Picture the kid, sitting in the shelter’s day room—baby faced 24–year-old, seated at the white plastic table, his headset on and a book in front of him, eyes down, alone at the table while more than a dozen others are connected in twos and threes and fours, some forming family while he stays alone. The kid can be infuriating—taking 20 minutes to gather his belongings, taking up group space while hoisting a ridiculously large backpack (camouflage), a 2-gallon jug of water, and a heavy duty trash bag stuffed with who knows what and all these oversized props requiring adjustments, inspections, and repositioning. His slow motion Tasmanian Devil dance occupies too much of the space in the Day Room. He’s already late for an important appointment, one that would help him find a roof other than the shelter. Completely ignoring staff’s verbal directives, he continues to rearrange his stuff, blocking a small, elderly woman’s path. He puts staff in the all too familiar bind of getting increasingly elevated and frustrated while they know a lot of what’s going on within the kid, and caring about him.
Kid by window, small body left behind in the classroom chair while
He climbs the big, horse chestnut tree next to the playground
So much better to rock in the branches than listen to teacher shrieks
No more fear of dad gone dad, no tears left for ma gone mad
“We” had him assessed and examined, scoped and poked, questioned repeatedly and so the file got thicker. “We” medicated him.
Now at the Shelter there are observations and discussions, diagnostic terms like ADHD and Autism Spectrum are included, people are coached as to how to try to direct him and limit his behaviors in an effort to safely let him stay.
Not everyone who comes to the shelter will manage to be safe and appropriate for the environment and the rights of the other guests. Some folks do surprisingly well, sometimes bonding with a peer and finding a little security and identification they lacked when at the front door. There are others who struggle, lacking insight and a common language which would allow staff and other guests an opportunity to build a bridge. Sometimes I think that all the professional, diagnostic terms in the books are simply rough attempts at providing a means for communication among peers, words appearing to convey knowledge and insight but lacking therapeutic mass. And shelter staff are left balancing hope and optimism while fatigued by limits and “failure.”
It’s not easy for staff working in a homeless shelter to stay optimistic and energized. Their daily experience includes regular failure and loss (which may be why small victories are treasured and celebrated).
We need to find a more powerful way to invest in our families and support our children. The betting odds on hope and optimism are a lot better at early ages. Too frequently I find myself shaking my head at who we have become. As I write this, the media is bringing news of a second death from the most recent student shooting in Washington State. Movies have set a new record for graphic violence (I watched “Fury” this weekend with a friend—somehow it managed to celebrate the heroism of war while red spray and anti-tank shell decapitations jumped off the big screen). Too many politicians are yelling, finding excuses for righteous anger rather than digging deep to find common interests.
I see the proliferation of emergency homeless shelters over the past 30 years as both testament to our compassion and evidence of our dysfunction. Sadly, the loud anger seems to drown out the quiet empathy. And what the heck are we going to do with or for this 24-year-old?