although I brought an overnight bag with fresh everything in it, including my new Canadian sheepskin slippers, the ones I furtively wear across the gym floor. I think about how little I know of these women’s lives and wonder if I’d last a week on the street. After helping push the volunteer bed and food carts into their storage room, I gather my things and we say our goodbyes. Maria thanks me warmly for coming. I didn’t do much, I say. Maybe I’ll see you again. This is really important work you’re doing. Hey, I couldn’t be here if you guys weren’t here too, she counters, smiling broadly. I head for home.