It's worth mentioning from the start that I've been going, two or three times a month, to the local overnight shelter to serve breakfast, clean up and commiserate with local homeless folks, for the past couple of years. And I'm known, by and large, as a pretty friendly guy. I mention all this not to toot my own horn (although it's pretty clever how I managed to do that anyway, if I do say so myself). No, I mention this upfront because in that time I've had multiple heated arguments with friends, family members, coworkers, fellow churchgoers, telemarketers and business owners. And through all those heated arguments with people close and near to me, I never witnessed any significant relational volatility among the guests at the shelter until yesterday morning.
Don't get me wrong. Some of these folks strike an awfully intimidating pose, and while I can bring myself to be nice to them, I generally steer clear of them in conversation, favoring the more welcoming glances of other guests. I also know that while I've not personally witnessed a fight at the shelter till yesterday, other volunteers at other shifts have seen people go a little nuts. And I'm worldly wise enough to presume that even the nice folks with the welcoming glances, being human beings under pressure, most likely lose their cool every now and then. So I'm not suggesting that the homeless people in the western suburbs of Chicago are magically serene. I'm only observing that they're human beings living in a civil society, and they know how to conduct themselves as such. And every once in a while something gets on their nerves enough to raise their hackles and cause a scene.
That's what happened yesterday morning. Addy, notorious for oversleeping and waking up grumpy, was exceptionally tired and uncompromising. Fifty-plus people had been handed plates of eggs and toast while she slept on. Fifty-plus people--including several little kids--had bathed, dressed and packed for the day while she slept on. An entire infrastructure of mattresses and modular walls had been disassembled all around her while she slept on. Gentle nudges and whispered "Wake up, Addy" wasn't doing it today. So another guest, exasperated by the stress Addy had apparently created in the dumbstruck volunteers working quietly around her, took it on himself to show Addy a little tough love.
He yelled at her to get up. He yanked the blanket off her. He pulled the pillow out from under her head. And when she started protesting, he grabbed the mattress and started pulling. I'm pretty sure my mom and dad and scout master woke me up the same way on more than one occasion. Addy finally surrendered the mattress, but she was ticked off to no end, so while the guest triumphantly folded up her blanket and added her pillow to the pillow cart, Addy stormed over to the breakfast buffet and poured a cup of coffee. Then she marched back to him and threw it at him.
"Oh, now, that's assault," he responded. "Ma'am," he said loudly and repeatedly to our shift supervisor, "could you call the police?" She ignored him and went to talk to Addy, so he shrugged and called the police himself.
Our shift supervisor didn't know what to do. Neither did I; neither did the other volunteers. Most of the guests minded their own business, but the conversation that ensued revealed some important details: Addy did this all the time; complaints to the volunteer staff never resulted in any discipline taken against Addy; complaints to the shelter administration never resulted in anything. Addy hadn't just been chronically oversleeping, she'd been systematically alienating the community that she traveled with by default. I could almost hear the chorus: "How do you solve a problem like Addy?"
I suppose we all know someone like Addy, and I suspect, the way I've told this story, that our sympathies lie with her. If someone wants to sleep a little late, the logic in my head goes, let her. The worst thing that happens is she misses breakfast and doesn't shower, and the people charged with cleaning up the shelter add a minute or two to their schedule. Big deal.
But I find my sympathies drifting to the other guests. Addy was being a glaring fly in a delicate ointment. Addy was a visual reminder that the rules of homelessness, as designed and enforced by people who are not homeless, can be nearly as arbitrary as they are draconian. One evening someone might be turned away for showing up late; the next morning someone else might be allowed to sleep late and even have a special breakfast prepared for her because she missed the main course.
Meanwhile, volunteers such as myself don't notice when we're slipping into a way of interacting with guests that's patronizing and demeaning. Our shift leader chided the guests: "If you have a problem with someone, you need to tell us"--as though "we" the volunteers had any idea what to do. When the guests protested that they complain about Addy all the time, with no discernible response from the powers that be, our shift leader responded, "It's like the older brother beating up the younger brother with you guys." The complaining guests were, it seems, one complaint away from a time out, two away from a spanking. Meanwhile, the call to the police led, in true suburban form, to a four-car intervention. As I was leaving for work, several police officers were crossing the church parking lot to keep the peace.
I'm not dogging the cops. I don't know what it's like to be an officer of the peace, and I didn't hear the guest's complaint, the content of which may have called for a strong response. As I drove to work, however, it struck me that an argument like the one I'd witnessed would never have resulted in a raid like that. It would have been handled internally, because it was essentially an in-house argument. The coffee throw was a bit extreme, but Addy was far enough away from the other guest that she never would have hit more than his jeans and his shoes. It was a symbolic gesture, not really assault. The entire interchange was evidence that the system needed attention, that the rules needed to be restated more clearly and applied more consistently. And the community--guests and volunteers alike--needed a reminder that we had cast our lots together, at least for overnight, and we each had responsibility to the others.
Because this is a community, temporary as it is: always the same people, with occasional new faces, coming together regularly, eating and sleeping and working and commiserating together, observing and addressing the problem of homelessness together. We're all in over our heads because we're each complex individuals involved in a complex community, a collision of private interests, a congregation united by a common messiness. Throw in all the washing of clothes, mattresses, tables and bodies, and the breaking of bread and pouring of beverages, and the homeless shelter becomes almost sacramental.
I left for work--earlier than I needed to, I can admit from a day's distance. That whole altercation made me nervous: I didn't know who to side with or how to resolve it. I don't like conflict, and frankly, some homeless people scare me. People like Addy, with her wild hair and her otherworldly eyes. That's my confession for today. I ask all the angels and saints, and you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.