My Experience At A Homeless Shelter
As recounted by Aubrey Munashe Magodlyo
I vividly remember walking in downtown Indianapolis and meeting a homeless person holding a card with "I can write a computer program in exchange for food" written on it. As a computer science major this quickly caught my attention as I wondered how a person who could program was homeless and alone in America; a country I always referred to as the land of opportunities. I always thought that jobs were plenty since I often get off-campus job opportunities in my college emails.
When it was time to choose a winter term class, I looked at all these fancy classes which were available but I was attracted by the Inner City Missions class. The class seeks to give students an opportunity to learn more about homelessness thorough working with several organizations which help homeless people. To my surprise, during my second week of class, I had to go stay at a homeless shelter for four days. This meant sleeping at the shelter and living in the conditions which the homeless folks live in.
When we were dropped at the Wheeler Men's shelter, I had a bag with a few clothes and toiletries because I wanted to have the few things which most of the homeless possess. As a requirement, I had to leave all gadgets on campus except my cell phone. I was with three other classmates who included two Caucasians and one Hispanic. As we entered the shelter, the residents did not realize that we were joining them as part of a class. Most African Americans came to me, they felt I was their brother and we could relate because of the pigment of our skin. I do not blame anyone who thought I was homeless because my big afro hair seemed to be sending that message to the world. Upon surveying the place, I saw several people watching TV, some were sleeping while seated on chairs, and most of the people seemed extremely bored. The homeless community was very diverse but most of the residents were African Americans. When I looked at some people, the way they presented themselves made me feel sorry for them because they looked as folks who were fit to be business people with six figure pay checks.
We were shown where we would sleep, and it was on the floor; fortunately we had carried sleeping bags. In addition to staying at the homeless shelter, we also took part in chores, which reminded me of the mission high school I went to where doing chores was a requirement. On the first day, I was responsible for the housekeeping which included doing the job I detest the most. I had to clean the bathrooms and showers. I then went to work at the front desk. This was my first direct interaction with the homeless. My job was to collect and pack bags and put them onto shelves. Also, I had to check the homeless people's personal belongings for dangerous objects like knives and anything which could be used to harm other people. The homeless people had to go through a scanning machine to detect if they had items they had hid. A lot of the people were really nice and would speak to me politely. However, I also encountered some homeless people who were mean and seemed bored all the time. I then discovered that the mean people were the chronically homeless who were sick and tired of doing the same things. Being mean included yelling at me because they wanted their back packs urgently although I had to go over at least three hundred bags while searching for the one they needed. I would try to remain calm and patient, explaining why it took me time to locate bags but my explanations always fell on deaf ears. However, I never got mad at these people because someone who had once been homeless told me that some homeless people are self centered and that is why they acted that way, but the majority of the people were really nice and it was a pleasure talking to them.
While working, I had some of the homeless folks giving me candy and cookies. Honestly, I did not want to have any but people felt offended when I refused to take their offers, so I ended up taking everything I was given. Some of the homeless people would come back to ask if I had eaten what they had given me. During meals people would make sure not to throw away food, so if they were something they did not like, they would walk around offering people their leftovers. Several times I was offered cakes although I didn't always take them. It was touching how the homeless people always shared the little they had, and they referred to each other as brothers.
The most difficult thing was encountering two boys who were my age but stayed at the shelter. It made me realize how fortunate I am to be able to have a place to stay. The boys would come get lunch then go back to school and they would return for dinner and a place to sleep. I also met someone from Sudan who came to America as a war refugee. Unfortunately, things didn't go according to plan for him, and he is now homeless. He did not believe that I was from Africa, and he started asking questions about the Zimbabwean president and the government in order to verify that I was really from Zimbabwe. He went on to ask me questions about Sudan and luckily I knew a little bit. The Sudanese went on to tell me about other Zimbabweans whom he had meet in America and what they were currently doing. After meeting someone from Africa, I felt like we were brothers and this made me realize how much I miss my motherland.
I had several conversations with the homeless people. At first, they assumed that I was African American but this was short lived because after saying a few things I would be asked where I was from. The next question would be how I became homeless and whether I was in the drug recovery program or not. Obvious questions about Africa followed and I had to clarify that we do not stay in forests and fight lions daily. One of the residents asked me for sandals made from car tyres but I had none. Hopefully, I will be able to get him a pair when I go back home to visit. Most people were homeless because they had some form of addiction which led them to making bad decisions. Some of them were homeless because they had been arrested and they had nowhere to go at the end of their jail term. A few people were homeless because they had been laid off from their jobs which resulted in them losing their houses. It was emotional having the homeless telling me their life stories and giving me advice on things not to do in life. I was heart broken when I saw someone picking up a penny from the floor. Every penny counts for the homeless and this made me think of the change I get and I do not really care about it since I put it aside.
The homeless shelter employed former homeless people and these employees worked well with the homeless because they fully understood what they were going through. Some people who have managed to come out of the homeless condition volunteer at the shelter as a way to show appreciation through giving back to the community. Such volunteers were crucial because they provided a lot of encouragement and support to homeless people by telling them it was possible to come out of the situation and used themselves as evidence. This provided a sense of hope for the homeless. There were also some churches which came and volunteered as part of giving back to the community, while some people came as families. I remember celebrating when some of the homeless guys came with the news that they had gotten jobs, and we were promised a party once they received their first pay check.
I had a chance to attend one drug recovery class. The program is very strict and students are given home work everyday. The homework involves memorizing bible verses and failure to do so results in expulsion from the program. Being kicked out of the program means jail terms for some people because enrolling in the program was a way to avoid serving a jail term. The purpose of the program is not to make people sober but to teach them about Christian values. Everyday around 2pm, I would see most of the drug recovery students seated with bibles and note cards to memorize bible verses.
Although the homeless people have food and shelter provided, to a lesser extent their lives were dictated. Firstly, they had to wake up at 5am in the morning and vacate the sleeping rooms. At 10pm they had to be sleeping with their cell phones off. People had to have breakfast at around 5:30am which I think is too early to eat. As part of the rules of the shelter, it was compulsory for the residents to attend bible study and chapel and since the shelter is Christian based, everything was Christian and regardless of one's religion, one had to attend the Christian activities. I also had an opportunity to talk to the pastors who conducted chapel at the homeless shelter. I remember the pastor telling me his life story and why he gave his life to Jesus. Sometimes I feel like people who have really screwed up in life have the greatest testimonies. I am positive that if the pastor tells someone his story and asks the person to confess and give his/her life to Jesus, one would not think twice about that.
I emulated how companies co-operate to help the less privileged in society. When I worked in the kitchen, I found out that the organization rarely purchases food because restaurants and other companies donate food for all meals. I also appreciated how the homeless had a place where they would have something to eat and sleep and it was the role of the homeless to decide to use the facilities or. No homeless person was ever turned away, which is impressive, but some homeless people chose to stay on the streets. I have to admit that I was surprised to see that some of the homeless people had cars. I thought being homeless being really poor yet most of the homeless people had better gadgets than those I own and I even saw a homeless person with a brick of Benjamins which made me wonder why he was homeless.
Some people were homeless but they were working hard in order to get back on their feet. Early in the morning, I would see some of the homeless guys wearing suits and going for work. I found out that one of the homeless residents was a manager at a restaurant, and I bet if one was ever to meet him on the street, they would never think he was homeless. Some of the homeless people were taking classes and trying to get degrees. To show their determination, they had to walk all the way across town to go to the library and they would carry heavy books everyday. From my conversations with the homeless, I learned that even if one has minimum wage jobs, renting a house is still expensive and sometimes unaffordable. A lot of people might argue with this, but the book "Nickel and Dimed" also supports the same notion that affording housing is impossible for minimum wage job holders.
I have to admit that I entered this class with stereotypes towards the homeless, and some of my stereotypes were that the homeless are violent, lazy, drug and alcohol abusers, but I ended this class with a totally different view about the homeless. I feel like I can relate to the homeless and I learned to treat people as people. Being homeless is something which can happen to anyone since it is not always a choice for some people. I am glad I managed to have an experience of a lifetime, and ever since this experience, I have been able to appreciate everything I have. I was a bit sad when my stay at the shelter came to an end because I had made friend and we would share moments of laughter. I already miss the shelter and I wish my stay there was extended.