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overnight at overflow

For three or four years, I’ve been part of a project of several churches in town to provide additional safe, warm, dry space at night from November through March. Our local homeless shelter only holds 29, often not large enough. We live in a state where the wind blows, it gets cold, there are livestock warnings some nights.

The rules we work under ask that we have one person awake through the night, two people there always, one man, one woman. We’ve done this by recruiting two people (usually two women) to split the night: one comes in at 9 to set up, is there to get guests greeted, settled, and watch until 2:00 am. The second person comes in then, watches until morning, when she makes coffee, conversation, helps guests put up their cots, and cleans up a bit after they’ve left. Meanwhile, a third volunteer (usually a man) comes in at 9, leaves after we’ve cleaned up in the morning, but–unless called–gets to sleep from about 10 pm to 6 am. We have a futon, bring your own sleeping bag and such.

Last night–

I think last night was the worst night of overflow I’ve ever had. One woman had left her bag someplace. She and her husband were pretty insistent that we track it down, call the driver, call Shelter House — all her money, and personal items were there. At the same time I made those calls, we were trying to locate the male volunteer to do the overnight-sleeping role. We couldn’t find him, nor any of our other “call at the last minute” men. I decided to spend the night as the second volunteer, after talking with the SH staff and the project director.

We had a family last night, mother, father, and three small children (the youngest, 5 months). As they came in, the mom said, almost under her breath, “I was afraid it would be like this”. We tried to reassure her, apologize for the lack of privacy; offered them a corner to themselves, the use of a portable crib, made a large nest with blankets and mattress pads. No, thank you, they didn’t want cupcakes or apple juice for themselves or their kids as they tried to settle. We pointed out exits, told them we were here to help, and turned out the lights.

I’d just begun to relax on the futon (using my coat as a blanket) when Shelter House called: one more guest, a young man who had come late, but the house was full. Could we help? They could have him walk to us, but explaining where our door is on the alley, kind of complicated. I put my coat and shoes back on, drove to Shelter House to fetch him. He lit a cigarette as soon as he was through the front door of the house; I began to think I might need to lock my car doors with the remote to get him to put it out — but he did, after speed-smoking most of it standing, coatless, in the street. Kind of a jittery guy, though polite; at least he ate a few of our cupcakes.

The rest of the night was fairly uneventful. The lost bag was found and secured in the Shelter House office, the couple were grateful. They’re optimistic, going to look at an apartment today. Our late guest settled down. I reassembled my coat-blanket. And the baby in the family of guests quieted and slept through the night. The young family thanked and hugged the fire-watch volunteer as they left early for the hospital.

This is the worst it gets? We provided comfort, safety, warmth for 10 people, 3 of them very small children? I hope the couple get their apartment so they can re-unite with their teenagers. I hope the young family’s experience with the hospital today is as caring as they need, and a good outcome. I am lucky to be able to do this.

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