Discrete Incidents

Tonight was a very eventful night. It started off normally with me showing up at ROOTS at 8pm and putting together the bed sets, one pillow case and one sheet wrapped in a blanket. We had our nightly meeting before shelter opened where I signed up to do sign-in and bathrooms. There were four new guests, and barely anybody taking showers last night. The atmosphere of the shelter was very positive and there were no altercations before lights out. At 10:30, I went to the office in the back to do the evening debrief with the evening volunteers (who do not spend the night). After the evening volunteers left, I stayed in the office to confirm the overnight shifts, while two of the evening supervisors stayed out in the main room with the guests. When I left the office to go relieve the evening supervisors and send them back to the office for their supervisor debrief, I walked out into the middle of a mild incident (compared to the other incident that happened last night).

From what I could tell by watching and listening to the 3 or 4 guests involved and the two evening supervisors trying to rectify the situation, there was confusion about whose bed was whose and a laptop had been stolen from one of the guests. I had been watching this event for about 5 minutes when all of a sudden, there was a huge conflict going on in another part of the shelter. Another guest was yelling threats at a guest that accidentally walked into the middle of a second conflict outside of the laptop one. Maybe about 5 minutes after the guest started yelling, all the other supervisors came out from the office in the back, and tried to de-escalate the situation. However, this one particular guest was all riled up and did not seem like he was going to be calmed down.

Many of the guests around that area were up and trying to diffuse the situation, as well. In the end, one of the evening supervisors got hit, on accident, and a guest got hit in the nose. The police were called, and another guest got their stuff stolen. There was blood on a couple beds and the floor from the guest who had gotten hit. Four police officers showed up at ROOTS, and about four guests not involved in the incident left during it for personal safety reasons.

During this incident, I was standing with one of the newer overnight volunteers by the front desk, on the other side of the room. I did not know how to help, and was unsure I would even be able to do anything useful to prevent the fight from happening. I tried to help the other guests keep to as normal a routine as possible. While I was helping one of the guests in the bathroom, the police officers and evening coordinators came in to talk about what happened. The officers did not seem too happy to be called to ROOTS, and I deduced that in previous visits, they had gotten very little directions about what they were supposed to do when they showed up. They were uncertain of what ROOTS wanted them to do. I think they were also frustrated because the evening coordinators would not give out any guest information, even names, to the officers because of confidentiality reasons.

After the police had left and we got the  blood cleaned up and the remaining guests calmed down and went back to sleep, we went back to the office in shifts to de-brief about what had just happened. They gave us the option to leave if we did not feel safe enough to spend the night. While my heart was racing, and I did feel scared during the event, I opted to stay because I knew that that one guest was not representative of all of the guests at ROOTS.

From this de-brief, I learned that the stolen laptop and belongings were two completely unrelated incidents from the fight. Some of the staff also talked about how they do not follow the de-escalation training because they feel it is way outdated. If they had followed the de-escalation training, they would have simply been standing a legs length away from the two guests circling each other, waving their arms and yelling to try to get their attention and pull them aside. In a fight, this would never work, and it didn’t. I can agree that what we learned at the de-escalation training earlier this quarter would not have helped to de-fuse the incident from last night. It would have simply allowed the fight to continue. In reality, there were some guests trying to help break up the fight and calm the two guests down, and the staff were putting themselves between the two fighters to try to create a barrier and block their view.

I have never even seen guests get in a yelling argument at the shelter, and last night, I witnessed theft, yelling, crying, and physical fighting. To say last night was eventful is an understatement. This morning, I could feel the change in the atmosphere at shelter. Usually, people are chatting loudly and running around getting ready for the day. Today felt sluggish, as people were slow to get out of bed, and it was very quiet and somber in shelter. Two of the evening supervisors returned at 7:30 in the morning to have a de-brief with the shelter guests during breakfast, and get guests’ accounts of what transpired last night. This was a day to allow guests involved with the events of last night to stay longer than 8am in order to make absolutely sure ROOTS had the correct facts from the incident.

The guest who had their laptop stolen filed a report with ROOTS (maybe the police, but many guests do not like to get involved with the police, even if it is to file reports), and I think asked for ROOTS to review the video cameras. The guest who was all riled up will not be allowed back at ROOTS in a very long time. The staff and volunteers of ROOTS that were there when the incident happened have been offered counseling services, even a simple phone call, for any problems they may be struggling with after what happened. There was also another de-brief session held for the guests tonight before shelter opened.

While these services show that ROOTS cares about the mental well-being of their guests and volunteers, I think they also need to implement a new training program to deal with conflicts like this. I did not feel prepared, at all, for the events of last night. I was flustered, hot, and frozen about what to do to help the situation. ROOTS needs to update their conflict de-escalation training to more than just trying to stay out of the way and yell at the guests to try to get their attention, as this would only add more chaos to the conflict.

After last night, I realized that while the guests are very friendly and easy going when you talk with them, they are still an underprivileged population that can become upset easily and violent when they feel threatened. Shelters such as ROOTS provide services for them, but can be severely unprepared for big conflicts such as last night’s.

Hopefully last night was the first and last incident I experience like that at ROOTS.


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