"Paul" arrived one Saturday night in December, looking distraught and not speaking very coherently. "House fire ... my fault ... lost everything." He'd been wandering the streets for over 24 hours, had visited various churches, but couldn't find a place to stay. Hugh and I sat him down at a table by himself, told him he could stay with us, he'd be well looked after. We offered him something to drink or eat but he declined. We were concerned about his mental state and considered calling 911 not for our safety but for his -- to get him to emergency where a mental health professional could assess his condition, but we decided to give him some time to settle in. He asked for a glass of milk so he could take his medication and gradually he calmed down.
He pointed to his clothes and said his pants were too big for him -- he had to hold them up with one hand to keep them from falling down -- and his coat that was tattered and too short in the sleeves. We offered to find him some better clothing, but he only wanted a better fitting pair of jeans -- he said he didn't want to look too good when he went to see his worker Monday morning -- he also took a belt that Wendy from our clothing committee had just brought in.
Paul was a model guest: very gentle, respectful, undemanding. He gradually accepted better clothing and a shaving kit and looked like a changed man. He turned out to be a big fan of the NY Times crossword puzzles, which he worked on most evenings. He ended up staying with us five straight nights, until the weather alert was deactivated and we closed.
I don't know if the fire Paul talked about really happened but we wouldn't have treated him any differently either way. Most people who come through our doors have suffered a loss: lost jobs, lost relationships, lost homes, loss of sobriety. Some, like Paul, arrive with nothing but the clothes they're wearing, others struggle in with all their possessions. But almost all arrived weighed down by greater losses: loss of dignity, loss of direction, loss of spirit.
The shelter offers a brief respite from the pains of loss: a warm place to call home for a few nights, clothing and hygiene kits to clean up with, and good food and companionship to nourish and strengthen the body and spirit. Like Paul, some of our guests have been wandering around somewhat aimlessly for quite a period of time - 24 hours in Paul's case, years for others. I hope the brief respite we offer affords some the opportunity to reflect on the roads they've taken that has led them to where they are today. I hope they leave with a little more strength than when they arrived, strength to simply get them through another day, or strength to hold on till they get that one break they need, or strength to choose a different road than the one that led them to our front door.
We didn't see Paul again when we reopened the shelter for the eleven night stretch in January, so I hope he's doing real well. We did see many familiar returning faces, some I was just thankful to see they were still alive, but two I was happy to see them, but sad that it was back at the shelter: "Jack" who seemed so determined in December to get back on the sobriety wagon and "Kip" who'd stayed with us the previous season, landed a job, found an apartment, but through no apparent fault of his own, had lost it all again just after Christmas. It's a long journey, requiring patience and strength and a few breaks. I'm thankful that our shelter exists and that we are able to offer each guest a little break on their journey.