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.
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.