Shelters Are an Oasis in a Vast Desert

Commentary by Joe Cimperman, Outreach Worker at West Side Catholic Center

“So much of the work we do here daily isn’t about feeding people or keeping someone warm for a few hours. Sure there’s that, but as a place that provides shelter, we’re actually saying, ‘come in for now, get a grip, think it through,' and do so in a place that says 'welcome'.”

--Tricia Conner, St. Leo’s Soup and Salad Kitchen, 1993

When I was asked to write my thoughts and opinions on the role of a shelter, I thought of this saying from a cook in a soup kitchen in the Bronx. The realities of our society today amply demonstrate that safe spaces are needed. With cutbacks in public funds, the burden of providing for the poor and homeless rests even more heavily on private agencies. At the West Side Catholic Center, our shelter serves women and children who need a place to stay for as little as a night or as long as two weeks.

Often the people we see are dealing with issues of abuse that run the gamut from financial tyranny to physical violence. Our shelter, staffed twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, provides more than a roof and a hot meal.

While these are the initial and most basic needs, the shelter staff give plenty of listening time, unquantified amounts of attention, and an overall sense of compassion and concern that communicates: “you are here now, you are safe now.”

While in our shelter here at the WSCC, women are able to lay the groundwork for pursuing a more permanent residence, educational goals, and employment possibilities.

These are the tangibles. More subtlety and getting to the core, life direction, personal growth and development, and fundamental self-esteem issues are discussed, revealed, discovered, and charted. Such work takes time, direction and love. Such work requires shelter from fear of eviction, threat of abuse, and possibility of relapse. It would be unwise--and completely unrealistic--to think that a person could end their homelessness within a two week stay at a shelter.

The problems that led to the person’s current situation are endemic, rooted in a myriad of complex problems like abuse, mental illness, self-induced chemical addictions, or just plain bad luck. The myth that people actually enjoy the homeless lifestyle, hopping from shelter to shelter, eating stale donuts every morning and standing in line for lunch and dinner is one propagated by both a lack of understanding and a frustration with the current convoluted system.

Yes, the desire to end one’s homelessness must come from within. Yes, the will to drastically change one’s daily routine from dependence to independence must be verbalized in the first person. But if this is to happen successfully and thoroughly and, most importantly, really stick, we as a society--must provide some stepping-stones.

For example: viable alcohol/drug treatment provided in 90 day in-patient beds, decent affordable SINGLE ROOM OCCUPANCY residences (a non-reality in the city), decent employment opportunities (complete with sound health benefits) made possible through public transportation.

A shelter provides someone the time and space and safety they need to change their situations, a shelter is essential for the breathing space needed to make a move. A shelter, in effect, is often the bottom line from which people in need bounce back. As far as the provision of such a shelter, we depend on the generosity of others to maintain the building, cook the nutritious meals, and employ the professional staff.

Often people ask, how can I help? What can I do to work to end homelessness in my city? Personal contributions--financial or volunteering time are always essential. But it is the opinion of this writer that, at the core, homelessness will end only when we as individuals see people who are struggling not as “the Other” but rather as my neighbor. And in such a way, we all have the awesome opportunity to provide some shelter.

Editor's Note: This is the first in what we hope will be a continuing series of commentaries by service providers. Please send submissions to 2012 West 25th St. #717, Cleveland, Ohio 44113

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published June 1996-July 1996 Issue