Acknowledging My Stigmas

This last Thursday I had my second evening shift from 8-11pm in preparation for my first overnight shift. (I think my first overnight shift will be on Thursday November 3, so stay tuned for my blog afterwards.) In case I forgot to mention last time, the ROOTS shelter is located about halfway down the alley between the post office and the University Temple United Methodist Church on 43rd St. It is run out of the basement of the church.

Every Monday and Thursday, the shelter gets the laundry delivered, which consists of clean sheets, pillow cases, and blankets. It is our job to put together bedding kits that contain a fitted sheet to go over the mat, a pillow case, and a blanket. We make bedding kits until we run out of pillow cases, since we run out of those first, and then we put the rest of the sheets and blankets into separate bins. These bins are stored on the stage at the front of the room by the door to the shelter that goes out to the alley.

During my second evening shift I got partnered to actively shadow another volunteer who has been there since the summer. We worked two different shifts that night. The first shift was called “stage,” where we passed out the pre-made bedding kits to each young adult guest that entered the shelter. If they asked for an extra blanket, which most of them did because of the colder weather, we also handed them an extra one from our overflow buckets. Besides the bedding kits and extra blankets, we also put out bins of socks, pants, shorts, underwear, scarves, hats, and shirts for the guests to take if they needed them.

The second shift I worked that night was called “in-take,” which is when you sit down with any new guests and fill out an information packet with them and go over the rules and expectations and their rights. The person is allowed to not provide any information they are not comfortable giving. Since there were no new guests that night, my volunteer partner and I just went through the packet together to make sure we understood what it said and what needed to be filled out for if we ever need to fill one out with a new guest.

I was a little disappointed with these two shifts, since I did not get to interact with the guests as much as I did last week working the mat map and smoke breaks. As I stood by the stage watching the shelter come to life that night, I realized that it had the feeling of a giant dorm room/building.¬†And why wouldn’t it? These guests should be either in college or just graduated from college. They are the same age as many of the volunteers who are students.

Many of the guests that night I did not recognize from the previous week during my first evening shift. It made me wonder where the young adults stay on the nights they are not sleeping in the shelter. When I asked a staff member why people come and go from the shelter, he said, “It’s just like us when we move places. Sometimes they’re sleeping on a friends couch, other times they’re just not in the U District for a while. Homeless people move around a lot just like us.” His answer caught me off guard because I realized I had assumed that homeless people were stuck in the same location forever, helpless to leave. It brought to my attention one of the stigmas I held against homeless people, mainly that they are different than me. In my head I had unconsciously categorized homeless people as “the others,” who live and act differently than I do. It really put it in perspective for me talking to me co-volunteer that night. Homeless people aren’t any different than me when it comes to hanging out with friends and visiting different places. They travel from place to place and spend the night with friends, just like we travel from place to place and hang out with our friends.

While I didn’t get to interact with a lot of the guests tonight, and the ones I did talk to were short conversations, I came to recognize¬†that I had been thinking of the guests as outsiders. People who are very very different than me. But they’re not as different as I thought they were. The guests are young adults, similar in age to me. Some are at the same mental developmental stage as I am, looking for a way to connect with people and figure out who they are.

As a Public Health student, it was easy for me to think that I am open-minded to different populations. I think that I took pride in being a PH major and thought that I was able to view any PH problem without judgement. I was wrong. Despite all the PH, Global Health, Anthropology, Sociology, and Psychology classes I have taken, I still carry stereotypes and stigmas with me, many unconsciously. I don’t know if my stigmas towards homeless people will ever go away, but it is important for me and everyone to acknowledge these thoughts and try to minimize expressing them as much as possible.

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