Friday, January 21, 2011

What's it like in a shelter? How can they be improved.

Ya know, Carey asks brilliant questions, I like that in her. This is a soapbox blogpost, and it's a big soapbox, so grab a glass of water or juice, a snack or three of grapes or bananas and sit back and ponder what could be.

In response to the question "I was just wondering if those of you who have been in shelters could explain what your experience is or was like? What could the shelters do to improve the experience in your opinion?" on We Are Visible's FB page, I offer this diatribe:

So you wanna know about shelters. Hmmmm.

What's it like to be in one? How can shelters be improved?

Do you have time for me to write a book?

No? Well, let me see if I can condense some of what goes on.

First, and foremost: You need to know that a shelter is a bandaid not a solution.

I'm gonna use one of the top educator and presenter tools and repeat myself: A shelter is a bandaid *not* a solution.

The same social dynamics going on in your workplaces and social gatherings are going on in shelters.

What it's like to be in a shelter? Here's some of the things I've seen in the last week:

A man (part of a loving couple for many years who is new to the homeless front) had his wedding ring stolen from his finger while he slept in the winter shelter a week ago. Four days ago that same man was accepted into a 60-day emergency shelter while his lady-mate was told to come back the next day to try to get into the 60-day shelter. They both took being separated from each other for even a night badly, and turned away from the 60-day shelter.

The last I saw of them they were trying to stay with another down-and-out-friend rather than risk dealing with another shelter, that was 2 days ago.

I know the emergency shelter they applied to. I don't know the full story on either side, but I *know* the outreach team and the intake team to be genuine, compassionate, and creative problem solvers.

So whatever the reason for my friends grief with the system, it still has them out on the streets.

This morning, a disabled-man who uses a walker or 2 canes to hobble even a few steps had his bicycle stolen. The bicycle was critical to him for transportation outside the shelter, just like my tricycle is life blood to me. It takes two trips to get all his gear outside and no one was there to help him from his usual cadre. On his second trip ... wham, bham, thank you ma'am.

As I was walking outside with my tricycle I asked him how he was. "My bike has been stolen and they won't let me back inside! I don't have a phone..."

As I was digging out my cell phone for him (hoping it had picked up enough charge from the half hour I was able to get at the plug by the DVD screen this morning) with my trike holding open the door, one of the excellent folks from the winter shelter team walked up. I eased the trike out and left them talking.

If you follow the #wearevisible hashtag on Twitter, yesterday you would have seen the picture and short story I took of the emergency response crew taking away the white-haired lady. She's been sicker, longer and more seriously than I was.

None of the officials or volunteers were able to do anything to get her seen by a medical team. It never occurred to me to ask why, however, I was running a recurring fever, so I'll forgive myself for that.

Whatever she has, if it's contagious, there's been over a week and a half of spreading it to 150 folks in the same room.

On the purely humane level she deserves health care simply because she exists.

After two days of talking with her, in tandem with 2 other shelterees talking with her, yesterday morning she let me set in motion a request for an ambulance to get her to a random ER.

I could go on, and on, and on. I haven't even scratched the surface yet of the stories that take place daily in winter shelter.

As well, I haven't even touched the stories here of the people who provide the winter shelter services. There are a multitude of stories, so many.

I had a hissy-fit last night. An unusual outbreak from me, however, I do understand why I had it.

Minutes before I arrived at winter shelter an unaware driver missed hitting me on my tricycle by a mere 18-inches. The reason I didn't get creamed was due to my reflexes and in-grained habits from years of motorcycle riding. Another driver earlier in the morning had also tried to turn into me as I was crossing an entirely different intersection.

I went to get my linens and for the umpteenth-time they couldn't be found.

Volunteer shelterees handle the disbursement and they have rules from the service providers they are required to follow, so most of them do follow those rules.

"You want me to come back in half-an-hour when things have cleared out a bit?"

"Yes," they said.

Back I went. "We still can't find them. Are you sure you turned them in?"

"Yep. I'm sure."

It was finally agreed to give me new linens (not an easy agreement to come to due to the rules). As I walked away with the linens, the bag in question was found. So I traded the brand new, very clean, out of the bag linens for the bag I had the night before.

I took the coveted bag over to my cot, opened it and everything inside it was damp and smelled of urine.

No, I didn't soil them. I can now guess what happened. Many people at winter shelter are incontinent (both urine and fecal matter) and can't always afford their diapers; others puke for whatever reason; others are on substances and just don't get up from bed to take care of their need to use the bathroom; and so on. I obviously got a cot the night before that had residue *soak* in it and it absorbed onto the towel and washcloth I put on the cot first and then the sheet and blanket. Next would have been my sleeping bag.

Let me say, I didn't handle the loss, finding, and discovery of wet linen well. The best I could accomplish at that moment was a few tears and a nod to my friend on the outreach team to act in her capacity to get me some clean linens for the night.

I try not to take advantage of the fact that I speak often with the outreach team and consider them all friends and mentors. This time the best I could do was shuffle my toe on the floor and ask for special treatment to get clean linen.

I went to sleep, immediately, something I do to make certain I don't let outer circumstances get me down when I cannot take action on what is happening around me.

Lo and behold, this morning as I was turning in this batch of linens, an official person of the winter shelter had found my linens from 3 nights past in the distinctive bag I had acquired for them. She's putting both bags in the "R" section for me for tonight. We'll see if either one of them is there to be found this evening.

How can shelters be improved?

I repeat: A shelter is a bandaid not a solution.

I am ever grateful for the three shelters I've had association with. All of them have their brilliances and their flaws--as does every other shelter out there that I've not yet seen or have personal knowledge of.

Shelters are a way for pulling people in out of the dangers of the street. But they are not gonna stem the tide.

Quite frankly, some of the tide have learned how to make the shelter system work for them--without changing their *lifestyle*, while the rest of us scrabbling to get out of shelters and into our own house are suffering because more and more rules come up to deal with the abusers of the shelter system.

Guess who learns to get around the rules? Why, it's those whom the rules are set up to contain.

Again making it harder and harder for those of us who don't intend to be in the winter shelter next year -- to get out NOW.

Once inside a shelter, whether from the structural hierarchy running it, or from the clients who partake, stratum make their appearance.

Notably, the predators and the prey -- in a more physically volatile aspect than in your office, but still the same.

The only difference between us (the homeless) and you (the housed) in this respect is your predators and prey are more heavily masked and seem to appear to get along in standard society. Many of us (the homeless) don't have the necessary set of tools to mask the way our so-called civilized bretheren do so we seem much more socially unacceptable.

Shelters that accept funding from specific sources are limited by those self-same sources. They stand to lose their funds if they violate any of the rules the funders set down. This is a huge thing and hampers actually helping many of the very people they want to help.

Anyone who works in the homelessness arena consider the following thoughts from Roger von Oech on Slaying a Sacred Cow.

I suggest moving beyond shelters -- even though they are needed now and will continue to be until a paradigm shift can be accomplished.

Until we move beyond shelters and address what is actually broken, people and organizations, businesses, and federal entities who donate to shelters: don't put limitations on your donations like:

1) Family Bonds
Families cannot be housed in the same physical location. Men and (women & children) must be put in separate sleeping areas. Men and women with no children must sleep in separate sleeping areas.

AUUUGHHHH! Let's get real folks, there's not going to be any hanky panky. There are people posted at each shelter to prevent that kind of stuff, and they patrol the sleeping areas so ... what's the deal? Why punish the family who has no place to sleep?

Why does a family (whether they are adults with or without children) of hetrosexual, homosexual, or androgynous sexual preferences have to be separated physically from each other in a time when they've lost their home, belongings and most often their friends as well? Why if a couple lives together without a marriage certificate and is over the age of 18 do they have to be physically separated?

Break the box here people.

2) Triage care
Winter shelters are keeping people from dieing right now. It's no pleasure being in one, except for the supreme pleasure of knowing there is a security guard around you and you won't be knifed in the night; and you are out of the elements; and you have a 1-in-50 chance of getting into the restroom if you are a woman, a 1-in-100 chance of getting in if you are a man -- still better than a bush with no toilet paper.

The people who run winter shelters are mostly huge hearted and truly compassionate, making due with little to no funds and sacrificing their time and energy for these 150+ spirits that each one holds.

I would suggest that you large corporations, you folks-of-faith, you folks of any kind with pockets that have a bit of change in them consider contributing so these winter shelters can afford a healthcare triage person on-site.

So many folks are taken out by ambulance (such as myself) as we deteriorate, when a triage type person could suggest the call be made much earlier. Thereby helping to alleviate the spread of so many contagions. It's a bandaid, however, I repeat, A Shelter Is A Bandaid.

Please consider helping winter shelters achieve this possibility.

3) Dumpees.
Hey society? Quite dumping people who have mental and emotional and physical issues on the shelters. Sure you don't want to have to deal with it. But that's no reason to dump folks on the already overburdened shelter system.

It's inhumane. It's sticking your head in the sand pretending to be an ostrich. And, it's another indicator of the "disposable society" syndrome.

A shelter is a bandaid not a solution.

This brings me back to my original suggestion, make a paradigm shift, people. Slay a Sacred Cow

“Creative thinking may simply mean the realization that there’s no particular virtue in doing things the way they’ve always been done.” --Rudolph Flesch

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