The Chicago homeless shelter I worked for was not technically a homeless shelter – it only felt like one. It was actually a church. It was “planted” (when churches are “started” they are said to be “planted” for some odd reason) some years ago,and was scraping by off a congregation that rarely topped twenty members on a Sunday morning. Even the ones who came had a difficult time expressing why they kept showing. As individuals, they seemed much like the church itself: tired.
Years before I ever stepped foot in the church,one church-goer had started making meals on Saturday night for the area homeless,as a gesture of goodwill, a peace offering. The idea was immediately popular (the neighborhood was as tired as the church itself, and teeming with homeless) and Safe Haven was born. The job of running the thing passed hands rapidly and fell to me some three years after its inception. I ran Safe Haven and, in return,was allowed to sleep in the laundry room. It was hardly payment for what amounted to a twenty-four a day job, but it was for the Lord, and in him I lived and moved and had my being.
It was an unruly bunch,the Safe Haven crew,as misfit a collection of people as can be imagined. Gang bangers, drag queens, teen runaways, hookers, junkies, and a large collection of folks who simply defy description, all treated Safe Haven less like a soup kitchen and more like a nightclub. The few who could play piano and sing could not be stopped, and the Sunday morning sanctuary became the scene of Saturday night karaoke contests, rap battles and, as often as not,bitter and violent competition. I tried to cook as exciting a menu as possible on a $50 a week budget, but we were feeding well over one hundred people a week and I am no chef, so it was difficult and, I suspect, disappointing – even if you’re begging. I learned a few tricks, though.
Potatoes are cheap, and go far.
Pastas are terrific.
Tacos and hot dogs are good, but there are never enough. Avoid the temptation to make stews, as people are picky about ingredients.
Hams are good.
Sub sandwiches, which seem so promising, are unsatisfying and unfilling.
The sooner you sacrifice your aversion to frozen foods, the better.
And coffee, always, you can’t make too much coffee. It does not have to be good as long as it’s hot.
That winter was cruel,Chicago’s coldest in decades. A single, gargantuan snowfall in early December set up camp for the next few months, rending cars permanently parked and sidewalks dangerously slick. It was long in the way of winters: endless, dismal, and tiring. One got the impression, living in our little laundry room and walking out each morning to grim streets, that it had always been just this way. Bitterly cold, deafeningly windy, black and white. And it is in this world that you must carve out a safe haven for the city’s homeless.
You’re running Safe Haven.
Patrick, a twenty-two year old man who thinks he’s a Power Ranger,is shooting lasers at a boy named Shadow is muttering, “I’ll cut you. I’ll cut you,” in response. Nikki and James, a married couple, are screaming at each other in the sanctuary – he has hit her before,many times. One boy is trying to talk another boy into sneaking into the church nursery for sex. In the bathroom,nine or ten men are snorting something off the sink. Shorty G, a drug dealer who’s been banned for beating the volunteers, is lurking outside,waiting for you to come out and give him half a chance. In the sanctuary,people are screaming at each other for singing off-key or missing a lyric. People are screaming at you to make more coffee. People are screaming at nothing in particular,just for the sheer thrill of it. Someone’s stolen a knife from the kitchen. Someone’s stolen your computer. People are screaming about the burnt food.
You’re doing this for God. Are you tired? Are these people tired of you? You dish out the food into plastic serving trays on a wooden bar and the people form a greedy line. You get on a chair.
“Listen up!” You shout, and there’s a restless silence, jumping onto a chair so that the whole, flailing, hollering, jittery room can see you. “Can I have everyone’s attention please?!” The kids all shush each other in unison, except for Andre who screams “bitch!” right as the rest of the talking dies.
“LANGUAGE!” bellows Glenn, the self-appointed security guard. There are no words for how big Glenn is. Inevitably, the first time you meet him, you’ll be struck dumb by either his massive girth or his neck-craning height; the second time, you’ll notice the other. He’s the sort of guy you want for security, so long as you can keep him to task.
“Where’s Dave?!” one of the kids calls. Dave would be the man who quit last week, who used to be in charge. They know you, but they trusted Dave. And he’d left too, just like everyone does. What will you say?
“This will just take a minute!” You say. “As most of you know, Dave and Amy won’t be here anymore, so now I’ll be the only one in charge from now on.”
“Why did Dave leave?!” someone shouts. There are a few murmurs of assent and you know that the answer is complicated.
“It had nothing to do with any of you,” you answer, truthfully enough. “Anyway, nothing around here is really going to change. Just remember, I want this place to be safe for everyone who comes in. That means, whatever’s happening on the streets – leave it on the streets.”
“I miss Dave!”
“If something has to be settled, take it outside the building. There won’t be any fighting here.”
Glenn mutters to you, trying to remind you to say something – but you’re on a roll and the kids are getting restless. The ground beef is cooling and Laura, the volunteer cook – bless her heart – is covering the food anxiously.
“So, tonight we have tacos and rice for you, also soda and coffee. I think we have enough for secoooonds…” you draw that out as you look questioningly at Laura who shrugs her shoulders. “We might have enough for seconds. I’ll pray and then we can eat.”
There is another chorus of “shhh!”‘s as kids slip off caps and clasp hands. It’s strange, to see a group of kids so steeped in keeping it real still feeling obligated to give prayer its due. It now, as it has before, leaves you a little unsure of what exactly to pray. How does one pray for this group?
“Father, thank you for bringing us all here and thanks for this food.” You sound like a five-year-old at a church potluck, you know, and here’s hoping that God can sift through it. “Look after our brains, Father – and keep our bodies and souls safe.” There are some mutters and a few giggles, and it’s time to wrap this up. “Thanks, God – we love you so much. Amen.”
“AMEN!” everyone chimes as the spell breaks and a sort of comfortable chaos settles in. Laura and Alora, another volunteer, uncover pots and start dishing out food. Glenn glances over at you, and you have to stay on the chair to have a normal conversation with him.
“You said, ‘take fights outside the building,’” he says, gruffly. “You should have told them to take it outside the parking lot, off our property.”
There’s a pause, while you’re standing on your chair.
“Other then that,” he says, “you did pretty good.”
He’s right though. They fight in the parking lot that night, and you’re standing under streetlights, yelling through a strep throat, trying to pretend like you’re someone tough, like you know what you’re doing, like you’re in charge. And, of those, only the last is true. Are you tired?
Patrick – the Power Ranger – would often talk to me about wanting to kill himself. I visited him in the hospital one time and he told me it was the only thing he ever thought about. Patrick had tiny eyes set far back in a pudgy face,and they spun red when he cried, which was often.
James and Nikki were older – they had been married and homeless for many years. She was a practicing witch (she called herself the “Keeper of the Dead”) and he was a Christian. This sowed seeds for many fights,which generally ended in violence. However, they were quite kind to me,and certainly tried to help in whatever ways they could. Many times,Nikki would bring food during the week and cook it for me as a way to say thank-you. I never learned where she got the food and never asked. Her teeth were mostly gone and her eyes sparkled in ways that could be lovely or terrifying. She told me once that she had a demon on her shoulder, and then laughed and laughed.
Keith and Daniel were a couple who showed as it pleased them. They were very friendly.
Less friendly was Student,who was convinced that he was a dragon and I was a centaur. Whenever I tried to argue,he shook his head at me in a sad, snobbish manner.
Taylor clung to me with the belief that I could protect her from the demon child who roamed the halls. One night, thinking it would do her good, I dared her to walk through the sanctuary alone. Seven steps in,she took to screeching and ran back to me,eyes flaring. She was a little younger than me – taught me to longboard, and stole sandwiches from a Philly Cheesesteak shop near Wrigley Field.
Kevin showed up most nights,even when there was no food. He wrestled in the underground circuit,frequently meeting me with blood on his face and teeth knocked askew. The story goes that,years back,a rival wrestler had knocked him unconscious, slashed his wrists,and left him for dead. Kevin,having survived this ordeal,strongly suspected that he had become a zombie. To seal his fate,he married a vampire named Devin,who drank his blood. In spite of this,he was certainly one of Safe Haven’s more well-adjusted guests.
“This place,” he declared often,“sucks my will to live.”
“The end is totally nigh,” his wife would agree.