Shelter from the storm


In the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smiths character arrives too late to stay at a homeless shelter one night so he and his young son spend the night in a subway. And, watching that movie scene about summarized my experience with the homeless until I volunteered with a shelter last month. 

The shelter served dinner and provided bedding to the first 25 residents who showed up each night, so by 7 p.m. there was a long line by the front door. Just as in the scene from The Pursuit of Happyness, everyone else was turned away. Once the first 25 people were inside they had to register, and I wrote their name, date of birth, and whether theyd slept there last night. I greeted each one of them with stupid phrases like, Hello!  Welcome back! Were glad youre with us again tonight until common sense finally took over. Still, most of them appreciated my misguided attempts at friendliness.

As they signed in I wondered what brought them here. Most of them were younger than me. The social worker told me that many of them were alcohol or drug addicted, violent or had criminal records that made it dangerous for children to volunteer there. And yet I felt a rare connection with them, one that reminded me that we are all part of humanity, and were it not for a few lucky breaks Ive had we could have easily traded places.

Then it was dinnertime. Seven of us brought or made cornbread, salad, chicken and vegetable stew and rice. I lugged in six dozen cookies for dessert the just-add-egg mix type wishing now that Id found an hour to make them from scratch.  

We set the tables with plastic dinnerware and served them dinner on paper plates through a half-door between the dining area and the kitchen. Overall everyone was quiet, politely asking for seconds as Wheel of Fortune played on a tiny 7-inch television in the background. One woman requested milk and I told her that we only had fruit juice and coffee. A few minutes later another volunteer appeared with a carton of milk that she bought from the 7-Eleven next door. Duh.

After dinner a social worker reviewed the ground rules for the evening (no smoking, etc.) as the residents found blankets and mats and settled into the adjoining rectangular room to sleep. The next day they would rise at 6 a.m., leave with a bag lunch provided by a local Brownie troop and return by 7 the next evening. 

Oh, one more thing the shelter closed on March 31. Its only open during winter to protect them from the cold. But its still cold outside and I wonder where they are sleeping, whos taking care of them and why they and not me dont have a place to sleep.

Jane Hess is a free-lance writer.  Please send your comments, volunteer experiences and suggestions for future columns to