This last Thursday I had my first overnight shift at the ROOTS Young Adult Shelter. From 8-11pm I worked the shift like I did for a normal evening shift, helping to pass out bedding to the guests and monitor computer time before lights out.
During the evening shift, I was monitoring the computers when one of the guests came in and started looking into a cabinet. I did not know what this cabinet was for or what was inside of it. So, when I saw the guest start to open the doors, I told him, “I don’t think you should be looking in there,” and he got very defensive and upset about how we treat the guests as children and not 18-25 year old adults. This particular guest had already been riled up from other guests not believing him when he quoted facts during dinner, and me trying to put on an air of authority completely pushed him over the edge. I called over a program coordinator as soon as he got upset at me, and let the program coordinator handle the situation.
While I was sitting there watching the program coordinator try to diffuse the situation and calm the guest down, I started getting more and more embarrassed about my comment to him, and feeling guilty. Our guests want to be treated like a normal human being, with respect. During one of the required trainings for staff and volunteers, we talked about how homeless youth are treated as “sub-human” or “invisible.” Me coming in and trying to tell the guest what to do was the wrong way to approach the situation because it made him feel more powerless and dehumanized him by putting me in an authoritative position.
Homeless youth are often overlooked by society, and treating them like you would a typical stranger who is not homeless is important for this type of volunteering. ROOTS is providing a safe place for homeless young adults to sleep at night, where they can talk to volunteers about their problem without judgement. My job is not to be the person in charge. Many of the guests know the rules and do not need someone who is younger than them coming in and telling them what to do and when to do it. However, it is hard to balance being a friend for the guests and maintaining the volunteer-guest relationship. There is still a power dynamic between the guests and staff/volunteers since we are technically service providers who have power over the guests’s access to these services.
I also had a lengthy conversation with another guest during my shift monitoring the computers. This guest began talking about how he became homeless (without me prompting or asking him) and his plans for getting out of debt. Something big happened that made him unable to pay for his house, putting him out on the streets and in debt. His story made me think about how easy it is to lose one’s home, it could easily happen to me if my parents lost their jobs since they pay my rent. It scares me how easy it is to become homeless in Seattle and in all of America.
After the evening shift ended, four volunteers, including me, stayed for the overnight shift. I got signed up for the second shift from 1-3am, where I would usually be able to sleep from 11pm-1am, but since it was my first time doing overnight, I had to stay awake for the first and second shift in order to shadow and go through a quick training in what to do. I do not feel like the evening shifts prepared me for the overnight shift. There are different tasks that need to be completed during the overnight shifts compared to the evening shifts. For example, during your two hour overnight shift, you do the guests’ laundry, monitor the bathrooms, and do a walk-around of the room every 10 minutes.
I did not expect to be thrown into the overnight shift from 1-3am by myself that night. I thought I would be shadowing an experienced volunteer my first time, but as soon as it hit 1am, the volunteer on the first shift went to bed in one of the mattresses they provide for us, and the volunteer training me also went to bed. I was left to carry out the second shift by myself (however there is an overnight supervisor who stays awake the whole time, but he is mainly there for emergency).
It was difficult staying awake until 3am. I could feel my eyelids begin to droop and it became more and more difficult to keep them open. The walk-arounds every 10 minutes definitely helped me stay awake. I am glad nothing happened during my shift, and that the only hard part was monitoring the laundry and the bathrooms at the same time.
What surprised me was that I actually slept the rest of the night after my shift ended. I took one of the mattresses on the stage, and as soon as my head hit the pillow, I was out. I woke up at 5:45 to register for classes, and then I went back to bed until 6:55 when all the volunteers have to wake up and start getting ready for wake-up and clean-up of shelter.
Some guests ask to be woken up at a specific time, in which case, we go around and gently shake the mattress and wait for a confirmation that they are awake and acknowledge the wake-up call. We are not supposed to touch the guests when waking them because it can startle them.
Lights come on at 7am Sunday-Friday and at 8am on Saturdays. All guests must be out by 8am Sunday-Friday and 9am on Saturdays. Breakfast is served by a volunteer breakfast crew each morning, and guests are required to pick up there blanket and sheets and toss them into the laundry bins. The morning shifts include milieu, bathrooms, cubbies, and bedsheets. As an overnight volunteer, I also get to eat breakfast at ROOTS.
As I walked around the room looking for ways to help clean up the shelter, I kept looking at each guest wondering what their plan was for the day. I started wondering things such as where they plan on going after they leave the shelter, what are they going to do, and do they travel together? Many of the guests I saw leave always left by themselves, despite having socialized with other guests they called their friend the night before.
Watching the breakdown of the shelter seemed almost normal to me. The concept seemed the same as when we wake up each day, make our beds (or pick them up in this case), use the restroom and get dressed, eat breakfast, pack our bag, and then walk out the door to start our day. The only difference is, we will come back to our homes, but some of the guests may not come back to ROOTS the next night. It felt almost wrong for me to walk out of the shelter knowing I was heading back to my apartment, back to my normal life after having spent the night in the shelter.
I was excited for my first overnight shift at ROOTS, and I look forward to the rest of my time volunteering here. The hardest part will be adjusting to the different sleep schedule on Thursday nights. I chose to be an overnight volunteer at ROOTS because I wanted to really push myself out of my comfort zone and be able to better understand the population I would be working with. My first overnight shift has definitely already helped me to get a better understanding of shelter life, sharing a room with a bunch of strangers who share one thing in common: homelessness.