Shelters are for Someone Else, Part 2
Shelter life is a life of waiting. You wait on the charity, the good feeling, and on the whim of others. You wait, and you wait, and you wait, and all the while tension builds, as you wonder whether you will get what you need.
Recently, as part of my research for this book, I spent a night in a shelter. As shelters go it was a kind and gentle experience. The shelter was located in Santa Cruz, California, a city friendly to the homeless, on the cutting edge of homeless advocacy and politics. There was no church service, no preacher, no active condemnation. Still the experience was brutal, and brutal in a way that the homeless are so accustomed to that no one even grumbled. No one even seemed to notice.
After much searching, I found the place, a complex of buildings and construction at 115 Coral Street. The website tells you that registration and check-in begin at 3:30pm, but that, like nearly everything told to me that day, was inaccurate. Sign up for emergency shelter actually begins and ends at 3:00pm, when everyone who will be taken is enrolled. The website says they try to never turn anyone away. In fact, most people who need a place to sleep are turned away. There is no sign to indicate where sign-in is, and I was easily mislead. In the end, I was turned away, rather gruffly, but I am a persistent investigator.
I went over to the River Street Shelter, a place for alcohol and drug rehabilitation, and waited. When one of their coordinators started taking people in from a long waiting list, I was there asking if they had a bed I could use for the night. They didn't. No chance. But, they were taking in a new guy for the first time, and he already had a seat on the church bus, so that guy took me over to the first guy (the gruff one) and told him he wouldn't be needing a bed. So I was in.
Like I won the lottery.
This was getting really painful, and it was only starting. I'm asking for help, over and over, asking for someone to make my life okay for me. And the worst thing is, I know that because I am getting the bed, someone else isn't.
There are rules everywhere. In the same center where you sign in for the night's shelter, there's a "Hygiene Bay". Toilets, sinks, lockers, showers, television, laundry, get in line and use what you want. There were no lines in the afternoon, either, so just use what you need. But there were rules, rules, rules posted. On the refrigerator, You touch you die! Staff only! On the wall, No dumpster diving or 30 day ban! Another flier reads, No parking bicycles! And chalked on a board, Parents, your children must be with you at all times! In the agreement I had to sign to be allowed into the shelter for the night were the admonitions No weapons! and No sex! and Maintain a minimum level of hygiene! Everything was punctuated with exclamation points, as if the force of the orders would otherwise fail to impress itself upon us. Everything, it seemed, was punishable by thirty days expulsion.
On the church van, it was no better. Three identical flyers were taped up in the van. Here there was little punctuation. Here, in fact, there were not even capital letters, and yet the force and aggression of the rulemakers were not lost on me. Here is how it read, word for word:
rule on bus
1. no eating on the bus no drinks without lids
2. no throwing trash on floor
3. no fighting, no yelling, no races comments
4. nothing in aisle, bring only what you can carry
failure to follow these rules will result in night out
The dramatic increase in font size on rule four made it clear that this was a more important rule than no fighting, or yelling, or "races" comments.
These rules everywhere made it seem as if the very furniture was berating us. Perhaps this is the source of some of the violent thoughts so commonly expressed by my fellows in this adventure. We passed a store selling china, and one of the men commented on how much he'd like to throw a rock. Others grunted. It's hard not to have a dark mood in such a toxic world. It's hard not to have a dark mood when those offering you life sustaining services are constantly threatening to deprive you of those services. Those threats were not idle. Make no mistake, the majority of the men in that community of homeless spent the night sleeping in the open. The demand for shelter so outweighs the supply of beds that any reason is a good reason to expel someone from the program.
Everything takes so long. You have to sign up for the shelter at 3:00pm, but the van doesn't come until 4:00pm. You get to the church where you will spend the night at 4:20, but the free dinner of greasy chicken, bread, and green salad, with milk or juice won't be there till almost 6:00. Then camp pads and a couple of blankets each are passed around and 14 guys find a corner or a wall to sleep against on the cold floor. Stake your claim and then the majority go outside to smoke Top and discuss the presidential election. The consensus seemed pro Kerry, but who can tell? The power distribution in the conversation was a great deal more complex than I could figure out in a night. The entire group watches Jeopardy, then the television is turned off and people begin to settle in. 9:00pm the lights are turned out. I stared at the ceiling for three hours, then slept fitfully and uncomfortably until 5:20am.
Which is when they get you up. 5:20am. You don't choose when the day is over. You don't choose when the day begins. With a bit of a sardonic grin I dared to say to the coordinator, "you know, when the sun is not out, we call it night." He wasn't amused. He simply said, "Well in 19 minutes the bus is leaving." The driver also spent the night, so really, I think we could have negotiated. Threat and control were involved in every exchange, though. So, off we went, and arrived at the original place just after 6:00, ready to take a shower. The hygiene bay, however, doesn't open until 7:00. So people stood around, fueled by a little coffee and no breakfast, and passed a bottle of bourbon that had been poured into a two liter Diet Coke container. Happy hour is in the morning because the shelters won't take you if you are drunk.
It seems to me that you could wait to sign people into these shelters until 6:00pm or 7:00pm, assuring that people who found work that day might still be able to find shelter. Then people might find a way out of their difficulties. If it were me, I'd let people stay in the shelter until the sun began to warm the world up a little, and I would not return them to a closed hygiene center. I'd coordinate drop off time with the time the hygiene center opened. The total time controlled by the center was sixteen hours, from 3:00pm to 7:00am. That is two thirds of life regulated by the rules of others, one third remaining to try to build something better. Is it any wonder that they opt to simply pass a bottle between themselves? These are people who have little in the way of reserves, and you've just taken two thirds of their time.
The Utter Lack of Privacy
The most dismal thing about a lack of privacy is that it forbids expression of dissent or resentment. This was the horror George Orwell traded on in his classic 1984. Even if only expressed to oneself, in a private moment, with a frown, a scowl, a grumble, expression of resentment is necessary to good mental health. In the shelter there was never a moment when I could scowl and decompress about my experience. There was never a time when those in power were not near.
On a purely aesthetic level, fourteen old men sleeping on the floor of a church snore more than I would have ever believed, and that was not the worst of it. Greasy chicken and ill health caused flatulence more impressive than I can effectively describe. While these men bathed regularly, the smell of methane was not conducive to easy sleep.
There is an ethical issue I should address. Was I justified in taking a bed, when I was perfectly okay without one? My answer is an unequivocal yes. I cannot know what the center is like by volunteering. I cannot know what this place is like by interviews. I can't know this place to tell you about it until I walk the mile myself, not until I wear the shoes of the visible homeless. I've never put those shoes on before, and I didn't like the fit. Maybe, because I've told you why, you will realize that homelessness must be done right, must be planned. If you realize that, then you can make sure that you never need the shelters.
The people who staffed this center and the church had charity and kindness in their hearts, and yet the experience was excruciating. Let me teach you a better way. Shelters are for someone else.