Finding Shelter

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December 8, 2015 by poverty2professional

One of the most popular reasons circulating for why Los Angeles, and Southern California by extension, is experiencing a surge in homelessness is chalked up to our modest weather. Full disclosure: the weather here is pretty accommodating. Most days are sunny, there’s no snow in Los Angeles proper, and – to the current remorse of my state’s water supply – very little rain.

After losing our home in November, even my father conceded, “Better to be homeless here than in Chicago or New York.”

That was also before his credit ran out.

We had managed to motel-hop through the end of January. But just as I was coming up my midterm exams, my dad’s card was declined. I didn’t know what shelters were yet, and my father told me this was not the time to find out. After a long talk with his brother, we were able to borrow enough money for two more nights at the motel. I finished my exams. And then wondered if I would get to finish high school.

“Where are we going to go now?”

I tried not to ask it too often. But after our last night in the motel, I asked if we were going to stay with my uncle. Dad reminded me I might have a career in stand-up.

Let’s be clear. My dad’s older brother was generous. When my uncle gave us enough cash to stay at the motel so I could finish my exams, I was grateful. But more than anything, my uncle preferred for us to stay somewhere else, anywhere else, than with him.

I’ve been asked before, “Didn’t you have any family to take you guys in?” No. And it’s like that for a lot of people who are homeless. When they catch wind of your plight, family members are the first to drop off, to stop answering calls, to avoid you. Those who might try to assist quickly get tired of dealing with the situation. For my uncle, he was a Viet Nam vet who was set in his ways and he liked his space.

The next morning, I missed the first day of the new semester. I am very blessed to say that it was only one of a handful of days I would miss. When you’re homeless, you’re always on the compromising end of survival, of your situation, of other people’s perceptions and decisions. My dad and I went to go see about a family shelter in our hometown. This is how it went.

Edited journal notes from Feb. 2008

“Mr. Sanchez, you are going to be how old?”

“Fifty-three.”

“Are you sure about that?”

I could see my father’s invisible hackles rising. I was starting to understand why he hating looking young for his age. With a head full of dark hair and eyes that still sparkled with each, smooth mischievous smirk, I think Dad could’ve passed for a late thirty-something if he didn’t smoke or had never been in a car accident. Outwardly, he was in good condition. That’s all the shelter intake counselor saw.

“Yes, I’m positive, ma’am.” Always the gentleman. That’s never advantageous.

“And you won’t take our offer for employment because…?”

“Because I’m too old for this sort of labor.” Underlining with his finger the words “asphalt,” “laying,” and “at 4 AM,” Dad enunciated the words carefully.

The woman across from us spread her nails over the desktop, tracing the surface slightly so as not to mar the finish.

“You’re, Angela, right? You’re a smart young lady, aren’t you?”

I didn’t like the way this woman was talking to me.

“You’ve taken biology, huh?”

“I’m in Physiology Honors.” I clamped my mouth shut. I didn’t like the way I was responding.

“Who has greater stamina into their mature years, a man or a woman?”

“Ma’am,” I said slowly. “This is a question of my father’s age and the rigor of labor you are suggesting.”

“Look at him and look at me. I’m older than your father and I’m working.”

“You’re behind a desk!”

“Angela.”

With my name alone, Dad silenced me. “I would like my daughter to step outside while we hold this conversation.”

I was escorted to the lobby, but crept back outside the office. Inside someone was weeping and it wasn’t the person I wanted to hear.

A whole day of school, the first day of the new semester no less, had been squandered at a homeless intake center only to have my family talked down to. The real kicker was how at the end of the day, we were denied admission. For all that struggle, missing out on school, going through emotional flips and changes, having our chains jerked left and right – we were told from a shelter in our own hometown to go to the next city over and sleep in the church shelter out there. My dad had lived here for twenty-five years and this was the only hometown I’d known all my life. It didn’t add up.

Clenching the bus tokens in my fist, a cold, unfeeling reminder of where we were destined – I made to pitch them over the parking lot’s wall.

“Don’t be a three-year-old.”

Dad’s quiet voice was tenfold more chilling than anything I’d heard.

“We’re going to give the cold winter shelter a shot.”

End notes.

A word on cold winter shelters: Remember about how California has this nice weather? In autumn and winter, the temperature plummets at night. It’s not just rattle-your-teeth chilly, it’s scrape-the-frost-off-your-windshield cold. Cold winter shelters are a desperately needed resource. Dying of exposure or exposure-related illnesses (hypothermia, frostbite infections) are not unheard of among unsheltered Angelenos. Over a seven-year study, the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger & Homelessness found that over four percent of deaths among homeless people included pneumonia, hypothermia, and tuberculous. During its coldest winter in recent times, as many as nine homeless individuals in Los Angeles County died from hypothermia. Hypothermia can set in between 32 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and the average low for the area where my dad and I were searching regularly dipped into the mid-forties.

However, many emergency winter shelters across the country do not open until temperatures drop well below fifty degrees. Tight funding and resources are regularly the cause of this delayed reaction. All things considered, more should be done to keep the lights on and the environment hospitable. Cold winter shelters do not have the resources that family shelters and full-on homeless centers can furnish. Instead, they operate on a bare-minimum in order to cut expense. Being kept out of the cold can be life-saving. But being able to function the next day can be another challenge.

Edited journal notes, Feb. 2008.

In the next city over, the church converted its gymnasium and bible study room into a shelter during the late autumn and winter months. This means, it’s a crash pad, a place to sleep and little else.

We were provided dinner and my dad kept me close. Because it was here where most of the overnight guests fit the first description that people attach to “homeless.” Families were separated into the study room. That’s where I hunkered down to do my work.

I got my homework from calling a friend. Missing a day of school would not stop me from doing my homework. When the lights were turned out at ten, I sat by a gap in the door to catch the light streaming in from the hallway. I didn’t go out into the actual hallway because dismissal from the shelter for breaking the rules had been pretty clear. We’d already been evicted once, and didn’t need it from here.

I think I stood up later than I needed to, mostly because I really, really didn’t want to sleep in the thing called a bed. It was a metal frame with a bit of tarp stretched over it. The blanket looked like it was made from the leftovers of a lint trap in a clothes drier. And, in a shared communal space, everyone’s screaming nine-month-old became my screaming nine-month-old.

I must have fallen asleep because the wake-up call came too soon. The last time I’d woken up at five in the morning I was seven and wanted to see the early morning cartoons. Priorities of a second-grader.

Now I was scrubbing the grime out of my eyes after sleeping on a flimsy cot that would make a chiropractor wince. There would be no breakfast, we had to be out by six. I went down to the bathroom to wash up and almost retched. It reeked of urine, human waste, and something worse. When I staggered out of church, the stars were still out. Hell, even the heavens knew it was too early.

And I was cold. I had a sweater and an old army jacket, but I could still feel the wind sneaking in through the thin denim of my jeans.  My dad and I were fortunate, we didn’t have to linger outside of the shelter in the cold. We had a car to make a mad dash to. I didn’t stop shivering until after Betsy’s heater had been on for a while. Then Dad shut it off. “Gotta conserve the car.” He took out a small spritzer from the trunk and squirted water over the frost on the windshield. Then he carefully scraped it off. Made me a little happy we had a place to sleep last night.

A little later that morning I washed up at a fast food restaurant back in our hometown. The apple pie bites there were a dollar each, so we had something to eat. But how surreal it was to use a fast food restaurant’s bathroom as a personal toilet. I hadn’t showered, I was on my period, and I was wearing the same clothes since yesterday. I felt filthy. More than ever my home seemed like a far-away fantasy, like some movie I’d seen and this was reality.

After splashing the water on my face a few times I had to remind myself which way this movie was playing. Out there I had a home, just for now I was in an adventure. Patting my hair into place so it didn’t look too lank, I straightened, smiled at the mirror and tried to ignore the professionally dressed woman who was sneaking glances at me from the side.

Then I went school.

End journal notes.

I want to conclude this section on two points. Firstly, think of all the students who go through this every single day. They’re young – likely younger than I was then – and they still find the courage to go to school. They show up hungry and tired from a poor night’s sleep. One doesn’t need to be a professional in education to know that these conditions must adversely affect learning outcomes. And those are the students who make it to school. Some never show up. I was fortunate to have a parent who pushed for me to go and, trust me, I was more than happy to have an alternative place to be. However, I am writing about this from my experience. Undoubtedly, there are many more stories and, chances are, there are worse.

Secondly, throughout this experience, I also saw instances of extreme kindness among people who struggled with homelessness. We all knew the life circumstance we shared was hard. And a tacit understanding said we didn’t need to make it any worse for each other.

Edited journal notes, Feb. 2008

After another night at the cold winter shelter, a little girl – six years old, tops – and her mother who’d been staying at the church had followed us to the same placement center. Dad and I said hello again and I kept myself occupied entertaining the kid. Our parents went into separate meetings for different housing opportunities. Theirs was more auspicious – the girl’s family was moving into transitional housing. Mine was just hoping a family center might take us. I wonder if this is what college admissions are like.

Later during the day, after taking an ID photo Dad and I swore we’d tear up someday, my father found a twenty-dollar bill on the floor. We’d quietly grinned at each other and my dad silently pocketed it. Twenty bucks was a winning lottery ticket here!

Then another homeless guy at the center started slapping down his pockets and reported his missing twenty bucks to the front. Sighing inwardly, Dad returned it. This wasn’t easy – even if he made it look like it. Twenty meant lunch and dinner. It meant gas in the car so I could get to school for the rest of the week. It could mean medicine in the high time of flu season.

And all my dad did was, “Hey, sir, I think you dropped this.”

The man was seriously relieved. He wished my dad a blessing and I guess it worked. Just as we were shuffling off to the car to leave to somewhere, the little girl from earlier dashed up to me, extending a twenty. “Mama wanted you to have thith,” she sweetly lisped.

That whole exchange made my year.

End notes. 

If you know anyone who may need to find a cold winter shelter in Los Angeles, please reference: http://lahsa.org/winter_shelter_program

 

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