Shelter Experience Leaves Lasting Memories

shelter experience

Homeless Man Shares His Thoughts on Volunteering with Hospitality House, a Roaming Homeless Shelter

There was no shelter when I was homeless and living in my car. Even if there had been a shelter, I probably wouldn’t have gone. Too proud.

Nevertheless, several years later, I volunteered to help out when I learned there was a nomadic homeless shelter in Grass Valley, a small, Gold-Rush-Era town in Northern California.

As a roaming shelter, Hospitality House was entirely dependent on the largesse of 27 faith communities. We bussed several dozen guests to a different church every night.

Already a trained and experienced peer counselor with lived homeless experience, I figured I could maybe get a job as a staff monitor in about a year. I was hired after three months.

For the next three years, I mostly worked “cowboy shifts” several nights a week. I was the lone monitor on either the evening shift or the overnight shift. The job wasn’t easy; I won’t pretend it was. I had to learn to be a compassionate asshole. Sometimes, you kick butt. Sometimes, you just cut somebody a break.

Although much of it is just a blur of 10-year-old memories, certain incidents remain as clear as yesterday …


“You hate me because I’m gay!” Greta shouted at me.

“I don’t care if you are gay. I just don’t want you swearing in the damn church,” I told her as I wrote her up for swearing in the church.

Greta and I eventually became friends. We were close to getting her and her girlfriend housed.

Then one day she showed up naked and dead in a local park. Never did learn the exact cause of her death. To the police, she was just another dead homeless person. Nobody claimed her body.

Of the guests who died in the three years I worked for Hospitality House, losing Greta hurt the most.


“Were you in the Army?” asked I’m-not-supposed-to-be-here John.

“No, I ran a day camp,” I answered.

Using my angry, outside voice, I had just shut down a smoke break because I smelled marijuana. “I don’t care if it’s legal. The rules are the rules, and we are guests here. Everybody inside. Now!”

When you’re managing three dozen homeless people in a highly structured program in a very variable environment, you have to be … assertive.

Cowboy Betty

“I’m depressed,” Cowboy Betty told me.

“Of course, you’re depressed. You’re homeless,” I counseled her. “I’d be worried about you if you weren’t.”

Betty laughed and hit me with her beat-up Stetson.

Sometimes all you can do is offer a sense of humor and perspective.


Roger had the dull, hopeless look of a man condemned to die – and I felt like his executioner.

It was Christmas Eve. Under the no-mercy eyes of a Salvation Army major, I was cutting leg and armholes in plastic garbage bags so he could maybe survive the cold, freezing rain.

The hospital ER had promised me he was sober, but when he was delivered to the church by taxi, he blew numbers. Every guest was breathalyzed. To gain admission to our roaming shelter, you had to blow 0.00.

Finally, the major relented and let him stay as long as he slept in front of my station. I don’t think Roger really cared. He just laid down on the floor and went to sleep.

Christmas night another staff monitor at another church had to turn him away because he blew numbers. He froze to death. Merry fucking Christmas.

Sometimes you just cry – and tell the rest of the guests it’s time to get on the bus.


“How did you come to be in America?” I asked Sergei.

“By airplane.”

We were trained not to pry into guests’ lives, so I just laughed and dropped it. I never learned exactly what brought this classically trained and talented musician from Russia – or why he ended up homeless in a small town in Northern California.

Clean and sober and always pleasant, Sergei would sit down at a church piano and play something beautiful and classical that he just “made up.”

He was also the hard-rocking lead guitar in the shelter’s house band Home Free.

We loved Sergei, but we just couldn’t get him motivated to do anything but play music, which he would do anywhere any time on any instrument.

Once he played background music for free on a borrowed guitar at a lavish volunteers’ garden party. I suggested we buy him a day pass for an upcoming world music festival. The volunteers bought him a full pass – with spending money – to the whole five-day shindig.

Tom Durkin

Tom Durkin


Tom Durkin is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer. He has two degrees with honors from UCLA. He has been episodically homeless since 1979. At age 40, he was diagnosed as bipolar with three personality disorders, childhood PTSD and ADHD. "Well, that explained a lot," he laughs. Presently, at 71, he lives illegally and happily below the radar in a trailer on some friends' wildland property in the Sierra Nevada Foothills.

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