On Friday, November 15, 2013, four MSW students from HPU participated in project "Sleep In." The students spent one night, from 5pm - 7am in the single women's homeless shelter. Here's a few of my experiences/observations:
The women seemed cold, and unfriendly. As if a smile would indicate a weakness of some kind. A behavior I might expect from incarcerated ladies. The lights in the bathroom were bright. An odd kind of bright white light. It reminded me somewhat of some kind of institutional lighting. “Where’s the toilet paper?” I asked, once noticing that there were no toilet paper distributors in the bathroom stalls. “You get it at the front desk,” the woman answered coldly. I retrieved the paltry amount of TP from the front desk and as I washed my hands, noticed the woman was washing a pair of underwear in a little container with soap and water. She had the routine down, like a well-practiced monotonous chore. I looked for the hand towels as I gently shook my hands dry. “Wash one, wear one she muttered. We ain’t got no hand towels neither.” The woman barked as she rang her undies dry. “Ain’t no budget for shit like that here.” She seemed irritated with my ignorance. It was then that I realized I’d never seen people wear their troubles on their faces like the women do here. Not even in the townships of South Africa. I was pretty much speechless and had never considered hand towels (or more than two pairs of underwear) a luxury or something to be budgeted for. As the “boss lady” yelled “lights out!” promptly at 10pm I couldn't decide if this shelter functioned more like a jail, or if it was more militaristic. It sure has a lot of rules, of which I had already unknowingly violated by plugging my cell phone into the outlet by my meager mat. Cell phones can only be charged in the office. Strike one.
People and places tend to have a spirit about them. As I saw a woman who must have been about 8.5 months pregnant waddling in right before the lights went out collapse onto her cot in utter exhaustion, I sensed that this place had a spirit of absolute destitute. It wasn't misery, per se, as several women displayed an attitude of perseverance, but the reality of the living situation seemed to become much more real once the lights went out. Something about darkness seemed to enhance the disparity of the situation. Some women cry, some take the stoic route and some women pace. There were no rules about walking around after lights out, and many women who appeared to be suffering from obvious mental illnesses took to walking around the crowded dorm like bunks, for hours. Pretty unnerving.
While I felt a coldness, I also observed pretty remarkable tiny acts of kindness from some of the women. Two women assisted my friend Nicole check her mat for bed bugs and helped her disinfect her sleeping area. Another older woman (about age 75) comforted my friend Paola when she was visibly disturbed by the sleeping arrangements. She reassured her that everything would be OK and that there was nothing to be afraid of. The most heartwarming act was observed when Nicole and I were bringing more items into the shelter from my car. Nicole was hungry and stopped by the vending machine. A friendly women we had met at dinner asked Nic if she wanted a soda. Nicole said she did, but that she only had fifty cents and the sodas were eighty five cents. The woman pulled out the last dollar bill she had in her pocket and bought Nicole a soda and said, “Tonight you are our guest. The soda is my treat to my guest.” Typical. A homeless woman has one dollar in her pocket and what does she do? Shares it with someone who has even less. This is a behavior I tend to see a lot of. More than people would believe. But it still made me cry. And as I laid in the darkness on my mat, I felt extreme guilt about how much I just wanted to go home to my own clean, bed bug/lice free, air-conditioned cheetah bed. I knew these women probably wanted the same, but a place to call home was not in their foreseeable future.
The next morning I drove my friends and fellow classmates home from the project. I felt like a zombie. I felt like I was sleep driving my way home. My body felt tired and achy and I wondered how I would ever make it through five hours of classes later that morning. I hadn't slept a wink and my neck was so stiff and sore from my crappy inadequate mat that all I wanted was a hot, clean shower and then to solve all of the world’s problems by lunchtime.