Shelters are for Someone Else, Part 1
Twice I've gone to a shelter, both times as a teen. These experiences are why I don't back the faith-based initiatives that the federal government has promoted in recent years. These places, these pockets of hell staffed by well meaning, misguided people, these are the most degrading, humiliating, stigmatizing places in the world. I've actually never spent the night in anything called a homeless shelter. I preferred to return to the cold, rather than sit in the pew.
Let me tell you about my first time. Long term stable homeless living as an adult came later, but I was also a teen runaway. I was sixteen, but looked older. They can't let you in if you're under eighteen, unless it is exclusively a youth hostel. I approached the shelter, and was confronted by two very large men, security I guess. I told them I just had to lay down, didn't they have a cot I could sleep on? They said no. First I had to sit through the service. Exhausted and cold, I agreed, and I was taken into a pew. The preacher was chastising us for our sin in a rhythmic way, almost singing. If it were not so mean a message, I might have found it comforting. A supplicant converted, tears in his eyes, crying out testimony, confessing his bad ways and begging for forgiveness. The scene was surreal, as if I had a fever. I thought this stuff only happened in movies.
Appalled, angry, I stood up. I didn't need to be yelled at. I didn't need anything but a place to sleep. A warm place was what I needed and I was being attacked for my sins by someone who knew nothing about me, someone who knew nothing about the thirty other unhappy souls in the room seeking not God, but simple human comfort. As I stood up, two ushers came toward me, stern, gesturing me back to my seat. Big men. Scary. I was outnumbered, outmuscled, humiliated, but I was leaving. I waved them back. I said, "I want to leave. Show me the door."
A change came over them. Their eyes became shaded, and they escorted me out. No violence. No anger. They didn't ask me why. They didn't ask me what I would do now. They didn't care. I wasn't one of them.
Maybe it's different when shelters are run by Red Cross or by FEMA. I don't know. I've never been to one of those and am not likely to go to one, not even if my house were torn down by a natural disaster. Homeless shelters are crowded. You have to line up for beds at most shelters in the mid-afternoon, making it impossible to have both a job and a bed on the same day. You move through the shelter like a cog on an assembly line, from soup kitchen to bed, with no freedom to vary from the program. Personal security is low, and you are likely to have things stolen as you sleep. And more important than any of that, homeless shelters deprive you of dignity. They scream out that you have failed to take care of yourself, that you need.
No matter how much you need, you shouldn't feel that way.
I believe there is no tougher job than being a beggar. Nothing is harder than asking for compassion from people who hold you in contempt. Begging does a service, because it is a reminder to the fortunate that they could fall too, but it is a service I cannot perform.
We, each of us, deserve more dignity. Shelters are for someone else.
Bother! I guess I've got to go stay the night at a local shelter. Be watching for the next installment of Shelters Are For Someone Else.