The very first time I worked alone in the homeless shelter, I felt completely overwhelmed, and I didn’t know how I’d make it through the night.
I was a shelter supervisor on Saturday and Sunday night from 4:00 pm to midnight. I had to work the desk phones, oversee dinner, make sure the chores were done, do any intakes that came in, hand out 9:00 pm medication for folks who had them, breathalyze the residents before they went to bed and enforce lights out, and keep notes of everything that happens for legal and case management purposes. In a shelter with, at first, 30ish, and eventually 40 residents. 40.
Okay. A shelter this size, with all the shit associated with the residents, is a lot to handle.Some of them get sick. Some of them work and come in late. Some of them need to get into their storage or get extra bathing/grooming supplies. Some of them, God forbid, come in drunk or high and get belligerent. Some of them are seriously mentally ill, and you have to troubleshoot anything with them. Some of them are fussing with other residents. Some of them just want to chat. It’s a lot of work.
(I had one guy who brought with him a carved rocking horse that had to be kept in the storage room, and he had to look at it every so often; he became agitated when he didn’t. I’d have to take him down there and/or calm him down. I actually just remembered him, but this is an example of the idiosyncratic things that residents had.)
So, this was a new job, and one of my first “social work” jobs, no less. I was fresh out of undergrad, and finding out if I have the chops for this field. Plus, you know how it is in a new job – you’re learning the way things work, trying to remember all the little details of things to do. Make sure you write everything down. Make sure no one bullshits you.
And this last part, I think, was the hardest part for me, because I was misinformed and thought everyone was gonna bullshit me.
As far as I knew from my privileged perch, homeless people were, I don’t want to say monsters, but they were scary. They were dirty and lawless and they were out to get people. They would hurt poor little girls like me. All of them. That was the impression I had, and I was legitimately scared to be working alone with 40 of them. I was ignorant and inexperienced, and, unfortunately, this made the weekend that much harder.
I made it through, obviously, and had a blast in that job. It was a lot of work and felt out of control sometimes, but I loved the work and I loved the residents. Some of them were full of crap, as I had feared, but those particular people didn’t stay long. By and large, the residents were just like me. They were good and hard-working people. They all had different challenges, (sometimes even similar to challenges I’ve had!) but they didn’t have the extra support or tools to help them surpass it. But for the grace of God, there I was.
(Relatedly, I just stumbled on this article from 2012 Psychology Today that the part of the brain that activates when recognizing groups of people as people doesn’t activate when looking at groups of homeless people, suggesting that they are perceived as non-humans. I have totally seen this, and it’s strangely gratifying to see it validated.)