Life in a homeless shelter is often described as humbling by those blessed to not require its services, but humbling doesn’t seem quite right from the view inside; watching mothers with children do their best to maintain discipline and productive upbringing alongside those with crippling mental illness beneath the watchful eyes of staff members ill-equipped to manage such extremes brings another word to mind: suffocating. Yes, one must humbly accept their position, humbly accept services provided, but it is not humility beneath the veil we all wear; suffocated by the restrictions of “shared living,” we adopt new faces, modified and watered-down personalities, and tuck away our most discordant idiosyncrasies to retain our bed and the roof above our head for the time we need it. From one crisis we find ourselves breaching into another, a crisis of coping with screams at the far end of the building and codependence nagging beside your ear, and as you do, you remind yourself that how you would respond elsewhere is not how you should respond here, but… it still eats away at you.
It’s not to say that shelter environments are by their very nature bad; they are in subtle ways traumatic, but traumatic at such a low level that being able to cope within the events and culture of each one, as different as they may be, will serve as a form of exposure therapy and harden a person to what they would find themselves vulnerable. The dirty word, welfare, rings ironic in the ears of those with no other choice, as one does not fare well from within a shelter. Life is frozen in time between the tightly-secured front doors and dirt-stained back walls; it is but a game of waiting, whether for agencies to return phone calls with regards to requests for housing or word to come through that it is possible to return home.
As the temperature begins to drop, more new faces are seen and with them come changes to the culture within; we all share this space and as such must adapt to the idiosyncrasies both obviously known and poorly hidden. Damaged by ourselves and the world around us, we all lack at least one skill or strength necessary, lack support structures on which we could rely, and lack the candor to assert ourselves where assertion is needed most. Our medical needs, mental health needs, dietary needs find themselves in conflict. Cliques form, no matter how temporary, to provide the semblance of normalcy and community necessary to endure. Arguments occur, but so does lighthearted laughter; we have no choice but to limit ourselves and find ways to temper our emotions to avoid the bone-chilling cold waiting for us on the other side of those walls.
For some, in some shelters many, it is not just the cold which we fear. There are those who, for the best of reasons, do the worst things imaginable to us and justify their actions by chemical or contradiction. Returning to places where we would normally be seen is not an option, without availing ourselves to abuses which only serve to break us further, and for those with children, lay the seeds of another generation of abuse to be watered by the rains of autumn, restricting those domestic refugees to the walls within the shelter. We do our best, but what best do we have to do? Our best could not save us from what came our way beyond these walls; does our best really mean much when packed as sardines into communal crisis-response living situations?
But our best we must continue to give, and new bests must be achieved no matter how embarrassing they might be to admit. Strangulated by environment, by our own minds telling us we don’t deserve the good or the normal, we attempt to navigate systems of social service and welfare offerings, or disregard them altogether, to assure we can survive just one more day, just one day further, and one day further past that. And when the time comes that we can leave to something more than the confines of a homeless shelter, we are both overjoyed and terrified; we have seen the bottom, tasted the stagnant and insect-attracting waters which pool down there, and very little will convince us that we won’t somehow fall back to that bottom again. Tainted by it, the suffocation carries with us back into the world. We fear to say the wrong thing and see our world reduced to secured front doors and dirt-stained back walls again; slowly, the mind is imprisoned by itself for reasons of self-defense, and that very self-defense can make us all the more vulnerable.
There is only one escape, regardless of what brings you here. It is not money, though that may help for a time; it is not housing vouchers or supplemental security income or case management services or anything beyond the walls of our skulls. It is a true humility, a humility to accept one’s real value and put in the work to achieve that personal value, a humility to silence the echoes of screams at their source from the back of your mind and put that world in the past, a humility scarcely described in any religion: to humbly take pride in one’s strengths, and heed one’s weaknesses, as we journey out into the world once again.
Tell yourself you’re unbreakable, that you’re unstoppable, that you will endure and not be taken down at the knees again, and tell yourself how, and why. The worst of the world can rob you of wealth and home, but they cannot rob you of the strength you must exercise in your mind daily. This is the only way to be free; everything else… is just temporary.