Mike Pride: Diversity among the homeless creates challenges for city

Last modified: 3/9/2014 1:00:52 AM
To check in each night at First Congregational Church, Concord’s homeless people line up before an opening in a basement wall. The volunteer signing them in sits on the other side of the opening, pen in hand.

The volunteer asks each guest several questions. What’s your name? Did you stay here last night? Have you been using alcohol or other drugs today? Do you have a car? Will you be staying here or at South Church tonight? Even before the volunteer can begin, the regulars sometimes say John Doe, yes, yes, no, First Church .

On a recent Sunday night between 6 and the close of the list, 63 people approached the window and answered the questions. As the volunteer asking them, I kept the line moving to shorten the wait of those near the end. When the last person had come through, I had the sense of just having watched a film in which each face filled a frame.

Many of the faces were familiar, but not all of them. My wife and I did two night intake shifts at First Church and two overnights at South Congregational Church this year. We saw some people all four nights, and we knew some from volunteer duty in past years.

The winter shelter program stresses that the people who come are our guests. The aim is a safe, warm place for them to spend the night. The byword is respect for others. Outside the shelter, we volunteers speak of the problems that come up there in generalities, if at all. We respect the guests’ right to confidentiality and anonymity.

Even with those restrictions in mind, I think the public should know some things about the city’s homeless population.

The first is that it is not monolithic. This is important because it complicates any effort to end or reduce homelessness.

The homeless population is diverse. Many guests are addicted to alcohol or other drugs, but many are not. Among the released prisoners, some seem lost while others strive to recover a stable life. There are rough, rude guests whom every volunteer wishes early to bed. Some guests have mental problems.

A few guests rise at 3 or 4 a.m. to go to work but earn too little money to pay rent. Some have worked hard, banded together, cut the red tape and will soon have an apartment. Many, especially some older guests, seem to have given up on finding a place to live.

Probably the biggest change in Concord’s homeless population in recent years is the number of young people who stay at the shelters. They are diverse, too. Some seem able-bodied, polite and together, others angry and immature.

What these young people share, or appear to, is an acceptance of their lot. Probably they are unhappy about it. No doubt they hope it is temporary. But they have adapted to nights at the shelter with older women and men who know the world in ways they do not.

Not a choice

That said, people who think homelessness is a choice are wrong. In my experience, it is the last resort for people who have run out of choices or suffer from conditions that make affording rent or keeping house an impossible challenge.

Encouraged by the winter shelter program’s managers, who have the caring and coping skills of angels, volunteers resist the temptation to be judgmental about guests. But for all the efforts to make them feel welcome, shelter life is difficult.

Guests give up their privacy. They give up the right to come and go as they please, to stay up or sleep in as long as they want, to associate with whoever they choose. The many who dislike rules cause the most problems. In the end they must abide by the rules or risk nights under a frigid moon.

At First Church the guests sleep on cots crowded into partitioned rooms. Whenever possible, they may sleep in the same cot each night, but there are no guarantees. At South Church they sleep on air mattresses side by side in Sunday school classrooms. They make their beds up each night with blankets, pillows and clean linens.

Early each morning, they must return their mattresses, blankets and pillows to a closet and their sheets and pillowcases to laundry bags.

When they head out to face the day, a new set of challenges awaits them. Last Wednesday morning, my wife and I drove six people from South Church to the Friendly Kitchen for breakfast, but many others made the trip on foot. The route includes a treacherous icy path. The temperature was in the single digits.

Where to get and stay warm in the daytime is a hot topic before bedtime at the shelter. The options are few, especially for a population that travels mainly on foot.

Homeless people bond as a community. They look out for each other. They know more than most shelter volunteers about how things work and where things are. Some of them can be counted on to help each night and morning to make sure others follow the rules. They understand that two or three rowdy guests can spoil things for everyone.

Cookies and grapes

As she often does, my wife brought in fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies, strawberries, pineapple chunks, blueberries and grapes for the guests on a recent night. Not only did they devour this cornucopia and thank her for it, but one of them also washed the tray and containers afterward and returned them to us. Next morning, the same man organized and led a detail to bring up the laundry bags. He would not allow me to help.

On the recent Sunday night at First Church, guests gathered around a drunken latecomer to help him sign in and make it to a bed. In our experience, when a guest becomes rude or disruptive or threatening, other guests intervene. They know each other better than we know them, and most guests appreciate having a place to stay and volunteers to supervise the shelter.

Before we began volunteering, what went on in the shelters was a mystery to us. That’s why I’ve written this column.

I have no evidence that homelessness is increasing so fast in Concord that it will outgrow the church shelter program, but providing beds on winter nights is a burden on the churches. The city’s most recent publicized tactic has been to break up the tent camps where many homeless people live after the shelters close for the winter. That date this year is March 21 – less than two weeks from now.

As city policy on the issue evolves, the people making it should be aware of one important reality. Homeless people are in many ways an insular group, looking after one another and sharing a sense of themselves as misunderstood and invisible. But they are also a diverse group.

This group includes alcohol addicts, drug-users, mentally challenged people, down-and-out released prisoners, tough customers, seemingly capable adults, older people with physical issues and lost young people. Their common problem is that they lack a roof over their heads.

One challenge the city faces in devising a plan to deal with this population is that one size won’t fit all.

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