(1) I stay at the best shelter on the East Coast


… which shall here remain nameless, for reason that I also have harsh criticisms and don’t need any reader, however well-intentioned, to draw me into controversies not of my own choosing. The administration is rigid and authoritarian, and if I ever need to ask a favor it’s best I not be seen as a troublemaker.

I had ample time to prepare for homelessness. I packed up all my stuff neatly to make it easy for the landlady to dispose of. I gave away practically everything of durable value — dumbbells, tools, kitchen utensils, foodstuffs. Angie wanted to keep the bird feeder going after I would leave, so I showed her how. I was able to ask around and find out the highest-rated men’s homeless shelter in town. I went there at once when I became homeless March 7, 2011, and except for three nights, have been there ever since.

THUMBS UP

FACILITY. The shelter houses 60. The facility is little short of a palace. It’s new, well-lit, clean, and kept that way. On my first day there, in the shower, I wept with gratitude that God had provided such a place for people like me.

Around the corner is another shelter, 100 yards away, that houses 250. I spent three separate nights there. Many men have been there for years, and seem completely happy with their lot. I would not be. It’s poorly lit, appears dirty, and is infested with bedbugs. I will not sit down in the bathroom.

FOOD. Where I stay, supper normally will make you forget you’re homeless. It’s often restaurant-quality, for reason that many times it’s actually donated by restaurants. I wish we didn’t have spare ribs so often.

Breakfast is conventional: eggs, pancakes, grits, coffee, milk.

I see no reason for any shelter to be different.

Around the corner, according to a 03/11/11 e-mail to my brothers, “supper consists (sic) of a big bowl of what the clients call ‘chicken bone soup.’ 24 oz of this tasteless, thick stew made from potatoes, whole peas, kernel corn, and meat; and the chicken bones are right in there. None are removed. It’s served so hot that mealtime is nearly over before it cools down enough to eat. Side dish is sliced bread.”

Breakfast is the exact same thing.

It’s like this every day, there.

SHOWERS, CLOTHES, ETC. Where I stay, everyone must shower every day. A complete change of clothes is available every day, as well as any toiletries one may need: soap, shampoo, lotion, deodorant. Razors are available three times a week.

Around the corner, showers are optional. I never found out how to take one. Clothes are available three days a week. The sleeping area often reeks of body odor and dirty clothes, especially after rain (wet clothes).

BEDDING. Where I stay, every day you get a clean sheet and clean pillowcase, and blanket and pillow. Blankets and pillows are laundered once a week. You sleep on a mattress.

I see no reason for any shelter to be different. However, no other shelter that I know of provides bedding. If you don’t bring your own, you sleep on a bare mat (not a mattress).

ATMOSPHERE AND COST. The first night at this shelter is free; after that, it’s $3 per night. More about that shortly. They have a thousand picayune rules that they rigidly enforce. You can’t wear a hat or sunglasses or use your phone inside. You can’t wear sandals, short pants, a tank top or earphones in the dining room or chapel. Under no circumstances can you have a cigarette behind your ear. Peacekeepers watch your every move. If you threaten, let alone strike, anyone, you’re barred for life.

Thus it’s safe.

No other shelter that I know of charges any money. The shelter doesn’t need it. Its function is to screen out two kinds of people: (1) guys who panhandle only for liquor; and (2) bad actors. It is highly effective as to both.

Oddly, “bad actors” must include those who live really squalid, who won’t clean up after themselves, who for example leave discarded clothing on the shower room floor. We don’t live like that around here. After the first, free night, most guys like that never return.

For those who get barred out, of this or any other shelter, I have no particular compassion. In “Who are the homeless?” I said:

“About 25% of the homeless are on the street (not in shelters), and the overwhelming majority of them ARE on the street effectively by choice. Either they are drug addicts who would rather stay drunk or high than sleep indoors (a real trade-off); or they have a diseased concept of freedom, such that they will not follow anyone’s rules and have been barred out of every shelter in town.”

THUMBS DOWN

THE DAY ROOM consists of sixty chairs arranged in six rows, all facing the same direction. As detailed in “Prayer is work, too,” we are compelled to sit here for extended periods every day, ostensibly watching a wide-screen TV. In fact, the TV is almost never audible over men’s conversations, except sometimes during 60 Minutes or the CBS Evening News. (Homeless guys aren’t indifferent to world affairs.)

Around the corner, there is a game room where you can play board games, chess, or ping pong. There are tables where you (or I!) can write.

The principal issue here, where I stay, seems to be space. But if they were to supply computers, for example, some of us could use that time for job search.

RIGID HOURS. This is far more serious.

The shelter boots us out at 5:45 a.m., and you must take all your belongings with you. You cannot come back until 2:30 p.m. That’s when they open the gate. Check-in begins at 3:00. The mandatory shower must be taken between 3:00 and 5:30 p.m. They turn the water on at 3:00 and turn it off at 5:30. They close the gate at 5:30, or earlier if the shelter fills up before then. Supper is at 6:00, chapel at 7:00 and lights out at 9:00. There is no deviation from these hours, nor accommodation for anyone’s work schedule.

Bunks are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. If your job means you may not arrive until the shelter otherwise is full, they will not save a bunk for you.

As the shelter intends, with no anxieties about food, shelter, clothing or hygiene, one is free to devote all one’s energies to finding normal employment and housing. One has a firm foundation. But as to stepping up from that foundation, the mission offers no assistance at all — not to the homeless men. In some ways, it puts obstacles in one’s path instead.

It’s practically impossible to find a normal job that fits those hours. I am perfectly willing to work second shift or third shift, but they are impossible also.

It gets worse.

THE PROGRAM

Decades ago, the mission realized that addiction is a major cause of homelessness. So they correctly established a 12-month residential drug-and-alcohol treatment program. This very lightly rated program now serves 450 men.

Program participants are known officially as “clients” and informally as “programmers.” Us homeless guys are known officially as “guests” and informally as “overnighters.” Unfortunately, we whom the mission was first meant to serve, now often seem an afterthought.

Paid full-time staff help programmers find jobs and normal housing. Not us.

When winter approaches, applications to the program skyrocket with men who have no desire to get clean, but instead merely want to escape the cold. Program membership may exceed capacity, so that the program commandeers beds from the shelter. This may reduce the shelter’s capacity by half.

The shelter may fill to capacity at once when the gate opens. This situation strongly favors those who are idle all day long and so can afford to show up early and stand in line. Peacekeepers will come out immediately before the gate opens and count those in line. If 35 beds are available, only the first 35 will be admitted. This accounts for two of the three nights I spent around the corner.

CHAPEL

In “Chaos Overwhelms the Poor,” I said:

“At the shelter, chapel is mandatory every night. The shelter’s website doesn’t call it ‘chapel,’ but rather ‘a message of hope that real and permanent change is possible.’ In fact, the ‘real and permanent change’ in question is accepting Jesus as your personal savior, so that you will go to heaven, and not hell, when you die. That’s it. We get the same message every night.

“Now, I was born again in 1968, thank you very much, and accordingly have no concern about where I will go when I die. I want to hear about practical things I can do to improve my quality of life right now. On that topic, the chapel presenters are silent.”

Around the corner, it’s much the same. One night I heard the preacher start by saying, “I know you hear every night about how you need to get saved; and almost all of you ARE saved. Tonight I want to talk instead about what it means to LIVE as a Christian, once you’re born again; what it means to FOLLOW Jesus.” And I said within myself, “All right! Finally!” Well, from the content of the message, it turned out that “following Jesus,” in this man’s view, had one and only one feature: telling others that they need to get saved.

His goal was not that anyone leave homelessness. Rather, he only wanted “unsaved” homeless people to become “saved” homeless people.

That’s not what I call Christianity.

TRADEOFFS

Leaving the shelter to find my own place is not currently my first goal. Rather, I want to stop asking people for money. I don’t currently panhandle, but in a sense I might as well be, since I depend on regular gifts from family and friends to keep going. I don’t need much of a job to become self-supporting: $50 a week, before taxes, will do. With such a job, I will have ample free time to continue looking for something better. Any job that pays more than that will allow me to start saving towards a security deposit, and the first few weeks’ bus fare, for when I do find a job that will let me get my own place.

What about now?

As long as I stay at this shelter,
my appearance will be such that
I cannot succeed at panhandling
but on any given day, I can be ready to interview for any job I’d like.

If I were to stay anywhere else,
my appearance will be such that
I can do quite well at panhandling,
but no employer I’d want to work for will hire me.

Related: Must I work for Rent-A-Bum?

(Originally posted 12/07/13.)

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3 thoughts on “(1) I stay at the best shelter on the East Coast

  1. I’ve been homeless in Dublin, ireland for over 3 years…it’d be interesting to see the differences? Check out my blog!! It needs a lot more love!

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