Author’s Note: Homeless shelters are a terrible symptom of our country’s broken housing and mental health system. Homeless shelters give shelter workers God-like power over people’s lives. We are a flawed species, and it should be no surprise that when placed in a confined space and put under a great deal of pressure, terrible things happen. In shelters, I have seen the best of human behavior, but more often I have seen the worst. This is part one in a series of memories from an emergency family shelter I worked at in Portland Oregon.
It was the final day. The shelter was closing. The snow was gone, and the grass was dead in muddy paths leading to the temple doors. It had been a grim six months.
I had worked in a few shelters before, but this one was a rare orgy of suffering and martyred staff. I guess it’s different when children are involved.
In adult shelters, the workers often are borderline homeless themselves. They have big hearts and a vast body of experiences to build empathy on. Children’s shelters ring the dinner bell to bring the sociopaths, the evangelicals, and Christ figures to feed on the suffering, all for the sake of a social media post. A social work selfie.
Some of our co-workers had planned closing parties. The non-profit in charge had scheduled a photoshoot for their vampiric fundraising.
Mike and I looked forward to locking the front doors one last time. But what we had hoped to avoid was happening during the very last 10 minutes. Catherine had finally cornered Butterfly and, with a cruel smirk, was making her lose her kids.
Butterfly was in cuffs now. The officers were making calls. Most of the other shelter guests who had gathered to watch were dispersing with their own children. They had to find a place to stay that night.
The guilt was just now hitting me. Half relieved it was over, I was also mortified I couldn’t stop it.
Butterfly’s kids were still inside. Beautiful, inquisitive, articulate, hilarious monsters – kids who knew no prejudice yet. They played joyously with Catherine’s children, the woman who had just gotten their mother arrested. I was living the moment their lives changed. I played a part. The God damned shelter played a part.
Reconsidering “my career” at that point, I thought back to the first shelter I ever worked at in Portland, Oregon. There was John, the chess master. I told him I was writing a book about homeless people in Portland.
“That’s cute, man. It really is,” John said, dancing in place at the stupidity of what I had just confided in him.
“What’s cute?” I was worried. Few things were cute in a homeless shelter.
“A whole book about… homeless people. That’s cute. I mean, stupid cute. I don’t mean it disrespectfully, for real.”
Confused, I said, “I don’t get it.”
I had figured I had offered him an insight into my plans to immortalize the blood-soaked chaos that we had both just witnessed.
“I mean, think about it. You are going to write a book, a book you expect people to fucking read, right? About the homeless. How the fuck you think folks get homeless?” he asked.
“Patrick, they become homeless because ain’t nobody gives a FUCK about homeless people. Now think about it. You are going to write a book about people nobody gives a FUUUUCK about. It’s cute. Ain’t nobody gives a fuck about the homeless. You are going to write a book about homeless people.”
He stopped and thought for a moment, then rephrased his position more delicately, “Ain’t nobody gonna give a fuck,” he concluded.
That conversation has bounced through my head for years.
I wrote that first homelessness book, and surprise, surprise, nobody gave a fuck. Readings, author revenue statements – zero interest. And all the while, Chess Master John’s voice echoed in my head. It echoed as clear as the day he first said it when I read his obituary in the paper.
“Write me dirty letters in prison,” Butterfly said from the window of the cop car.
The cop turned to look at her and shook his head. Another lady, Lara, laughed heartily and shoved me. She was a thick woman, and it caused me to stumble. I think the arrest was somewhat a relief for everyone as we had shifted from crisis to giggling. Lara waited for the cop to turn away, and she snuck up to the open window and put a cigarette in Butterfly’s mouth. Cigarette dangling in her mouth, she explained, “I have a warrant in North Dakota. They’re gonna take me back. I mean, fuck. Eight years old. It had nothing to do with what happened this morning.”
The cop noticed us and started to walk towards the car, so we all scattered. Butterfly spat the cigarette out. We watched the cop kick it and roll up her window. Her silhouette gave a wave.
That was the last day of the Emergency Family Shelter that year in Portland, Oregon. There were so many kids stumbling through with noses caked in snot, asking the simple impossible questions we’ve all forgotten how to ask. And there were kids shrieking in pain, emotional and physical. There were kids wrapped up in blankets hastily exiting in the middle of the night, their mothers or fathers too scared to cry. And there were us, crazy shelter workers, trying to keep sane amidst it all.