The nights I’ve had to spend in shelters were an assault on my senses. First, there was combination of smells that don’t exist anywhere else. Walking through the door, I was overwhelmed with the aroma of disinfectant mixed with the sweat of too many bodies, stale urine that came from the toilets, cooking grease wafting up from the basement dining hall, and the stench of resigned hopelessness.
There was a constant din of noise: A ceaseless buzz from the overhead fluorescent lighting; a constant, low rumble of voices; two or three suddenly shouting as a brief argument flares; the thump-thump-thump of two hundred feet moving around; coughing and sneezing; a loud “Fuck you, asshole!” that comes suddenly from nowhere and disappears just as quickly.
And I’ll never forget the eyes of the men with whom I’d be spending the night. The blank stares on some, the hollow look in others, those that were wary and weary, those that revealed fear bordering on terror, a few reflected hatred of who knows what – life, circumstances, the guy in line behind them – and some that were simply void of any hope at all, as if they knew their life would be lived out herfe forever.
I wondered what, if anything, people read in my eyes and on my face.
The places I’ve stayed had fairly strict rules about who’d be admitted for the night. No one who was drunk or had alcohol on their breath, no one strung out on drugs, and no one who’d been thrown out of the place during the previous six months – usually for fighting.
People who had an obvious mental illness, such as a schizophrenic who had gone off his medication, were also barred.
“It’s hard enough running this place without looking for problems,” was Dwayne Josten’s explanation as I filled out a short form at a shelter’s front desk before he gave me space for the night and handed me a claim check so I could put my things in a locked luggage room. “We have plenty of people who are clean and sober who need a bed so we can be a bit choosey.”
After being admitted, men milled around outside smoking or sitting in the dining hall where a large screen television played constantly. Mostly, it seemed as if the residents wanted to watch game shows or sports. I knew enough to not ask if I could watch BBC World News or The Rachel Maddow Show. Instead, I read a much-folded copy of a morning newspaper that someone had left behind.
Beyond everything else, being homeless can be incredibly boring with a lot of waiting around.
Like nearly everything else in the life of anyone who is homeless, finding a dry, safe place to sleep is a daily struggle. In most cities, demand far out-strips the number of available beds. As a result, lines begin forming outside shelters by mid-morning even though space won’t be allocated until late afternoon. So, time that could be spent trying to find a job or looking for more permanent housing is frittered away.
Indeed, a lot of my life these days is spent waiting in lines: For a bed on the nights I’d need to be in a shelter, for a meal at places that serve free lunches or dinners, at a food bank on distribution day. Time that I could have spent writing, looking for free lance assignments or getting a job is instead devoted to waiting as I deal with life’s basic survival needs.
“I missed a job interview last week because I had to wait all day for a bed,” Raymond explained to me in the day room of the shelter where we were each spending the night a few weeks ago. “It wasn’t much of a job but it was something.
“I had to decide whether I’d risk sleeping in a park or going on an interview,” he rused.
Raymond was around 40, maybe a bit younger because street living ages everyone quickly, tall and gangly with long arms that circled his head like a helicopter blade as he talked. He’d been an accountant at a manufacturer until his department was outsourced last year. With little in savings, he was soon evicted from his apartment and has been on the streets ever since.
“Sometimes, I can get a short-term job as a bookkeeper and I worked for a month at H&R Block during tax season, but there aren’t a lot of full-time jobs for certified accountants right now.”
Raymond calculated that his income went from $55,000 a year plus benefits to $1,000 a month now – and that’s during a good month.
I’ve spoken with others like Raymond at shelters, either standing in line to be admitted, during dinner or breakfast, or in the day room where a television played constantly. People who’d had ordinary lives doing ordinary things until they were swept away by a life-altering tsunami.
Shelters are a growing business today in America, a rising star in an economy still struggling to free itself from the lingering effects of the Great Recession. In fact, there is such demand for them, I am surprised Arizona or some other goofy right-wing state hasn’t tried to privatize the shelter business so somebody could make money off of the homeless.
Maybe the Corrections Corporation of America could open a subsidiary, Shelters R’ Us.
What is ironic is how many vacant homes there are in the US, perfectly solid structures repossessed by banks and now worth a fraction of what they once sold for. Surely it would be less expensive for a city, county, state or federal government agency to buy or lease them at pennies on the dollar, and make them available to people who are without a roof over their head.
Governments already subsidize the homeless in countless ways. Why not use some of that subsidy money in a kind of “Habitat For Humanity” project using the existing housing stock?
This wasn’t at all what the Stones meant when they recorded “Gimme Shelter” so many years ago, even though the lyrics ring true to me today. Different kind of war and a different sort of mad bull, maybe, but the fire of despair is still in our midst.
Author and journalist Charley James’ next book is about his experience becoming homeless. When published, Charley will donate a percentage of his advance and royalties to homeless organizations.
Follow Charley on Twitter @SuddenlyHomeles.