Little Things

My second day at the shelter, a woman was brought into the dorm and left in the women’s lounge, much as I had been the day before. She shrunk into a corner of one of the sofas and wept. The day before, that had been me, crying until I fell asleep in front of the television. I had been the only woman staying at the dorm that first night, so there had been no one around to comfort me or help in the transition. I was determined that this woman, Rhonda, wouldn’t have to go it alone.

Rhonda was in her fifties, with grown children, grandchildren and family that lived nearby. Her youngest daughter told me that her mother had been a great mother and and friend to her and her sisters their whole life. Overnight, though, she had become a loathsome burden. Maybe that is a bit of an overstatement, but I know it is how Rhonda felt.

After finding the courage to escape from a bad marriage, Rhonda accepted her daughter’s invitation to move in with her, her children and her boyfriend. Everyone was excited that there would now be a live-in babysitter for the young children. Rhonda thought that finally her life was changing for the better. It was, until her daughter’s abusive boyfriend decided it was too much trouble having another person in the house. While her daughter was at work, he drove Rhonda with one suitcase and a backpack, to the Salvation Army shelter and drove off.

I tried to imagine how you went from valued family member to burden in one step. I tried to imagine how it would feel to have family know you were staying at the Salvation Army and do nothing about it. I vehemently hid from myself that this was just a shade away from being my situation, too. Some things hurt too much and it serves no one to pick at the truth like a raw sore.

Rules

I guess I sort of lucked out on my first night at the Salvation Army in that I was the only woman in the dorm. It would be the only night this would happen, but it was great to not have to deal with someone else’s trauma as I was trying to deal with my own.

The first thing you learn are the rules. The second thing you learn is that many of those rules are not only made to be broken, but will be bent, broken and ignored on an ongoing and increasing basis. Especially the ones about men entering the women’s dorm.

When all is right with the world, this Salvation Army shelter has a female dorm manager and a male dorm manager. When I was there, they had recently lost their female dorm manager, so the male managers entered at will. I learned to be very careful what I wore at all times and how I managed nudity, such as showering and dressing. After that first night, I had other women who could stand watch and we showered in the buddy system. Had the Captain known this, he would have gone ballistic. He was adamant about protecting the women who were in his care, but he couldn’t be there twenty-four hours a day.

Ah, the Captain. Every Salvation Army has a captain. He is the pastor, the manager, and the moral compass. He has more to do than any one person could manage, but he tries. The captain in charge while I was there looked like Santa and had a heart as big as Christmas. It was because of his big heart that a lot of the craziness happened.

The Salvation Army shelter served breakfast and a warm meal every night. During the day, residents (as we were called) were kicked out at 7 a.m. sharp and not allowed back in until 5 p.m. It happened to be the dead of winter when I was there and the sun was not up yet when people were ushered out into the freezing morning. I had a car, which meant I could stay warm and drive somewhere. No one else did and I would see them walking in huddled packs, seeking warmth and a place to rest.

My mini-van was full of what I had left of earthly possessions, so I couldn’t take on more than one passenger. Often it would be Rhonda, but a few days I just wanted to be alone. Alone meant a whole new thing and sometimes it was what brought me back my peace and sanity when things where particularly crazy at the shelter.

Things were crazy quite often. After the lights where turned off at nine and everyone was supposed to be in bed, the night manager would come get Rhonda and I and let us get snacks from the kitchen. I often took a pudding pack that I would eat before I went to sleep. Food in the dorms was forbidden, but that little pudding pack was a comfort to me. So many little things like that became some of the most important parts of my day.

I know that I was one of the lucky ones because I never had to sleep out on the streets. You are only allowed to stay at the shelter for one week and then they start charging you. It is a small fee, but not everyone has that fee. They never charged me because by the time my first week was over, I was helping take care of the women’s dorm (in the absence of a women’s dorm manager) and I helped with the meals they served. I had sort of become an unofficial member of the shelter team.

Now that I am no longer homeless, I still find comfort in little things. I am grateful every single day for the fact that I have a home now and I have someone who takes care of me. I still feel special when I eat a pudding pack and I never forget why they came to mean so much to me.

There is the tired old saying that you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. I found that very much to be true, but I found that the small stuff was what got you through the day. It was helping other homeless people during the evening meal. It was having a car to stay warm in during frigid winter mornings and having a car to lock away things you didn’t want stolen from the dorms. It was seeing smiling faces when you returned to the shelter every evening. It was those dang pudding packs every night before bed.

Shortly before I left the shelter for the last time, Rhonda got a call from some family members that were aghast to hear that her daughter’s boyfriend had put her in a shelter. They offered her both a home and a job and I will never forget the relief on her face after that phone call. It was like she had been re-inflated just knowing there was someone who cared enough to take her in.

I talked to her a few months later and she was happy and peaceful. She had new meaning in her life and had found her own small things to get her through the day. After that, we lost touch.

The Salvation Army charged that fee after the first week because they were trying to send the message that it was a temporary shelter. For those who can make homelessness temporary, it becomes a life changing experience that never leaves you. For those less fortunate who don’t get that hall pass out, it becomes a way of life that has fewer of the little things and is marked more by struggle than triumph. It was a triumph that I made my way out. I pray every day for those who haven’t or can’t. I pray every day that maybe I can make a difference. I pray.

Kelly Robinson is a formerly homeless artist and writer who brings a middle-class view of homelessness, and like many people today is just a paycheck or two away from life on the road again.

11 Comment(s)

  1. Dear Kelly,

    I very much enjoyed your writing here. You are so right about the little things that can make all the difference, in just how well you may sleep one night. I know.

    The person who said, “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is just too blase for my taste. All the small stuff is important. The Bible says, to paraphrase, if you cannot handle the small stuff, you certainly will not handle the big stuff. And none of that good big stuff will be given to you.

    Thank you for writing.

    Kerry Echo

    Kerry Echo | Jul 9, 2009 | Reply

  2. Kerry,

    Is that your real name? What a great name!

    Anyway, thank you for writing. You are so right about the little things. Even today I have little pieces and parts of my day that blend one day into the next with little happy bits.

    It doesn’t take much for me. It used to be my dog, Molly, with her face looking up at me or the way she followed me around to anywhere in the house I was and watched me out of the glass door if I walked across the street. Molly passed away a few weeks ago and I found that I need to find some new things that would fill the void of her little face not being there anymore. In time, it will be easier. My daughter, who lives in a different state than I do, got a new dog yesterday and was afraid to tell me, afraid to upset me. It did a little, but I am so happy for her. So there you go, a little happy bit.

    I really do still feel happy when I eat pudding, but it has to be out of one of those pudding packs and it has to be without a spoon. We couldn’t risk sneaking the spoons into the dorms, so I devised a way to use the tear-off lid as a spoon. That is the only way I like to eat it now. It’s funny, isn’t it, these little things that become so big to us?

    A couple of weeks ago I got the opportunity to go back to that shelter for the first time. Memories flooded back to me. It was a mix of the fear that filled my time there and the happy parts and the laughter that we seemed to find, even during our darkest moments.

    I was really into making jewelry at that time (I still do) and several times while I was at the shelter, especially on a particularly hard day, I would treat myself to a trip to Hobby Lobby to buy beads or findings. I wouldn’t spend much, but it would light me up like a Christmas tree to have my new little treasures. You’d think I’d gotten the king’s ransom, when really I had only gotten a two dollar bag of beads.

    When I was a little girl, we would go visit this aunt that kept a little coffee can behind her chair, just for me. In it were dozens of tiny little treasures like you’d get out of cereal boxes or gumball machines. The whole time we were there, they wouldn’t hear a peep out of me. I would be behind the chair playing with my little treasures, looking for the new ones I new she would have added since my last visit.

    When I became an artist, one of the first things I became known for (and had my first artist showing for) where framed mirrors where I covered the frames with dozens, sometimes hundreds of little things. There are people literally from coast to coast now with my mirrors hanging in their homes. They say that every time they look at it, they see a new or different little thing and it is like the joy that would spring from my aunt’s coffee can, finding the newest little treasure.

    Oh, the joys you can find when you look past the big things and find what is just underneath. That is where our happiness is, in the little things that bead together like a necklace that we wear to remind us that no matter what, there is joy to be found.

    Really, there is joy. I wish that joy for you and for each and every one of the people I write for. May you find your piece of joy today.

    Kelly

    Kelly R | Jul 10, 2009 | Reply

  3. Greetings, Kelly~
    As I was reading about your love of jewelry making, I was instantly reminded of Rosie’s Place in Boston. They have a craft cooperative there that makes jewelry. Here’s a clip:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VV-AA5kJzAQ

    Kelly, I also wanted to mention the importance of you serving as a mentor for Rhonda. I cannot stress enough how critical I feel that peer mentorship programs are for people who are experiencing homelessness. Following surgery for cancer, I was picked up at the hospital by volunteers & then dropped off alone at my own cottage in “transitional” housing for survivors of domestic violence. It was devastating. My grassroots organization is focused on creating training materials for peer mentorship programs.

    Continued blessings along your journey, Kelly.
    Rev. Cynthia
    http://www.commongroundworldwide.org

    Rev. Cynthia | Jul 11, 2009 | Reply

  4. Cynthia,

    There are a few absolutes that I can set my cup of coffee on without looking because they always will be there.

    One is that my family will always try to help one another and others. It is just woven into the fabric of our DNA.

    Two is that there are people out there, many of them my friends, who have given up and given until it hurts to make sure there are those who won’t go without. I treasure all of these people and my family. They are all my family.

    Three is that whenever I post a new article on this site you are going to respond to it with links to your website and other links that ultimately lead back to your website. I finally took a minute today to check it out. I thought, hey if she is doing so much good out there, maybe she is like my friends (mentioned above) and I need to give her a chance.

    What stuck out to me the most was that there were chances for people to donate on every page of your site. On more than one, there were multiple chances to give, give, give. Other than a few YouTube videos, I didn’t really see much information or ways people can offer help other than that give, give, giving thing.

    I want to believe that your heart is in the right place, so I will. The thing is that when I was asked to write for this site and the others that I write for, it became a very important part of my life. I take my involvement with homelessness and other issues very seriously.

    I am not trying to be rude. I know that you do, too, and am proud of you for that. With that said, can I ask you to please not use the comment section of my articles as a place to give out links to your site. Please. If you have a genuine comment, I welcome that, minus the links and “opportunities” for people that you need to keep on your site and off of my articles and comment section. Please.

    Rev. Kelly

    Kelly R | Jul 12, 2009 | Reply

  5. Kelly:

    A little hint.

    If something such as weblinks offend you–consider sending a private message to the person rather than a public statement to see if they comply.

    ‘Netiquette, yeah?

    TVParkdale | Jul 13, 2009 | Reply

  6. TV,

    Awesome idea! Seriously. Can you tell me how to do that? I tried forever yesterday to figure it out and couldn’t. Can you please tell me how?

    Thank you so much!
    Kelly

    Kelly R | Jul 13, 2009 | Reply

  7. Hi Kelly~
    Thanks for letting me know how you are feeling. And I am happy to respect your wishes concerning links on your posts. No problem.

    And, just to set the record straight, as yo have brought this up,to date, Common Ground Worldwide has not rec’d any cash donations via our website. Our operating funds mainly come from me, our board members, & a few of my family members. What we have rec’d via the site are book donations and messages from people who are interested in volunteering. We are always looking for volunteers (which is mentioned on our site as well).

    We also offer prayer support via an email link, which comes directly to me. And free copies of our peace brochure are available, which is mentioned on our site. Additionally, we are seeking volunteer peer mentors, which is what I thought you would be really good at.

    The link for Rosie’s Place was simply to give you & others ideas as to something that could be started in your own areas - like your love of jewelry making & their craft co-op that makes jewelry. They are located in Massachuesetts & I’m in California. I have no connection to them & have never even been to their facility.

    It was certainly not my wish to offend you in any way, Kelly.

    Blessings along your journey!
    Rev. Cynthia

    Rev. Cynthia | Jul 13, 2009 | Reply

  8. PS-Kelly, I forgot to mention the most important part! Currently, Common Ground Worldwide is run 100% by volunteers. Our board members volunteer their time and I am not paid as either the president of the board or as the executive director. So, my time and a lot of my own meager funds are donated to this organization. It is something that I do out of a wish to be of service to those who are struggling.

    Rev. Cynthia | Jul 13, 2009 | Reply

  9. Rev Cyn managed to send me an email but to be honest, I don’t remember how she did it DOH! Maybe she can tell us in case we have to pm each other some time?

    I’m not listed as a blogger here [I was a guest column from Rabble] so I don’t honestly know.

    TVParkdale | Jul 14, 2009 | Reply

  10. Aw, seriously - I didn’t catch what netiquette meant until just now. Good one!

    I figured out the pm thing (I think). When you get a reply and it sends you an e-mail to tell you that, you can just hit the reply button on your e-mail. Worked once, anyway.

    Kelly

    Kelly R | Jul 14, 2009 | Reply

  11. Very cool! Thanks for the update. Hopefully I’ll remember that. There’s always some new stuff to learn online.

    Hope you’re doing okay these days?

    TVParkdale | Jul 15, 2009 | Reply

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