Confessions of an Emergency Family Shelter Worker, Part III

BY Patrick Carrico


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 three in a series of memories from an emergency family shelter I worked at in Portland Oregon. Click here for part two.

Signs, Signs, Everywhere There’s Signs

I suppose people wonder what the inside of a homeless shelter looks like. More often than not, they are little more than an open space with rectangles marked off on the floor in blue painter’s tape.

Sometimes there are cots, often yoga mats. Sometimes there are hypoallergenic mattresses. Every shelter I have worked at has tidily displayed 8.5×11 printouts of improvised rules. These rules are ever-changing, and disobeying them can lead to exclusion.

A family shelter was no different. And, as these rules were ever-changing, they often contradicted whatever rules the parents had in place.

You could see the children’s first experience with their parents’ fallibility for families new to homelessness. People naturally tried to make walls around their tiny spaces in the family shelter to hide from prying eyes and mark a sense of territory. This was against the rules.

Mike and I printed out our own signs to compliment the other ones:

In bold 72-point font, one of our signs read, “Please Read These Stern Words.”

“No signs here,” was another.

“Please do not read this” was a good one.

“No.” was a sentimental favorite.

We didn’t write, “Your Doctor’s note is required for unexcused absences; otherwise, you may lose your bed.” But we found it particularly offensive.

As shelter workers, were we to authenticate these notes? Also, who has access to a ‘doctor.’ Furthermore, the shelter was never full.

You could almost smell the interaction that led to this particular sign being posted. Some shelter worker felt personally insulted by someone claiming sickness as a reason for missing attendance. Instead of a personal discussion, they printed a sign.

There had been toys in a play area.

But the toys were gone, and a particularly stern sign read: “Do NOT leave children unattended.” Despite the space looking, for all intents and purposes, like a kind of play area, the sign begged to differ… indeed, the sign took personal offense to the idea.

A teen named Monique was already awake. Glancing at my phone, I saw it was 4:30 am. She was turning on the percolators and arranging the cups on the cart.

“Is there any milk?” she asked me in a whisper, barely audible over the wheezing of 50 people in the auditorium.

“Let me check,” going into the kitchen. There was none. There were small containers of milk products I did not recognize. I dreaded the disappointment of the families when there would be no milk for the cereal. I’d have to make a note of that in the $2,000 shelter Macbook. “Na,” I told Monique.

“Ok,” she said solemnly—the first of the day’s disappointments.

I went outside to smoke. Nadine was in the parking lot.

I knew Nadine from a previous shelter where I had worked. She writhed and danced as the heroin mixed with the meth and played some unheard music her body involuntarily danced to.

At the last shelter, over countless cigarettes, we mused over plans for her reentry into society. Even at the time, her speculating of rehab, housing, and redemption was an attempt to make me feel better about myself. The idea of redemption used to be a prerequisite to maintaining a polite conversation with me. Here, two years later, she was standing outside the family shelter in the snow under the awning of the temple, her eyes regrouping and mustering a light of recognition for the substantial amount of time we spent together.

She looked like shit. She did. So did I. She started speaking as if no time had passed.

“I had $20 to begin the night,” she turned dramatically to one side to address the past, “…and Tyler and I got a Hurricane. I don’t need much, but he said he could get some stuff for ten, so I was all ok. Whatever. He disappeared for like three hours with my ten dollars, leaving me with like seven. I was going to wait for him.”

Every part of her growing story came with a distinct Nadine laugh.

“Some dude was like hey, come party with me, so I did, but I left before it got weird. I fell asleep and chased my daughter through the shadows for a while,” she articulated the notion of sleep in her story by leaning forward at an uncomfortable angle, resting her face on her folded hands.

“I was just about to catch her when Tyler showed up, and the stuff wasn’t that good, but Tyler is a good man.”

With a wave of the arm, she drew my attention down the street to where, under a street light, a man was disassembling the contents of a heavily burdened shopping cart in the slush and rain.

“What kind of shelter is this?” she finally asked.

“Family shelter,” I said.

“That’s funny,” she giggled.

“Why?” I asked about the least funny place I had ever seen.

“Sounds terrible,” she giggled. “I mean, I know the answer to this, but who isn’t in a family of some kind?”

“Women, children, men… anyone who identifies as being in a family,” I dryly explained.

“Duh,” she said. “Is my daughter in there?” she asked herself, turning from side to side at the waist. She had always spoken of her lost daughter. I met her when I lost my son. Years ago, when she was nodding off, standing upright downtown, refusing to go into the shelter, I stole her luggage and walked away. Reluctantly she followed me, accusing me of all manner of crimes at the top of her lungs. We looked like a typical street couple.

“Just a bunch of people and kids,” I said.

“I stayed in a shelter with my daughter once. It was like the first shelter I ever stayed at,” Nadine said, eying the shelter door by turning her body dramatically from side to side, keeping her bobblehead fixed. “I ain’t going in there,” she giggled. “But I have seven dollars left, and McDonald’s opens in two hours. I just want a cup of coffee there, ya know.”

I took this as my cue to go inside and make coffee for her.

Inside, the cold damp on my shoulders seemed clean against the thick humid, twice breathed air.

Monique was still waiting for the percolators, the coffee wasn’t ready, but there were beautiful espresso machines. The old temple espresso machine muttered and cleared its throat as it built up heat and pressure.

Fumbling through the fridge, I remembered we were out of regular milk. We had soy, almond, and some milk I didn’t recognize (it was a pale tan color, reminiscent of the color of dead flesh)—no normal milk.

I steamed some almond milk and made two lattes, and made my way back outside.

“Oh, thanks,” Nadine said diplomatically after sipping hers. “I’m going to put that right here,” she said, contorting and twisting as she put the cup on the wet pavement.

I was a little disappointed that my coffee wasn’t well received and began to apologize, “we didn’t have regular milk… just fancy healthy stuff.”

“La-de-da,” she laughed. “I mean, I don’t want an espresso. I don’t want a fucking… escargot or hors d’oeuvre,” she said. “I want to sit down at McDonald’s.” She punctuated each syllable with a step in place.

I’d have liked to sit with her. As pressing as my work duties, so was my subsequent attendance at the bar. I’d have to skip Mcdonald’s. Looking at my phone, I saw it was getting close to 5 am. I went back into the shelter for the wake-up call.

Wakeups were solemn, rage-filled, and sometimes a little silly. People awoke to find either it all wasn’t a dream, and they were still homeless, or with the absurd glee at waking up around some damn good people.

The toddlers stampeded up and down the steps of the stage. Donated hygiene articles were metered out.

As the crowd thinned, the tiny tragedies became more apparent. Monique was in charge of her three younger brothers. Her younger brothers were doted on, asked questions about their favorite colors, and invited to play with toys. Monique corralled backpacks, worried about time, and propped her mother up like a cane. She didn’t have a gleam of childish mischief in her eye, just dark, sad worry, those brothers and mother pulling her in so many separate directions.

I wondered when she’d break, what that would look like.

Alone again, at the bar, drinking breakfast, I thought about Monique, a teenager, trying to corral her three younger brothers and how their escaping in three separate directions elicited a Nadine-like dance in her.

I thought about how people, in turn, one by one, stopped to say how cute her younger brothers were, never a word of praise for her. Then I saw Nadine pass on the street with a Mcdonald’s cup of coffee, and that made me feel less alone… but then my eyes settled on the inert lump of ancient human next to me. He was a stranger, his eyes unfocused, a cheap beer in a koozie he brought from home. It was just a matter of time for me.

Looking in my wallet, I realized I had seven dollars left. A sign behind the bar read, “If you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to drink.”

Check back for Part IV in this series.

Patrick Carrico

Patrick is a writer, and former emergency family shelter worker in Portland Oregon.

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