shelter life, et cetera

Page Sixteen, website outline

I have thus far stayed in three different shelters in two different states, and have had two trips each to two of them. I cannot say enough bad about the two in Massachusetts. The one in New Hampshire was better by far. Five stays in shelters to date, and I bitterly hope that there will be no more.

If I had to judge by the two Massachusetts shelters, both run by an organization called ServiceNet, I’d say that shelter life is designed to be degrading, to rob one not only of even minor privacies, but of dignity and of adulthood. You become a child being ordered around at daycare or summer camp.

At the New Hampshire shelter, there were very few rules. We needed to be in by 11:00 pm, and we each needed to do a chore once a week. Otherwise we could come and go as we pleased during the day. We each had fridge space and cabinet space and could cook our own meals, and each clean up only after ourselves. We could shower and do laundry any time the facilities were available. It was almost like living in your own apartment, except that it was a room, and you had to share the common facilities with other people. I didn’t feel demeaned or demoted to child status. Nor did I feel very invaded, as I had a bedroom to myself.

Very different in the ServiceNet Shelters. In Northampton we were kicked out at 7:00 in the morning and let back in at 6:00 in the evening. They did have more open hours from 9-12 and 1-3 when we shelter folk, and anyone else who wanted to, could get in out of the weather, have a snack, etc. But our shelter bedrooms were kept locked during these hours, so that we had no access to our belongings or our beds, and my bed was what I needed most those days.

I wonder if you can conceive of how shocking and horrifying, — yes, horrifying, — these shelters were to someone like me. I can’t speak for any shelters anywhere but the three I stayed in, and in two of those, the people were as unlike me as you can get. Most were alcoholics or addicts. Most had arrest records and jail time under their belts. Homelessness was a cycle they went through periodically, when, for whatever reasons, they stopped paying their rent. They were uneducated. They were sneaky. They knew how to kiss up to shelter staff and act like civilized, reasonably decent people, but then I’d encounter them hanging out with each other on the streets when the act was dropped, and their true, ugly colors shone out. This was especially true of the inmates of the Turners shelter. When you take a person who for fifty-five years has lived in houses or apartments and has paid the rent; who is reclusive and has Asperger’s syndrome and physical illnesses and chronic depression; who has never been arrested or served any time in jail, and so on, and throw such a person into this seedy, lunatic fringe atmosphere, it is devastating. At least it was for me. Culture shock, and all sorts of shocks, and the screaming torment of no privacy at all. I lived in a state of constant, high anxiety, and constantly bit down on my internal screams, keeping them from escaping through my mouth. Constant pretending. Not ass-kissing, as the others were doing, just pretending that I didn’t want to murder every single one of them so that I could have some privacy.

~~~  And now it’s 2011. I haven’t stayed in a shelter for two years now. But all I have to do is think about my various shelter days for a minute or two and here come the pounding heart and the shaking hands, the tears and the inability to sit still.  Maybe staying in a shelter isn’t an ugly wound for every person who does it, but it was for me.

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And then there was living outdoors for two months, which, while it entailed more physical hardship than the shelters, was in certain ways much preferable to them. When I think about that time living outside, I get the same shaking hands and pounding heart and tears, but I also get something else: the memory of the beauty of nature, and of nature’s animals all around me. The geese, squirrels, ducks, chipmunks, and so many more that I lived with. I was living in their home. The dusks and dawns… seeing every minute of them first-hand, with no window-glass between my body and the sky. I fed the animals every day, wherever I was camping. I was in the natural world, a part of it, in a way that you can only be if you live outdoors. That particular part of my homelessness showed me that if I owned my own land, I’d make it a point three or four times a year to pitch a tent and live outdoors for a week or two. To remind myself how the outdoors really feels.

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read…   Spite and malice…   Braonwandering

read…  Mental hell

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all photos, graphics, poems and text copyright 2010-2012 by anne nakis, unless otherwise stated. all rights reserved.