My name is Julie and I worked in a homeless shelter back in 1998-99. That’s where I was assigned when I signed up to give a year of service with Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Since then, I’ve spent about 10 nights at homeless shelters, on overnight volunteer shifts. Most recently, I stayed overnight at one of Winston Salem’s Overflow Shelters which is set up at a church as emergency housing to keep guys from freezing to death during these cold months. There’s not enough room for them in the purpose-built shelters, so this solution has emerged.
I’ve only been there twice, but I’m proud to say that I gave some guys something to laugh about both times. In January, I was a new face at supper, plopping myself down with them at a table. Since I’m trying not to weigh 230+ pounds anymore, I ate an apple while they supped. It was about my 10th apple for the week, so I decided to spice things up by shaking some pepper on it. Now, these guys had just spent ten minutes telling me they’ve seen crazy stuff on the street, wilder stuff that could be imagined, details that I could not handle hearing, but that I should trust them, they’ve seen some crazy stuff. I have no doubt about that. At the same time, when they saw me put pepper on my apple, they completely freaked out, saying they’d never seen anything so crazy. They asked how I could eat that. I’m proud of that moment, I really am. I shocked them, which isn’t easy. Then, the other night, we sat around the table discussing the types of food they’d love to see served one night. This is when I thought I’d be clever and use a fanciful word which I thought meant one thing. They looked at me, mouths agape, and said they could not believe their ears. Apparently, the word I said has a completely different connotation. No need to go into specifics here, but I’m proud to say that, even though I looked like the fool, I did give them a hearty laugh after a cold day spent outside. They laughed and laughed and laughed at me for that one.
For three hours in the middle of the night, it was my job to stay awake. There is a man who is paid to stay awake overnight, but he didn’t seem too interested in chatting the night away, so I left him alone and arranged myself in a folding chair with a pillow, blanket and smart phone for entertainment. When I took breaks from yahoo news, I looked out at this sea of 20 mattresses on the floor, thinking about the men on them. If all was right with the world, these men would be in their own homes, with loving wives and dutiful children. They’d have enough money to provide for several other people and wouldn’t have to worry about just trying to survive. I love and care for my husband and want to do whatever I can to make his life easier for him. I was sad that, at least at this point in their lives, these men did not have someone to share such warmth with.
The lights were turned on around 5:30 and the guys were out the door by 6:30. There are no showers there and this is where these guys sleep every night for months, so, do the math. After they left, I sat in my car waiting for the defroster and wipers to clear the windshield, thinking about our divergent paths. From the Overflow Shelter, these guys were heading out for a long day outdoors in the cold. One mentioned that he’s ride buses all day, while another said he’d hang out at the bus station. They really didn’t have many options. Since the downtown library closed for renovations, they lost access to the couches, books, magazines, newspapers and restrooms that helped them get through the day. Meanwhile, I would be heading to my cozy bed for a few hours, eat plenty of food, stay plenty warm and spend time at a friend’s house before returning to my kindly husband in Charlotte.
I’m glad things worked out for me to spend the night at the Overflow Shelter this week. I think about St. Francis of Assisi all day, I write about him and I read about him. He’s still an elusive figure to me as I try to read what he had to say by his words and his life. For me, wanting to spend the night at the Shelter is directly related to my wanting to understand Francis better. It is said that he followed Jesus more perfectly than anyone before or since. If he’d spent the night volunteering at the shelter, Francis would actually hang out on the bus, riding around all day, sharing stories and having great laughs with these guys, some of whom are very funny with their witty observations of the world around them. I, on the other hand, just hopped in my car and headed home after the night. Anyhow, I look forward to spending at least one more night there before it closes up for the season and I hope to find in Charlotte, some funny guys to sup with and I hope to make them laugh, even if it’s because I say something dumb.
Here’s a Video I made after my January Stay