On one of my last evening shifts, a longtime resident, who, due to frequent intoxication, eschewed forgetfulness and disregard on many a shelter night, said, “Wow, you’ve been here a long time, haven’t you? It’s really been an honor.” I thought about telling her this would be one of my last nights, but I held back. We reminisced for a little and then she proceeded to list several of her friends who had passed away in recent years. “CJ...Kathy...Nicole…” She talked about how it had been hard without them, but that she would survive. She went back even further, and began talking about her family’s cattle ranching business in Nebraska, and the ornery pony from her childhood, but then she said, “I’m a survivor. My father told me always, I must survive, and that’s what I’ve been doing!”
Some might say I put a long time in at the shelter--five years, 2010-2015. Five years is a David Bowie song covered amazingly by Seu Jorge, as well as the average career time for a NFL running back. A resident the other night put it in a different perspective when he said he had been locked up in Florida for ten years, and was struggling to readjust to de-institutionalized life. I can’t even imagine being confined in one space for that long. It’s said that when that happens, you begin to lose almost all sense of who you were before you entered that space, and your sense of fairness in the world--with corrupt guards, carefree judges, and incorrigible inmates--begins to deteriorate. The man told us he wanted to avoid recidivism at all costs, but said that everywhere, even in Boulder, it was hard to find someone who truly wanted to help him rebuild. While in prison, he discovered Buddhist meditation and found it to be one of the only effective ways to ease his isolation. He thanked the shelter for being there, but did not seem to have much faith in what seemed to him like another institution.
Life is suffering. My mother, like a lot of parents, used to tell me “life isn’t fair,” and I never really understood the reality of that statement (because of my privilege) until I worked at the shelter and saw firsthand the poverty and struggle I had previously only known through reading about it. I decided that I would work every day of my life to change that, and while I may not always hold to that resolution, I can say that I sleep well at night. There are some who adhere to the quote from author Jan Mark: “There’s no such thing as fairness. It’s a word made up to keep children quiet. When you discover it’s a fraud then you’re starting to grow up,” but I refuse. Maybe I refuse to grow up--potentially a source of insight(s) for a future teacher--or maybe it’s my youthful rebelliousness, but that’s what got me into this work in the first place.
I thought about using this space to go on a rant about capitalism, but I’ll just leave it at this: As long as there’s a free market-driven economy with cheap and unsustainable values (low pay) attached to human resources (labor), and unsubsidized private property (high rent/mortgages), you will have homelessness. It’s a system predicated on having winners and losers, always. The man who went to prison for ten years attempted to get free money from a bank without a weapon. A man with a suit and tie and briefcase and command of the English language can do the same and live comfortably for the rest of his life. He can even complain about those who “don’t work hard enough and are just asking for handouts.” Well buddy, you can’t take those riches with you when you go, and I’m fairly sure where you’ll end up in the afterlife. Woe to those who aid and abet him!
I often tell friends that this job is a conglomerate of other jobs: counselor, clerk, security guard, parent, meteorologist, nurse, supplier, teacher, flight attendant, cruise ship director, barista. Well, maybe not all of those but you see the picture; the list goes on with what you’re willing to take on. One encompassing role this job enables us to be is a leader, a decision-maker. I’ve learned how to act in the face of emergency, in the face of conflict, where previously I would have balked at the scene, like an innocent bystander, or redirected the problem to someone else. The important thing to remember is that you have to act, that people are looking at you for guidance or support in a situation, and the problem is worsened if you let them down. Stay calm. Lean on each other for support. Acknowledge the pain. Acknowledge the success. That’s what really makes everything we do at the shelter possible. Not the consequences. Not the boundaries. Not the self-care. Not the politics. But the humanizing of each other through love and support and empathy. To truly serve another human being is sacred and should be revered.
Most staff who have worked with me know I like to play reggae and ska music on the computer in the staff office. I like reggae because it embodies pure positivity and a desire to be enlightened, and calls for an end to suffering. I like to think on those early mornings watching that beautiful sunrise through the east windows and telling residents to “take care,” “stay warm,” and “have a good one,” that the spirit of positivity will reverberate throughout the building from the souls manning dorm supply and the breakfast line to the clients accessing our services to the community at large that interacts with them. In those rare, precious, and peaceful moments of contentment, I remind myself how blessed a community Boulder is to have this building and a bounty of resources for those less fortunate, not least being the labor of people who truly care about helping their fellow person(s).
How do we pass on the feeling that we are blessed to those who have been left without housing, proper medical care, or given a raw deal in life? I’ve found the shelter to offer a myriad of ways to examine one’s privilege and sociocultural background, and how everyone who walks through the front door’s positioning plays out on the shelter culture. It is an endless discussion that vastly exceeds the scope of this writing, but know it is there to be examined. I leave it now for the future.
I like to think a providing force exists, maybe it’s not a supernatural one and is instead just a natural one, and that humans helping other humans collectively to survive was the original intent of this natural force, before communities got corrupted by power, modern industry, and social stratification. I tend to blame these forces for the problem of homelessness when I get frustrated, or when people ask me what can be done to solve it, and I guess it’s helped me throughout the years even as unfettered capitalism and income inequality continue to grow unchallenged. Perhaps it will always be this way, but we always have a choice...
As I finished up my conversation with the long-time resident in the courtyard, and was walking to the door, she said, seemingly out of nowhere, “Well...watch over us.” I hadn’t told her I was leaving.