A Night in a Homeless Shelter: A Timid Volunteer's First Experience.
On a night in December, one of the coldest of the year (the thermometer dipped well below zero), the police reported that at least 14 people slept outside, in cars and make shift accomodations. The Quad City's shelters were full and bursting at the seams. King's Harvest, a downtown ministry to the most downtrodden in our society stepped up to the plate and announced that if they could get overnight volunteers they would provide the warm space needed. Another agency provided cots, pillows and blankets, a meeting was called to address the need and I (and Carolyn Garcia) became the first wave of responders. The following is an account of my experience on the overnight of Jan. 8/9, 2009.
8:30--I arrive at King's Harvest (3rd Street and Warren), to discover my co-volunteer and Claude, the building's care-taker conferring and setting up. We place our things and walk through some dos and don'ts for the evening. The don'ts seemed pretty self-explanatory: no alcohol to be brought in, no food to be eaten there--it might cause reason for a scuffle. no weapons--look through bags and store for the evening anything that looks dangerous. No giving money or rides the next day. No co-mingling of men and women. Do call 911 at any sign of a problem. Do call Salvation Army if children should show up. The men are beginning to gather at the door.
9:00 -- A camera man from Channel 8 News shows up to do a story on the shelter. He asks some initial questions and my co-volunteer is snagged for an interview. Terri, the manager of this ministry shows up to help open the doors and is also interviewed. The door opens at 9:00 promptly and 3 at a time are allowed entrance. Each person signs in and their sheet is pulled. If they have not been there before they sit in a chair in the corner of the room while others are admitted. The cameraman shoots from behind the men. No one wants to be on TV.
9:30 -- a verbal altercation breaks out between an African man and another. The African asks Terri to call the police because the other man has just pulled the first guy's wallet out of his pack, and recognizing it, the African wants to file charges. The activity level is intense, but not frightening. Terri holds the wallet and calls the police who are there in minutes. They take a report from the first man and by this point the second has left. I'm not sure what happens to the wallet.
9:45 -- we now have time to do admit forms for the 4 new guys. By this point 1 woman and 18 men have arrived. The questions we are asking these men deal with physical and mental health, addiction and legal issues that might impact their stay. I was embarrassed to be asking such personal questions, but they were not bothered at all. My co-volunteer reads them the rules and has them sign that sheet. The men go into the other room and claim a bunk with a pillow and blanket.
10:00 --several men begin asking for their 10 minute cigarette break. It's not time, (they are suppose to do it at 10:30, but because one of the guys is ill and just wants to sleep, Terri allows them to take it early. About 8 file outside to puff on the last cigarette of the day. A couple of them share a hand rolled cigarette( many of them seem to be rolling their own tobacco. I suppose it is cheaper.) I put the correct dates on the men's forms, make sure all are signed in legibly and refile the forms.
10:30 -- One man asks to use the phone and he calls his son. When he emerges he apologizes and tells us that his son needs him, and he will be leaving the shelter at 11:00 to take care of family business. My co and I realize that the room set up for us might be warmer than the main entranceway, but the aroma is pretty pungent from the sleepers in the connecting room. We decide to move our chairs to the entranceway. We can still see the guys coming and going to the bathroom and can monitor activity that way.
10:45-- Another man decides to leave. He will not be allowed to come back. When he is informed of that, he says, OK and departs. The man who is to leave at 11:00 comes to the entrance way and talks to us in a very machismo, exagerated manner. By 11:00 he is agitated that his son has not come to get him and begins to talk about kicking the 17 year old's butt. He makes another phone call and reports that he will have to walk to his son's house where he will let himself in because he has a key which he shows us. He spends about 10 minutes getting himself ready to exit into the night, rolling a couple cigarettes, talking about no one locking him out of his own kid's house, adjusting his sweatshirt, gloves and coat and generally stalling.
11:00 -- most of the men are asleep and the woman is in her area settling in, as well. Some are talking quietly, but when we tell them it is time for quiet, they go to their bunks and settle in.
12: 00 --we talk and watch the activity outside the glass door of the entrance. The door is locked. The entrance is a bit drafty, but not really cold. We talk. I begin writing a sermon. It begins to snow and we watch it sift down as people come and go at the bar across the street.
1:00 --the men are snoring, they made frequent trips to the bathroom, one or two are talking in their sleep.
2:00-- a man wants in. He has just gotten off work. We decide he should be allowed entry since he tells us his name, and he does have a sheet that signifies he has stayed here before. Upon entrance he tells us he just got off work from the 2nd shift and had to walk here from some distance. We sign him in and he goes to get some sleep.
3:00 -- the hard part of the evening has arrived. Both of us tell the other to take a nap, but other than a few minutes of closing our eyes, neither are able to sleep. We have both been snacking on things we brought as well as drink.
4:00 -- We wake the first guy up so he can walk to work. We look up the address after he leaves into the falling snow. We calculate he will need to walk about 7 miles before beginning his day's work. What an exhausting day!
5:00 -- Between 5:00 and 6:00 we need to awaken 3 other guys so they can walk to work, as well. We determine that about 10 of these guys are employed and will put in a full shift without benefit of breakfast, shower or comfortable sleeping. The aroma has become even more pungent as we walk between the cots to find the right guy to awaken.
6:00 -- I am exhausted, and have taken to doodling to keep myself going. Only another half hour before we wake everyone up.
6:30-- time to wake up. I awake the gal first because she wanted to remove her jeans to sleep, and I thought she would like a head start to make sure she was up and moving before the men began to move about and put the cots away in her area. Most of the men are slow to move. A couple of them are sitting on the edge of their cots pulling on t-shirts, and trying to wake up. I am uncomfortable helping the male volunteer in that area. So he brings me the blankets and pillows and I fold them while he moves the cots. Some of the men help, others have all they can do to move their bodies forward. Several leave immediately, and as they leave we give them a large prepackaged peanut butter cookie. (I guess it's breakfast.) At one point a guy takes about 4 and stuffs them into his bag. I tell him I am only suppose to give 1 to each of them. He then removes all 4 with an air of hurt pride and refuses to take even the one he is entitled to. He tells me that several of the other departing guys have already taken more than 1 and he will give up his cookie to make sure the others have enough. I think it was important to him, so I let it go.
7:00 -- the woman has been asking multiple times about the bus. She has a sprained wrist and tells me that she is prone to seizures and with the cold she doesn't know how she is going to get to the bus station where she will spend much of her day. She is obviously angling for a ride. I tell her that we have been given strict instructions that we are not to give rides. She says she understands, but she simply doesn't know how she will get there. She is afraid she will pass out with the cold. Eventually she leaves with the others. I don't know what she will do. I feel guilty and selfish for not taking her anyway, but I also know that there is a pretty good chance that she has learned to manipulate and that her situation is not nearly as dire as she might like for me to believe.
It is time for me to go. I am exhausted. I want a shower and to wash my clothes. I feel very sad for the people who slept at King's Harvest. Many either have addiction or mental health, problems. They don't seem angry or menacing, but neither are they happy. They were very courteous, and smiled as they wished me a good day. As I left in the early morning chill (The sun is not yet fully up), these people are moving towards their places for the day. Several have work. Others an agenda of staying warm someplace. None of them have had a shower. Many have filthy clothes and only a peanut butter cookie to provide body warmth beneath their multi-layered coats and clothes. King's Harvest will provide a noon meal for many and most will be back for the evening. One man said when asked about his day, "I don't know. I'll just see how the day goes." What a way to think about one's day! It makes me so very appreciative of my own place to live and work, of hot water, food, friends, and comfort.
Neither the men nor the one woman frightened me, although I didn't feel very comfortable with them. I will return on the 29th of January and I will probably sign up for more evenings in February. I need to do my part to make sure they don't have to sleep outside in such weather. I think it is important. I wonder if I met Christ in the faces of one of these people. I can't say I recognized him if I did, but I hope he recognized me and that I am trying. I have encouraged people in worship to step out of their comfort zone in order to serve our Lord. This is me practicing what I preach. It felt pretty good.