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Saturday, February 05, 2005

The Homeless.

Faceless denizens passing us on the city street, they don’t show up on the radar of most people until asking for spare change. A typical response is the dismissive wave, averting the eyes, and walking away while quickly adding, “Sorry, no change.”

I spend some 40 hours a week with the homeless population, working at a shelter. I can’t walk away. Nor do I want to. It is a slice of life that many have not tasted. When I sometimes think I’ve had my fill, I remember the funny, touching or bittersweet moments. Here are a few. (Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.)


John L. is brought to the shelter by a social services van. He’s a frail man in a wheelchair and, without my even asking, tells me he’s been in a chair since he got that shrapnel in his hip during WWII. I give him a copy of the shelter rules but he can’t read them because his glasses were stolen. I begin reading the rules out loud to him but he stops me, saying, “What? I can’t hear you. The batteries in my hearing aid are dead.”

So I begin shouting the highlights. He catches most of what I say but still has some trouble because he hasn’t removed the dead hearing aid from his ear.

According to the paperwork I was given when he was dropped off, John needs a medical rest bed for a few days – but his medical condition isn’t listed. So I ask him what’s going on.

John states he has lung cancer. After we finish the paperwork, he asks where the smoking area is located. He still smokes and is thoughtful enough to inform me that he sometimes coughs up “green mucus” during his first smoke of the day, but adds that the doctors told him that is a “good sign.”

Of what exactly I don’t know, but don’t want to shout any more questions to find out.


Three different local churches make regular stops at the shelter in the evening, busing the homeless off for a hot meal with a side order of Jesus Christ. Like clockwork, they return a few hours later and our clients disembark – well-fed, body and soul.

I once asked a client how people decided which church to attend. He answered, pointing to one bus in particular, “Most of us like that church because the services are short and the chicken is Kentucky-fried.”



I once witnessed a client get in a verbal argument with another staff member. It got quite heated, and the client yelled that he was going to do what he had to do to get the staff fired, adding, “I’ll be here long after you’re gone!”

The staff member replied, “You know, that’s kind of sad.”

That pretty much ended the argument right there.


If a client feels he or she has been treated unfairly, there is the option of filing a grievance. In some cases, these are filed after a situation escalates and words are exchanged between client and staff. These words are never good ones.

A supervisor once told me that was one way he could gauge how well somebody was doing their job – the more grievances filed against you, the better the job you must be doing.

Personally, I disagree. If you have a disagreement with a client, or if he comes in drunk for example, and it escalates to the point where it turns into a shouting match and the client blows up, well… a lack of communication skills might have played some small part in it.

Clients who come in drunk can’t stay, they are given a night out. Some of these aren’t even “angry drunks” when they show up but they sure can leave in a pissed off mood if things aren’t handled correctly.

Drunk or sober, I’ve seen more than one situation spiral out of control for no good reason - other than ego, pride and more than a little dueling machismo from both sides.

It may be coincidence, but staff who rack up the grievances are seemingly promoted sooner. That doesn’t bode well for my future at the shelter, let me tell you. There has been more than one occasion in which a client has come in drunk and not only have I been able to avoid an argument when asking him to leave, but have actually had men shake my hand and thank me for calling them on it.

Other types of disagreements can be handled with a little finesse. Suggest options that offer resolution without the other person having to “lose face”. Don’t be needlessly confrontational and keep a sense of humor - it’s hard for somebody to stay mad at you for long if you keep making him laugh despite his best efforts to stay serious and angry. All common sense suggestions, I know – but apparently not everybody read the Common Sense Memo. Or realized common sense was a one-way ticket to Nowheresville long before I did.

So I may have to become a serious hardass just to be considered for a future promotion. I’ve been told I can be quite the smart-ass at times, so all I really need to do is refocus on the hard part.

If I really concentrate on my hardassery, the grievances will start rolling in. If I play my cards right, they’ll pile up so fast that I’ll be CEO within six months. Just you watch.


The hospital transports an elderly man to the shelter for one of our medical rest beds. He’s just had his pancreas removed and now has a colostomy bag. Since even rest bed clients have to be able to take care of their basic needs, this has me a bit worried.

I just have a bad feeling about the whole situation.

So I call a supervisor, and she assures me it’s okay to bring the man in. She adds that we’ve had such clients before and then proceeds to tell me this horror story, from a few years back, about another guy with a colostomy bag who got really really drunk and proceeded to spray the contents of his bag all over some of the other clients.

Needless to say, after hearing that I’m feeling like I might need a colostomy bag myself – if you know what I mean.

So I’m with the guy filling out his intake paperwork when, sure enough, within a few minutes his bag starts leaking. He goes to the restroom to try to fix it but he’s no doctor so only ends up making it worse. He’s also showing signs of early senility, which doesn’t help matters either.

I soon convince the man that returning to the hospital would be in his best interest and arrange the transportation before the colostomy bag contents hit the fan, so to speak.


Rufus was a self-proclaimed hillbilly. When you’re born and raised in Kentucky, calling yourself a hillbilly is a badge of honor I suppose. He was your stereotypical “cranky old man” and, god love him, that was a big part of his charm.

Rufus was telling me how he thought my co-worker was an asshole, mostly because he was bilingual. “I don’t like people who speak two languages and, frankly, I don’t trust ‘em,” he said matter-of-factly.

I guess, down in Kentucky, they don’t cotton to them bilinguals.

Rufus was a carny back when being a carny still meant something. Many years back when on the road with the carnival, he told me, they pulled over in a rural area for a few days rest.

He explained, “There was a house down the road and, for three nights, we heard children crying in there. On the third night, we done broke the front door down. The kids were 11, 9 and 6 years old and, for the last three days, the eldest was feeding them all sour milk. That’s all there was to eat in that house. Their parents hadn’t come back since we got there, so… we took those kids with us.

God bless the hillbillies.

The conversation soon turned serious when Rufus began reminiscing about his old friend Slim.

“Slim and me lived in a field for a while,” he said, “we knew each other from our days on the road with the carnival and ran into each other here in town. So we was staying in this field and watched out for each other. One day I walked a couple of miles to the Jack in the Box and when I got back, Slim was dead.”

Rufus was visibly shaking at this point, and tears began welling up in his eyes as he continued, “Somebody had shot him, execution-style, in the back of the head. Why would somebody do that? Slim wasn’t hurting nobody. Why would they do that?”

I didn’t have the answer. So I invited Rufus outside and we both had a cigarette.

We smoked in silence because that’s what us manly men do when things get emotional. It’s what we call contemplatin’.


Most of the clients don’t refer to each other by their birth names. They have street names. Sometimes the nickname refers to a physical attribute the person may have or their approach to life – Stretch, Turtle, Cosmo, Red, Pee-Wee, Doc, Sideburns, Barker, Rock, Baby Face, Judge, or Biggs.

Other times, the street name is meant ironically – Tiny (if he’s husky and very tall) or Speedy (if he uses a walker to get around).

At any given time, there are usually two or three “Cowboys” at the shelter. I don’t know why this is but imagine it can cause all sorts of confusion.

I try to learn each person’s street name whenever possible. That way, if there’s trouble or a disagreement between two clients and somebody says something like, “Stretch went off on me and then stormed out of here” I’ll know who it is.

Unless I’m told it was “Cowboy” who started the trouble. Then it’s back to square one, I’m afraid.


Late one afternoon, this 80-something year old man wanders through the shelter front door. He doesn’t know where he is, where he came from, or how he got here.

He has nothing with him but the clothes on his back and the small brown paper bag he’s carrying.

About all he remembers is his name: Carl.

I ask him what’s in the bag. “It’s my lunch,” he replies.

I ask if I can see what he has for lunch and Carl opens the bag. It’s his medication – in fact, it’s a number of meds... including morphine and Dilantin.

I wonder where he orders lunch from, because all I ever get is a hamburger.

Since the shelter has an empty medical rest bed available, I give him the bed. This despite the fact he has no medical referral from a hospital or clinic – which is the usual procedure somebody must go through to get such a bed. Screw procedure. If he wanders off now it’s only a matter of time before somebody out on the street steals his “lunch”.

He’s here for safekeeping. I plan to get him to the nearby medical clinic in the morning, but it never comes to that.

His daughter and son-in-law show up a few hours later. They both show me their IDs and she pulls Carl’s wallet out of her purse.

It contains his ID and some family pictures. One of the pictures show all three of them posing together. It is a bit faded and torn around the edges. Carl is smiling, standing between the other two, with an arm around each. His grip is strong and his eyes still have a certain twinkle.

Carl apparently wandered away from home and somehow ended up here. He has Alzheimer’s and has done this before. He’s just never gone so far before. His daughter guesses some well-meaning bus driver might’ve given him a “courtesy ride” and he got off at the Central Station, eventually walking to the shelter. But she’ll never know for sure.

They take him home.


You’d think the biggest drug problem on the street would be heroin or crack or something. But, in my experience, it’s not – it’s black market prescription drugs. One guy gets a prescription filled and then sells what he doesn’t necessarily need right away to others – mostly painkillers.

Sometimes there are guys who are what we call shoppers. They visit many doctors and quickly get their ‘scripts filled at different locations so they’ll have a big stockpile long before any computer tracking (for what that’s worth) or paperwork ever catches up with them.

Jeremy M. was a client who frequented the shoppers. One night he was so zoned out on painkillers that he crawled into another man’s bed, thinking it was his. I don’t know that he even realized somebody else was already sleeping in it when he climbed in. The staff had to direct him back to his own bunk. We later had a behavioral health counselor talk to him, but Jeremy said he didn’t want help – he could handle things on his own.

One day, Jeremy came in and was quite excited. His disability benefits had finally come through and he had cashed his check. He then proceeded to count and recount the hundreds of dollars he had with him, on a nearby desk, in full view of everybody. He kept losing count and would start over.

He finally finished and told the staff he had used some of the money to buy a plane ticket, that he planned to check out the next day and fly back east to stay with his family.

He left to eat, or so he said, but returned about an hour later with two police officers.

“I got jumped right outside the shelter,” Jeremy said, “and this Mexican robbed me!” He had called the police, swearing he could identify his assailant. He then proceeded to point out every Hispanic male in sight, one by one, saying, “That’s him! Oh wait, that’s not the guy!”

Finally, the police questioned Jeremy instead and got to the bottom of it. He had, in fact, been robbed over a mile away – in a drug deal gone bad. Apparently the painkillers had worn off and, when he couldn’t find his usual source, decided to buy some crack to take the edge off.

Jeremy still had his plane ticket and flew out to see his family the next day. He returned a week later – totally despondent.

He had stayed with his family for only a few days before they had enough of his questionable behavior. His father gave him $50 and told him never to come back.

So he took a bus across several states and returned to our shelter.

Early the next morning, Jeremy was found dead in his shelter bed – an apparent overdose of prescription painkillers. I don’t think it was officially ruled a suicide… but it should have been.


There are a couple of months out of the year that I especially enjoy at the shelter. These are the times of year when one traveling carnival has finished its season and there’s a lag before the next one comes through town. The shelter gets an influx of carnies and most of them have quite the stories to tell. I especially enjoy the old-timers, because they’ll share carny secrets from the old days before the industry was more regulated. I’ve learned many a carny trick by listening but I’ve been sworn to secrecy.

I don’t know why I get such a kick out of these folks. Maybe it’s the kid in me still dreaming about running off to join the carnival. Or maybe I like hearing about a good con that separates the rubes from their money. I can’t rightly say.


Two things that make working at a homeless shelter worth it:

1. The too rare occasion when a client comes up to you and says “Thanks for trying to help me.”

2. When a former client returns after a long absence, but he’s not looking for shelter again.

He’s just come by, driving in his own car, to tell you about the house he’s going to make a down payment on. He tells you about the job he’s had for what seems like forever now. He introduces you to the woman he’s about to marry. He wants to share his hopes and dreams for the future, because he didn’t have much in the way of hopes and dreams when you knew him before.

Maybe you once told him, "There's always hope." Maybe he didn't believe you at the time. Maybe he wondered if you believed it yourself, so decided to bring you some proof.


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