There’s no way I’m pretending to be the average homeless person. (There is no such creature.) I’m not one of the unfortunate Invisible People society so shamefully neglects in plain sight. I am more fortunate than most. Nevertheless, as someone with a laundry list of psychiatric disorders, I’ve had suicidally depressed episodes of homelessness in my life where it took all my wits to pass as one of “us” instead of one of “them.”
Still, I identify with “them” more than I do with “us.” Almost 10 years ago, I decided to volunteer to help my people in a homeless shelter …
Am I the only atheist in this foxhole? I wondered.
It was 2010, and all around me people were reporting personal conversations with God or Jesus Christ telling them to help “the homeless.” The lesser elite among them said their instructions came from their minister, priest, pastor or in one case, a rabbi.
We were in a training class to be volunteers at a nomadic homeless shelter called Hospitality House in Grass Valley, a small town in Northern California.
When it came around to me, I just said: “I used to be homeless. I thought maybe I could be a role model that homelessness doesn’t have to be a permanent thing.” Or something like that.
Because it’s my nature to do things the hard way every time, I volunteered to work the overnight shift. Midnight to breakfast.
Overnight volunteers were allowed to sleep on a mat on the floor just like our “guests.” We were there as back-up for middle-of-the night emergencies and help the staff monitor during the chaotic morning breakfast.
As a nomadic shelter, we bussed several dozen guests to a different church every night. The guests were served dinner and allowed to do whatever they wanted to do (within strict parameters) until lights out at 10:30 p.m.
The overnight volunteer’s main job was to help the staff monitor wake up the guests at 6 a.m. We had to get them dressed, fed, packed up and back on the bus by 7:30. That included leaving the church as clean as or cleaner than we found it. It was almost like we were never there.
Hospitality House was (and still is) almost entirely dependent on the largesse of the faith community of Nevada County. Nevertheless, I was gratified – and relieved – to learn that Hospitality House has a strict, non-secular policy.
The church folks were allowed to conduct a prayer before dinner. That’s all. No proselytizing allowed. No guest was forced to pretend to pray – but they had to show respect for our gracious hosts.
Growing up in Kansas, I had been whipped by the Bible Belt. Like many of the guests, God was about as relevant to me as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.
Of course, many of the guests were deeply religious, and I had to respect that. Whatever gets you through the long, cold, dark night.
I quickly learned two things as an overnight volunteer. Sleeping on the floor is a bitch – and I wanted to be hired as a staff monitor.
From working a suicide/drug abuse hotline in the ’70s to teaching high school peer counseling in the ’80s to co-leading a single fathers’ support group in the ’90s, I knew I was qualified. Besides that, I had a degree in psychology from UCLA, years and years of therapy, peer-level training – and oh yeah, lived experience with homelessness.
Sleeping on the floor on a mat isn’t awful, but getting up off the floor is difficult and painful. I have a whole laundry list congenital deformities and back injuries, mostly starting with the letter “s” (spinal stenosis, sciatica, scoliosis, shattered vertebra and several other conditions I can’t spell or pronounce).
Instead of sleeping, I stayed up all night. Sometimes, I talked with the monitor, read the arcane employee manual or worked on my laptop. I was building a reputation (and income) as a freelance feature writer for the local daily and weekly newspapers.
I figured it would take a year to get hired as a staff monitor, but I was hired after only three months. A monitor who I had worked with broke her leg, and she recommended me to replace her.
Over the few years, I learned to work the day shift, the evening shift and the overnight shift. On the night shifts, I brought my computer. If I was working the evening shift, the computer attracted people to my desk to look up job opportunities, old boyfriends/girlfriends, sports scores or just to settle trivia bets.
On the overnight shifts, I wrote articles, edited photos – and wrote short one-sheets of the duties for each shift. Nobody read the official manual, and sometimes, without warning, a monitor had to cover a shift they’d never worked before.
The executive director didn’t especially appreciate my enterprising endeavor, but the case manager insisted my one-sheets become a permanent part of the manual.
Like kids with a substitute teacher, some guests would try to con a new monitor into an extra smoke break or some other privilege like going into the church kitchen (off limits). Shortly, after I became a staff monitor, I was surprised one morning when three different guests made a point of thanking me for watching over them all night.
What? That’s my job. I wandered around the sleeping quarters several times a night, making sure everything was copacetic. It was a no-brainer to me. These were my people, and I was there to keep them safe.
Apparently, some overnight monitors were known to fall asleep, a firing offense if caught. The woman who recommended me never did, but the woman who officially trained me fell asleep watching a movie on her computer. I didn’t wake her. She got herself fired soon enough.
At the end of my first year, the lead monitor asked me what was the most surprising thing I’d learned.
“Joy.” I had learned joy. As do most people who serve others, I get as much, if not more, reward out of helping people than the people I help. It’s kind of a selfish altruism.
Sometime in my second year, I was working the evening shift. The church dinner crew was packing up to leave. One of the church ladies recognized me from my freelance work, and she asked me the forbidden question:
“What church do you belong to?”
Nobody had asked that question of me since I’d left Kansas in 1965. In Kansas, “What church do you belong to?” was generally the second question people asked you after finding out your name.
I was baffled for a moment. Then I gestured at my people on the floor.
“This is my church.”