Last night was my first ever shift at the ROOTS shelter. As an overnight volunteer, they ease you into the overnight shift, so my first two shifts will be evening shifts from 8-11pm. Therefore, last night I did not spend the night at the shelter, but only helped set up for the night and interact with the homeless youth.
Before that, I had had a required de-escalation and de-conflict training from 5-8pm, where I learned about the infamous fight-or-flight response and effective techniques to de-tangle a conflict. However, the sad truth is that the young adults that come to the shelter know more about conflicts and how to de-escalate them than we as volunteers will ever know. This is because living on the streets has forced them to learn to survive on their own, including managing their response to tense situations, learning how to avoid bad situations, and protecting themselves if threatened. While the instructors at the training had us stimulate potential conflicts that could arise in the shelter, they reminded us constantly that the residents themselves know more about how to handle these situations, and that they will tend to diffuse the situation themselves and step in for each other, rather than get staff and volunteers involved. Even before my first shift started, I was made aware of a huge difference between myself and the homeless youth, one that I was and am still unable to accept as a way of living.
As a young adult myself, I am aware of the immaturity I still possess and the amount of support I still require from my parents, especially when faced with a problem I do not know how to solve. This is why it is so difficult for me to imagine having to grow up quickly on the streets, especially for those who are 18 years-old having to defend themselves against people who are much older than them.
At 7:30pm I checked in with my volunteer mentor who quickly showed me around the shelter and then put me to work assembling bedding kits, which consisted of folding up a pillow case and a fitted bed sheet in a blanket that were to be distributed to the youth as they checked in for the night. Other volunteers set up the mattresses around the room, putting at least two square tiles between each one, and setting an uncovered pillow on each mattress. Each mattress had a number written on it from 1 through 48, and a bucket with the same number put at the foot of the mattress. These buckets were for the youth to put their belongings in for safe keeping. My first job was “mat map,” where I wrote down each persons name on a map of the mats in the shelter, in order to track where people are sleeping and keep track of belongings in case someones stuff got stolen.
My volunteer partner for the night chose to work “mat map” because in his words, it is the job that would help me get acquainted with the guests the quickest, since it forced me to actively approach them and ask for their name. He was right, not only did it help me get over my shyness, but it also allowed me to introduce myself to the guests and show them that I am a trustworthy volunteer (at least a little bit).
Every time a guest entered the shelter and found a mattress, I would approach them and politely ask for their name. Some people replied with a quiet, mumbled voice, eyes cast down, and they seemed to take a step away from me, even. Others looked me straight in the eyes and boldly told me their name, asking for my name in reply and shaking my hand. I could tell that the majority of youth knew the drill, and didn’t even need me to ask them for their name, they automatically told me their name and proceeded to the kitchen window to get dinner.
The other shift I had for the night was smoke break, where I simply stood outside with other volunteers and supervised the two smoke breaks they have before lights out. While I do not particularly enjoy the smell of cigarettes, my volunteer partner was correct, again, when he told me that smoke breaks were another great time to interact with the guests because they are more relaxed and care free during this time.
During my shift, I got the chance to talk to two guests, we’ll call them T and P. Guest T asked me a lot of questions about why I chose to major in Public Health, and if I thought I was healthy. I countered by asking him what his definition of healthy was, to which he responded with, “getting enough protein, the right carbs, milk, etc.” When I talked with guest P, he again wanted to know why I was in Public Health. I found these two conversations to be so normal, like when I meet someone new on campus or in class. However, I did feel hesitant to ask T and P about themselves, since I did not know where their boundaries were, and I didn’t want to seem too pushy or pry into their lives.
What surprised me the most about the guests at the shelter was the number of youth who had cellphones! These weren’t the cheap flip phones either, they were iPhones, Androids, Samsung smartphones. The whole night I wondered where they got them and how they paid for the phone bill. Almost as soon as someone checked in and picked a mattress, they were finding a place to charge their phone and scrolling through it. I’ll have to remember to ask one of the youth with a cellphone how they pay for it after I’ve been working at the shelter for a while.
While we were waiting for the shelter to open, I had a chance to talk with some of the paid staff on site last night, and I was able to ask them about their opinion on Ed Murray’s “Pathway Home” 10-year plan to end homelessness. One of the staff got very passionate and stated that the homelessness problem is different than the affordable housing problem. People who struggle to afford a home still have a home, but homeless people do not have a home. Part of the problem is that oppression keeps the homeless people from having a voice in the politics of Seattle; everyone else knows better, why would homeless people know what is best for themselves? City consultations for the “Pathway Home” plan lack a representative for homeless people, causing the 10-year plan to instead focus on housing and not actually helping homeless people. The staff worker also brought to attention the fact that funding for homeless people doesn’t even reach the hands of homeless people any way, it instead is given to organizations like ROOTS to be used by volunteers who do have a home. Just some food for thought:
How can Mayor Murray change the”Pathway Home” plan to ensure that homeless people actually get to receive the money themselves, and do you think giving the money to the homeless people, with conditions, will solve the homelessness crisis?
Overall, my first volunteering shift at ROOTS was overwhelming and exciting! I found that while I was going around collecting names for the “mat map” or putting together bedding kits, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I love the sense of community they have at ROOTS, like one big dorm room where everyone is there to hang out. When I left at 11pm, I found myself wishing I was working the overnight shift because I didn’t want to leave. The older volunteers and staff members even remarked about how smoothly the evening went and how upbeat the atmosphere felt. I’m excited to continue working with ROOTS, and look forward to my first overnight shift in two weeks!