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 two in a series of memories from an emergency family shelter I worked at in Portland Oregon. Click here for part one.
Jamie stabbed at his Fruit Loops with his spoon like an old lady stabbing her vodka cranberry with a straw at the bar. The front hall of the shelter was dimly lit and quiet. Not quite 4 am.
“I couldn’t sleep last night. I mean, I know they mean well, but Christ,” he said, amazed at the melting colors floating in the milk. “They kept talking to us, and Brie wouldn’t let me go. They found all these things on the computer. You know the shelter-worker-people who work nights. I know how to work a God Damned computer. But it’s like you don’t want to hurt their feelings, which sounds dumb. Here my ass is cold and tired, and I’m trying to make some social workers feel better about their job.”
“I hear that a lot,” I said.
I’d worked in shelters for a while. The most common reaction a new employee had to realize just how shitty homeless life is, was to hold a computer between them and the homeless person, then google the symptoms of homelessness.
“After work, we have a DHS appointment and then a rent class of some kind. Then it’s across town for a shower. They were DICKS at the other shelter. It’s like they didn’t believe I had a job when I said I couldn’t meet the case manager in the morning. It’s fucking a second full-time job being homeless. Or like having a newborn. And then they wanted to take a fucking picture of us looking grateful for their website or some shit. CPS sees that shit.”
Jamie leaned back and closed his eyes for a second. The bowl of cereal in his hand began to drop. He snapped back awake and had a quizzical look on his face, then walked down the hall toward the bathroom. I went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and to make Jamie a lunch for work.
Mike was clutching his scalp and staring at the blue light of his phone as if to hold his receding hairline in place against the melting radioactive effects of Facebook. He wore his name tag upside down and appeared to have recently crawled out from under the shelter building.
The kids liked him.
I think he had been talking to me before I got to the kitchen as I seemed to arrive mid-sentence.
“My shoes still on, confused. I had to paw my way along the wall looking for a light switch. I found a handle, and I thought I was in a closet because it seemed like a more cluttered space and I was going to give up and go back in the room but a car passed by on the street and I saw headlights down the hall, so I knew it wasn’t a closet….”
“I’m going to make a lunch,” I motioned to the refrigerator behind Mike. Opening the door, I saw we were out of anything edible. By this time, I had realized it was another retelling of one of his traumatic Tinder dates.
“…so I was walking down 82nd… this town looks just like New Jersey, although I’ve never really been outside of the city. I see the pictures on the internet of waterfalls and shit, but I’ve not seen them. Really, I don’t leave Chinatown, which I’ll never do again after that. Weeping about her children…”
I liked Mike as he saw merit in the worst parts of this town, the parts I loved when I was younger. That New Jersey nativity reminded me of my child’s eye looking at Portland as a kid; that maybe there was a reason not to burn down this town or kill myself as publicly as possible.
He faced the black kitchen windows and continued:
“I mean, this place is a nightmare – a nightmare. But I leave this nightmare to try and interact with the world, and a woman who bikes to work and has physical stamina and strength holds me by my neck against a closet door in some terrible little dark drywall apartment. I am just going from an urban nightmare to a suburban nightmare. I mean, I see how people become homeless. Are these even homes?” he gestured at the pitch-black night.
I opened another double-door fridge. Quinoa and vegan enchiladas. Luckily they were three days old and, at the stroke of midnight, and it was my duty to throw them out. “These designer foods must have cost a fortune,” I remarked. Mike peered over the lid of the trash can into the congealing mess.
“It doesn’t stop, night after night, more healthy food feeding the healthy dumpster,” he said.
“I mean, they are standing right the fuck there, doesn’t it click… doesn’t it compute these terrible fucks that these people don’t want… can’t stomach this shit?” I complained.
“I heard Gillian laughing, calling meat’ animal carcass.’ I mean, she doesn’t have to like poor people’s food, but to mock it in front of children….” Mike trailed off.
We’d been through this rant before.
There was no use in concluding again that the function of homeless shelters isn’t to keep people safe but to make people who work in them, people with homes, feel less guilty about having homes. Empty-handed and hungry, we returned to the front desk.
Jamie walked out of the bathroom but didn’t return to his spot by his cereal. He looked at his feet as he passed me. I headed to the bathroom to pee. Grinning and shaking my head at the nonsense of Mike’s narrative, I stopped to make eye contact with myself in the mirror. There’s been a lot written about the alienation of mirrors and aging. Recognizing one’s self and being shocked by the ravages of time. I’m more bored of my own company. Something odd caught my eye behind me. Like a horror film, in the bat of an eye, I saw the bathroom walls were doused in blood.
Turning on my heels and getting another look, I discovered that, yes, the walls were evenly sprayed with blood. And blood puddled on the floor.
That iron, salt sting filled my nostrils. There’s an odd cream-like scent to the finish of blood smell; it reminded me of sitting on a curb after a bike accident as a kid and staring into the vortex of one’s own broken skin. I stifled a vomit and returned to the front hall.
“…her landlord had like a mullet, and I didn’t understand why he was there. Aren’t people supposed to avoid their landlords? Is that some weird Pacific Northwest thing? To be friends with your landlord? I’m never going to be friends with my landlord….” Mike was saying to Jamie.
“Mike, you should take a look in the bathroom,” I tried to interject, smirking politely at Jamie, who sat with his head in his hands, a safe distance from his cereal.
“I don’t know if they were doing drugs together or what, but if my landlord….”
Previously Mike and I had worked at a low-barrier women’s shelter. Since then, I have gone on to manage some kids’ shelters then substitute teach. Mike continued to work in low-barrier shelters, and I relied on the strength of his guts at times like this.
“Go look in the bathroom,” I said through clenched teeth. Shortly after, Mike returned, smirking.
We convinced Jamie to go in the ambulance, even though he insisted he had to go to work and all he needed was sleep. He even tried to return to his cot next to his wife and child, but we convinced him to go. We were no doctors, but ‘couldn’t you drown in your blood or something?’
He was still protesting when the ambulance arrived. Its lights flashed against the remaining snow on the street. I wished him good hospital drugs, and Mike and I turned and walked back to the shelter. It was 4:30 am, and 70 or so people would wake up soon and need that one bathroom. Maybe 40 children, crusty-eyed, not knowing where they were, excitement brewing in their tummies over the coming of Christmas stumbling toward the bathroom for a morning pee.
There was a janitor’s closet at the top of the stairs, and we cobbled together a collection of old rags, expired bleach, and empty trash bags. Returning to the bathroom, the sweet, creamy finish of the blood smell was pretty thick, and much of it had already started to turn black.
“I mean, I wasn’t there at the last shelter when the baby was born… which is a shame, really. I had to just clean up after the blessed event on Christmas. Wow, a year ago. In a bathroom stall alone with blood is probably the most lonely….”
I cut him off with a dry heave. He shrugged and splashed some bleach on the wall. It diffused and separated the blood and oozed down the wall, and splattered our shoes.
“People at the goddamned shelter wanted to name the kid after the shelter. Can you imagine the rest of your life being named after the homeless shelter bathroom you were born in? And that’s the kid conceived in the shelter you and I worked at before that. What’s the fucking song in Fiddler on the Roof?”
We both froze momentarily. The shelter was in a synagogue, and we both had to quickly consider whether mentioning Fiddler was anti-semitic. God answered with a hair-raising explosion; lightning arched from an outlet the blood had soaked into, cooking the residual human flesh and chunks of esophagus.
I had a brief inspiration. My mind considered the briny tide pools on the planet’s surface billions of years ago and perhaps the flash of lightning being the spark of life. I knew I was getting manic.
Another flash, and I jumped, not wanting to die in a pool of someone else’s blood. It was the camera flash of Mike’s camera. Stunned, I lost my footing and did an involuntary impersonation of Bambi on the ice. My shame disappeared, and I posed.
Mike tied the top of a full black garbage bag and left the bathroom to dispose of our trophies.
Alone I watched residual blood trickle down the sink drain, diluted with the constant drip from the faucet. The thought of Jamie’s kid made me think of my own and the hideous abstraction of Christmas. I contributed to the mess in the sink with my mix of cereal, digested whiskey, and blood, my shaking heaves, flapping gloved hands and spreading tiny blood drops around me.
Jamie returned from the ER a few days later. Portland emergency rooms release people directly to homeless shelters without follow-up care plans all the time. He devolved quickly as the meth he took to work long hours eroded the Fruit Loops eating silly father we remembered.