Shelter Rules

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February 22, 2016 by poverty2professional

“This is like being in prison, but you haven’t done anything wrong.”


My dad recounted what one resident had shared with him while at the Pound. Looking back, I’m half skeptical if the shelter where we stayed actually alleviated some of the stressors of homelessness or exacerbated them. On one hand, we didn’t have to brave exposure to the elements, especially in winter, and we had a consistent place to return to. In the bigger picture, those are huge lifesavers. Going in, you feel relieved, even blessed, because the worst aspects of homelessness – exposure, hunger, vulnerability – are allegedly over.


And that’s generally the feeling that you hope the shelter maintains. After all, you were admitted, selected from among other applicants to be at the shelter. The whole point is that the institution should be helping you, not putting more obstacles in your way.


And that was the case at the constrictive environment of the Pound. You’re under relentless surveillance, constant control. You never have a chance to forget that you’re homeless. You can’t be in certain rooms. You’re told when you can eat. When you can sleep. When you must be back and when you need to leave. This level of restriction is not normal for any functioning adult human being.


I’m sure there are critics who will say, “But you gave up all those freedoms when you went homeless and decided to rely on the shelter for assistance.” In that case, the family center should be doing its utmost to provide that: assistance. Not more obstacles, not compounding stress to an already nerve-wracking, mind-bending situation that directly involves children. Homeless families – and individuals by inclusion – should be given space to breathe, not suffocated.


It’s very similar to having a destructive work environment. Let’s say you have a job that pays well, comes with benefits and all that good stuff. But if you have a lousy boss and awful, cliquey coworkers who make you miserable, it’s actually healthier for you to quit and be unemployed than it is to stay at that job. Career jargon now commonly refers to this situation as a toxic workplace. It was previously noted in legal parlance as a “hostile work environment.” In other words, it is generally acknowledged that the way you are treated has a significant impact on your personal productivity and overall function.


Now imagine having to go to this place not to work but to sleep, eat, and strategize for the improvement of your livelihood. Instead of being your place of reprieve and support, this is the place where you feel just as much – if not more – stress.


Brings the shelter into perspective, doesn’t it?


Below is a list of some of the most frustrating and arbitrary rules I remembered that made living at the Pound difficult. I also like to call this 9 Ways to Get Evicted from the Shelter because breaking three of the rules (or one rule three times) gets you just that:


  1. Wake up at 6am, out the door by 7:30. I never fully understood why the Pound didn’t want its residents to linger. Or why it insisted on waking us up so early. If anything, it looked like everyone could always use more sleep. The regimented morning schedule did nothing to improve conditions. Breakfast wasn’t served until seven, anyway, so after the thirty minutes or so it took to get ready, we were still kept out of the kitchen area. You were told when you could go in and eat. And just to make sure we were punctual about leaving on time, residents would have no access to dorms and lockers after 7:30. So, you had better not forget anything – personals, paper work, homework – upstairs or you were going to spend your day without it. If a teacher or school administrator is reading this, I hope you take note of that added obstacle to your student’s preparedness. A student could be groggy from a long night of actually finishing an assignment (as I often was), trying to function on very little sleep, and forget the assignment in the locked-down dorm.


  1. No coffee until 7am. To this day I don’t drink coffee, but I see the looks on the faces of everyone I know who relies on their morning caffeine to jumpstart their day. My father being no exception. To be woken up and wait a whole hour before getting a simple cup is a pain. The hang-up – as I frequently heard – is that it’s such a small thing. We’re not talking caramel macchiatos here, which makes it crazy for a morning ritual to be controlled to such a degree. All the staff had their coffee cups. It was another reminder of how none of the residents were not on equal terms.


  1. No showers in the morning. We were reminded to shower in the evening. This was to make sure we were out of the dorms by 7:30. Showering in the morning was strongly discouraged because it “would take too long.” Job interview that day? Wash your face to get the morning musk off.


  1. Your car must be parked elsewhere. Not everyone had a car, so this rule only applied to some residents. However, if it did apply to you, one of your biggest assets now becomes a moving variable. You’d better know which side of the street was being cleaned, how long you had on a meter, and if your tires had been marked. You can’t afford to get towed or ticketed, but you definitely can’t park at the one place that’s supposed to give you shelter.


  1. Be in by 6pm. This was also the shelter’s way of taking attendance. If you weren’t counted at dinner, eyebrows were raised and write-ups were documented. This was exceptionally difficult if you didn’t have a cell phone and needed to call staff to say that your kid’s after-school parent’s meeting ran late, or that you had car trouble, or any other natural life occurrence. Curfews aren’t something you normally think about until it makes or breaks your place of residence’s decision to expel you.


  1. Lights out by 9pm. More than once, other residents and I were caught in the showers in the dark. I sometimes had the bad timing of being in mid-shave, too. When you don’t have someone else controlling the power, you can shower in all the lighting you need. The curfew also does not work if you were like me and the several other high school-aged teens whose homework could not be finished in the two short hours between dinner and lights out. I had until 10pm under the director’s auspices. Not much really, so I would work later in the parenting room. Again, if I were caught breaking this rule I could get written up. Enough write-ups get you and your family evicted from the shelter. This rule was the most academically endangering for me. And no, I didn’t like thinking that I was risking my family’s stay every night that I stood up to do my schoolwork. That was one stress factor my seventeen-year-old self could have done without.


  1. Overnight passes. If a resident was going to be coming in late or spending the night elsewhere, an overnight pass must be provided. This rule isn’t so bad; it’s the strident degree to which it was enforced that hurt. For example, if your car broke down on a Saturday night like my dad’s did. Additionally, the caseworker could decline an overnight pass, especially if it was submitted within the 24-hour range of its effectiveness. This presented another hurdle for residents who might have family that finally decided to invite them over for a weekend and just gave notice on Friday afternoon. It was incredibly depressing to see hope glimmer and be lost because a caseworker couldn’t be found fast enough to approve. If I – or anyone – had had the opportunity for a 48-hour psychological break from the Pound I’d take it in a heartbeat.


  1. Required bankrolling of at least 50% of all income. Shelters aren’t free. Let’s say that again: Shelters aren’t free. You must have some kind of income to be considered for admission – at least at our family center. It could be General Relief, it could be child support, it could a subsidy from a rehabilitation program, but it must be some sort of money received. The idea being that the shelter would bankroll the funds for the first and last months’ rents when a family’s housing was secured. Being stripped of the independence to decide how much one was able to contribute, however, is financially upending. Remember when we estimated the bare minimum expenses for living through homelessness? Fifty percent of your meager income is a major chunk of your livelihood. None of this money is available until your departure from the shelter. It’s not like a bank where you can take money in and out as needed. So you’re flat broke in case of an emergency, sudden illness, or just needing to buy gas. When I came down with an awful stomach flu and needed medicine (again, the basics – no prescription), our caseworker wouldn’t let my father withdraw any funds for it. I finally stopped vomiting, but my fever didn’t break until another day. My dad was furious, but if we failed to keep this financial agreement you will be (want to hazard a guess?) expelled from the shelter. To quote my dad: “Damn, being broke is why you were homeless to begin with!”


  1. No milk for residents over 4 years old. Here’s a story: My dad likes milk with his meals. Some other residents did, too. But one staff member insisted that the milk in the fridge was for “toddlers and infants only.” I don’t know why because more than once we saw her taking the whole jug home for herself at the end of the day. No one called her on this for the very reason that’s been reiterated over and over in this post – we didn’t want to get kicked out of the Pound. But my dad still wanted his milk. One evening, a generous volunteer who had gotten to know me and my dad over the few times he’d served us dinner came and brought his own gallon of milk just to so my father could have a cup or two. The staff member flipped out. She was angry at this volunteer who had tried to give a resident something as basic as a glass of milk. It was power tripping, plain and simple. And every rule under it could be enforced with the basic fear we all tried to get away from: returning to the streets.


The final slug in the gut behind all these rules was the hypocrisy that some of the staff operated on, whether stealing milk or – as we saw during Easter and Independence Day in July – ripping off donations meant for the residents. Don’t get me wrong, there were decent staff who were genuinely kind us. But it made me sick that the people who enforced the rules were morally bankrupt. Who on earth would steal from homeless people? Homeless kids? Their behavior underscored not only the stress that it put on all the residents at the shelter. We had a consistent and pervasive fear that these were the people who wouldn’t hesitate to evict any of us back to the streets if they felt justified. Those rules weren’t for our protection as much as to keep us down.

I try to keep positive and look for signs of hope and innovation in the way shelters are operated. A new shelter in San Francisco is being hailed as revolutionary because it loosened up its rules for the residents. Something I think that prevailed at the Pound (and at other shelters) was that our rules were made from a place without empathy. Being homeless, even in a shelter, was viewed as “other.” The rules were not designed to allow breath or flexibility because the associated ideas with homelessness – being untrustworthy, inconsistent, and dispensable – were so ingrained in whomever created them. The rules were meant for a system, but not for people. As we go forward in addressing homelessness, I sure do hope we remember that other human beings are at the crux of it.

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