Community Voices

AT HOME WITH THE HOMELESS: A day in the shelterhood

People who know my situation have asked, “Can you describe what it’s like to be homeless?” I’ve been pondering on that subject off and on for months. This is the result of said pondering.

What was most surprising was how well I made the adjustment. I’m not saying it was easy, but it wasn’t the nightmare that most people envision. Once you’ve found a place to sleep where you won’t get hassled, you have a working food stamp card, and you happen to live in a temperate climate zone, it’s a lot easier than it used to be. Not too long ago, the rules at shelters were stricter, there was less room, and violence was rampant.

There are still rules, but there is more flexibility and less of the “you can sleep here, but that’s it” mentality. Also, frankly, the threat of being kicked out of a shelter is a powerful incentive to refrain from violence. Harsh words, yes, but any further than that, and out you go.

People who are used to having numerous sleep aids at hand–e.g., white noise, melatonin, lavender, alprazolam, and cannabis–will have to make adjustments. Even with the addition of sleep masks and earplugs, a room full of sleeping people is rarely quiet. The sounds of mass numbers of men coughing, sneezing, and snoring, mixed with the tortured metal scraping of cheaply made walkers and wheelchairs as their users go to and from the bathroom, can be blocked out to some extent, but never completely. Also, factor in the odd insomniac or three who’s up all night watching videos, with or without earphones.

Some shelters do provide one or two hot meals a day. If you’re that lucky, the choices can range from burritos and salad with mayo dressing to teriyaki chicken, rice, and vegetables donated from a local restaurant. It’s strictly potluck or ad hoc. Most of the men and women at the shelter I’m in alternate between meals provided by staff and the grocery store based on budget and dietary restrictions.

So far, that doesn’t sound too bad, does it? 1-3 hots and a cot, with freedom of movement (via bus or a fellow resident with wheels) and shelter from the capricious elements. But there is a downside. The very nature of your status dictates that.

Friendships can be made but are tenuous. When you have nothing, you’re more likely to share, but disagreements over payback can come to blows. And people still die in shelters. Luckily, I haven’t seen any sheet-covered corpses wheeled out since I’ve been “inside,” but it only stands to reason that the longer your stay, the more likely you will feel Death enter the room.

The worst is isolation from loved ones. Visits can be arranged, but long hours and days of separation are the norm. And if you have a loved one who isn’t well and needs care, the stress of improving your lot can be overwhelming. Staying in touch over the phone is not the same as touching the ones you love. And there’s the issue of relationships with staff.

Once you’ve been in the workplace for a few years and have had to deal with bureaucrats, you learn there are three types to deal with. The first kind are the best: they have enough empathy to know how you feel because they’ve been there and/or they were raised to be kind and helpful to others.

The second kind is doing the job to get it done and the bills paid while being thankful that they’re not where you are. And then, there’s the third kind. The kind who regard their position by how much power it gives them over others.

You’ve heard the expression, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Some people, once they put on the uniform, are all too willing to use that power capriciously. And the more you resist or talk back against unreasonable treatment, the more they are encouraged to behave in that manner.

The biggest elephant in the room is mental health. Those who have what I call intractable disorders, like schizophrenia, are going to have an uphill battle to function normally, let alone be able to live independently. The only real tools we seem to have for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are psycho-pharmaceutical. And the pill that controls your disorder may reduce you to a numb, zombie-like existence. If you had to choose between that and uncontrolled hallucinations and repeated hospitalizations, could you? It’s the ultimate Hobson’s Choice.

Shelter life, no matter how regimented or laissez-faire, boils down to this: If you’re going to get out, it’s mostly going to be up to you. There are people who are genuinely helpful, and you will know them by their actions, but they cannot–and should not–shoulder your whole burden. You can end up staying weeks, months, or years, depending largely on your behavior and random chance. You can get help. But you have to ask for it, and you have to do at least half the work.

And that’s why I end every column with this statement:

Better days are coming… if we work for them.