Homeless shelters are always surprising me. The most recent surprise came April 1, when a group of volunteers gathered to close up the shelter at Augsburg Lutheran Church after four months of welcoming some 20 or more homeless men every night. The surprise? A number of those taking part in the closing were people who had been using the shelter those last 120 days.
Think about that. The shelter was being closed up until a new winter season, and while housing had been found for some of the guests, that was not true for all of them. Some of the workers that morning might not have had a place to stay that night, but they were still helping pack up their home.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Tom Dillon” link=”http://www.journalnow.com/opinion/columnists/tom-dillon-homeless-shelters-play-host-to-unexpected/article_ea007170-ddfb-11e4-98cd-cb328f553ebe.html?mode=jqm” size=”10″]But this I do know: That working in a homeless shelter will remind you that we’re all part of what used to be called the Family of Man, and that the family is in a lot better shape when all of its members are healthy and well-cared for.[/pullquote]
Volunteering at homeless shelters can be intimidating for people new to the idea; it was for me, too. I don’t know what I expected, but what I found was another surprise. Our shelter was a group of people mostly quite thankful for having a place to stay at night during the cold months, and busy, many of them, trying to get back into society.
One of the biggest draws – besides supper each night, and the gallons and gallons of coffee we all drank – was the cellphone charger available each evening. Think about that, too. When you don’t have a home, that cellphone is your only link with prospective employers, friends, and the outside world. We did have a computer set up in the church Family Life Center, and it got heavy use, too. But that can’t go with you.
The stories are legion, but few of them are complete. The very first night I worked there, I ran into someone who was homeless, but whose late wife was buried in the columbarium at the church. No, I don’t know his name, and I don’t know the story beyond that brief encounter. But it was another one of those surprises – a really touching one.
Then there was the night all the guys in the shelter got together a homemade birthday card for the overnight monitor from Anthony’s Plot, the small organization overseeing the overflow homeless shelters thro ugh the winter. Those are the people who had to stay up all night overseeing the shelters. With hope, some of them are catching up on sleep now.
Sure, we had our setbacks during the winter, like the time dinner didn’t arrive. We put in a great big order at a fast-food joint that night. Then there are always going to be illnesses or injuries, like the fellow who broke a leg in a construction accident or a couple of others using walkers. There will be people coming off addiction problems and legal problems and the like.
Then, too, it needs to be said that, however much you love the church, it’s not the Holiday Inn. The floors are hard, the mats help some but not as much as they might, and some people are inevitably going to snore; earplugs are popular. And then there’s that 5:30 a.m. wake-up call. How many of you willingly get up at 5:30 a.m. every day? How many of you willingly leave home no matter what the temperature?
It’s the good outcomes that keep all of us going. One of those was one Wednesday evening during Lent, when a former shelter resident described his “faith journey” to the congregation. He is now in an apartment and hoping to be able to resume his education, but last year that wasn’t the case. I think his testimony probably opened some eyes.
It’s easy for all of us to say that we’ll never be homeless. But it’s not necessarily so. I think back years to someone I worked with and traveled with and then lost touch with. I don’t know what happened to him, but he lost his home and job. He went from having regular bylines in the newspaper to living in a homeless shelter. At least once, a worker there recognized him and jumped to the conclusion that he was working on a story about them; the fact that he was a bona fide resident brought her up short.
I don’t know what has happened to my friend, just as I don’t know what will happen to many of our guests these past four months. But this I do know: That working in a homeless shelter will remind you that we’re all part of what used to be called the Family of Man, and that the family is in a lot better shape when all of its members are healthy and well-cared for.
Tom Dillon is a retired journalist and habitual volunteer for several causes.