Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Ever Wonder What Goes on in a Homeless Shelter...Well, It's Like This...

"Plead the blood, honey! Just plead the blood of the Lamb!" We're sitting outside beneath the rickety half sort of shanty that is the smoking section and Gina is instructing Diana how to ignore the downstairs drama.

There are three floors here at the shelter: the basement is made of three little apartments for the Emergency 30 day shelter; everyone who comes here is required to stay in the Emergency Shelter before a decision is made whether you can move up to the second or third floors for "transitional living" where you pay $290 rent per month for an individual room. Not everyone makes it to transitional living; sometimes people don't stay long enough, move on to other accommodations, home, other shelters. If you're tough and desperate and if there's enough room on the upper floors then as long as you don't cause trouble you can be reasonably sure you'll be asked to stay.

But God above the drama!! It's been twenty years since I lived in a dorm and all the drama that accompanies college dormatory applies to a bunch of poor women living in a homeless shelter but perhaps double. So that's what Gina was saying, plead the blood of the lamb and hope you don't strangle somebody.

I don't smoke as much as I used to simply because I can't afford it but a little nicotine goes a long way to easing some of the disorientation you suffer in this limbo.

"Danni needs to stop rolling cigarettes at the kitchen table, it's nasty --"

"--That bitch at the desk got one more time to say something rude to me --

"Why don't Susanna like to wash her ass? Seriously she stinks!"

"No honey I don't have anymore cigarettes to lend out, Shelley owes me four --"

There's all types of women but to my surprise most everyone is middle class. Or would be middle class if such a thing existed anymore. At least half the women have jobs, two jobs even but still don't make enough to afford to live on their own. The temping agencies always have plenty of labor from the ladies here but as long as there's no reasonable living wage to paid there will also be plenty of ladies in places like this. I'm in a special type of limbo here. After my third nervous breakdown in ten years I'm finally applying for disability, a process that takes years during which any attorney worth his fees will tell you not to work. Even without the disability proceedings it's still highly dubious that I'd be able to sustain a job at this point. But I'm not the only one here in this maddening predicament.

There's Deena who is in fact a social worker herself fallen on hard times; she worked with the very population that she now comprises, the "underclasses", the mentally ill, the homeless and the people who are so poor that they fly under the radar of everything from Obamacare to proper housing.

 Then there's my friend Cyndi who has a car and a job and who's always available to take me to the store or to IHOP when Mom gets paid.

There's Shelley, a canny, crafty old former meth-head and shoplifter who walks down to the jail most days to see her son Norman; when she's not seeing him she's putting money on his books for commissary or the phone.

I'm in a small town, the smallest place I've ever lived in fact; it's like a really poor Mayberry but I came here with Mom because of the transitional housing program at this particular shelter. That's one thing no one ever tells you about homelessness, that sometimes you actually have to leave your own city where you're homeless in order to be homeless somewhere else where it's cheaper or where there may be other resources. However, generally those resources, where ever you go, don't include true secure housing. In my state especially the resources are thin and it's only through word of mouth that you find the scant handholds that keep you off the street. In the first shelter I stayed in a woman told me about this place so after a few months bouncing through two shelters Mom and I packed up with a few garbage bags and came here. We've never spent a night on the street though, so there's one small thing to be grateful for.

This is the one place in America where race truly does not matter; we're all homeless women what's the point in igniting race war here? But it's interesting to note that when politics does come up there are a few women who passionately dig Donald Trump. One of the dearest friends I've made here, Donna is her name, told me she likes Trump but she also told me that she never votes so that gave me small comfort at least. It makes no difference that Trump would be the last man on earth to help any of us.

This election season I'm voting for whoever doesn't cut off my food stamps, that's the single most important political point from my viewpoint. But that doesn't help the preachy types get it that we're not the demographic that the political candidates care about; we aren't pumping money into the PACs, we aren't a voting bloc that can be prettily posed with, we're poor women. And yeah, you can preach about Bernie Sanders to me all day long but to me? in this election cycle? they're all the same really.

"She charged me ten dollars in food stamps for a ride!" That's Belinda bitching about Vanessa.

"Yeah Ronella is shady like that--"

"Who does she think she is?"

"Is Roxy a lesbian?"


The days are slow but somewhere on the spectrum of visible light you can see us beneath the half-shanty talking and bitching and arguing and praying. Not many can hear us even though we're sometimes hard to miss. The phrase girl-power takes on entirely different connotations when you truly live in a community of women who are basically forgotten; the bottom line is that we only have each other. The number of people, me included, who have no family, have no support network -- it's staggering. You begin to see that even alone-ness has its many shades and shadows. Because we are alone. It's just the truth. But we have each other too and when the chips are down, as they are for us here constantly, it's we who help each other.

Even in the darkness there's a bit of enlightenment, room for self awareness. When the waters are rushing you hold out your arms to those who are pitching over the falls with you, you create a human chain.

"Have you seen Veronica's baby eating dirt?"

"Yeah he does it everday and she's such a stupid--"

"Jeffrey stop eating that dirt!!" That's Veronica yelling while entirely missing the conversation about the dirt eating.

"Can you loan me ten bucks?" That's anybody on any given day.

"Don't get paid til the first."

We've all got our hands out. There's just never ever enough money to go around. And just when you think that no one can help you at all, someone here just as poor as you holds out her hand. That's how it is. We've got us. That's all.


  1. I found this to be engrossing and realistic. I guess the word (cliché) people use is "gritty". Whatever, I liked it.

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