Saturday, August 19, 2006

I had to wear a hair net.

Awhile ago, before I knew about SF Connect and before I found work, I signed up to do some volunteering. I considered it a way to keep busy and make a contribution while Sam was gone and Cam was working but also as a way to begin building a network. Women and children in crisis are the people I am most interested in helping. So I signed up to spend an evening at a Women's shelter.

The night I had committed to came last week. I was hesitant. Not sure I wanted to spend my night with a bunch of women I didn't know. Thinking I'd rather enjoy the evening with Sam and Cam. But I went. I drove into the city and parked. I was back on Mission St. near the area where they hold the SF Connect events.

It isn't a nice area. I would normally rather not walk around there but I approached an ugly green building with bars on the window and rang the doorbell, requesting admittance. In the reflection of the door, I could see people passing behind me on the sidewalk. Each of the two people who passed while I waited seemed to look at me and see someone who needed to spend the night in a shelter. Even the woman who let me in seemed to look at me with a "what do you want" expression until I explained I was a volunteer with Hands On Bay Area. I had imagined there would be a group of us there that evening and that they would be expecting us. She responded less than enthusiastically - pleasantly enough but a bit indifferent.

She brought me into the office and showed me a locker where I could store my things. That reminds me. After I parked the car and started walking to the shelter, I decided to return to the car to leave my phone, money, credit cards, etc. I didn't want to have to worry about where they were or if they were secure or deal with the awkwardness of them possibly disappearing. I felt like a bit of a jerk walking into the situation not trusting but I learned from working with fifth graders last year that it is better not to leave things out that may be too tempting to resist.

My backpack was full of books I'd brought with me to leave behind. Lately, I have been reading books about women overcoming strife or women who have faced difficult circumstances, etc.

Some of the books I left and have read recently are:

1. Couldn't Keep it to Myself Wally Lamb and the Women of the York Correctional Institution (Testimonies from our Imprisoned Sisters) Wally Lamb has written two books that Oprah included in her book club. I read them in this order I Know This Much is True and She's Come Undone. They are both fictional books about intriguing characters who captured my imagination.

When I heard about Wally's latest work, I was curious to learn more. Turns out, he had been asked to volunteer at a correctional facility near his home. Due to a rash of suicide attempts, morale was low and an instructor at the school asked Wally to come talk to the women about his work. Wally didn't even want to go the day he was driving there. But at that first meeting, someone asked if he was coming back. He agreed to return in two weeks and meet with anyone who had written three pages to discuss their writing. Over 50 meetings later, Wally is still going. This book is a compilation of stories written by women who have participated in his writing workshop. Honestly, I didn't enjoy the stories as much as I hoped but the premise and work behind it is impressive.

2. Back in Chicago, I had bought a book from a used book store because the cover looked interesting. It was called Cavedweller. I recently read it and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Some of the themes are quite heavy (battered wife runs away from abusive husband losing children in the process) but there were redeeming characters and enough hope and inspiration mixed in to carry me through.

At some point, I noticed that in my box of books to be read, I had another book by the same author, Dorothy Allison. This one was a hand-me-down from our friend Jennifer. Jennifer gave away many books when she and her son Brody left Chicago to move to the Portland, Oregon area. I was a grateful recipient. Because I enjoyed the first Dorothy Allison book so much, greedily, I dove immediately into the second one.

3. Its title, Bastard Out of Carolina, is pretty graphic but I guess that's what made me pick it up in the first place. This one was incredibly heavy (child abused by evil stepfather behind mother's back) and there was not much reprieve. It was arduous and troubling but still intriguing.

4. Another Oprah book I think I inherited from Jennifer is We Were the Mulvaney's by Joyce Carol Oates. It is about the idyllic life of this farm family that is turned upside down by a pivital event. Many of this book's characters disappointed me. And while the event that changes everything is certainly disturbing, I didn't think it should have been sufficient to create as much turmoil as it does.

5. I'd also recently read the Memory Keeper's Daughter. This book is newer. It is the story of a doctor who delivers his own twins. He notices the girl baby has Down's Syndrome and without his wife's knowledge, asks the nurse to take the child away to a home. Last year, while I primarily worked with a child who has Autism, I also helped out with a couple of kids who have Downs. Every child brings with it blessings as well as strain. This man's attempt to remove the strain of this particular child from their lives and the ramifications of his decision peaked my curiosity. It wasn't an incredible book either but I did enjoy reading it.

6. We had an extra bible and with limited book shelf space, I decided to pass it on. They gave away books at the Project Homeless Connect event and someone said the four bibles they had were gone in a flash.

So while not all of the books I gave were wonderful, they were about people who have faced strife, a theme I can relate to and I hoped might be empathetic to women staying in a shelter. And one of the books I did really like. The staff person seemed appreciative of the books. She said it was very generous of me.

Then she sat me at the desk, to man the door. It was 5:30pm. The dorms at the shelter are closed from 8am-5pm. During that time, women can meet with a case worker and lunch is served. Otherwise, I'm not sure what they are expected to do. Be out and about, looking for work, attending classes, etc. I suppose. Breakfast is served from 8-8:30 am and dinner from 7-7:30 pm.

Everyone has a chore duty and showers are mandatory every day. Women must return to the shelter by 7pm or they lose their spot. I wasn't to let any men into the shelter. Residents are encouraged to hold any get-togethers with friends or family elsewhere (just not in the evening, I guess.)

The shelter was divided into two different areas. One group of women signed in and out of the shelter area downstairs. Other women had a pass that allowed them up the elevator to the transitional living area. I assume that area affords a bit more privacy than the big room full of beds I saw downstairs. But I wasn't allowed upstairs so I don't really know.

As the women came in, I greeted them and they were kind in return but normally, we didn't talk. I just buzzed them on their way. At 6:30 pm, women who aren't currently staying there but want to be admitted are allowed to wait in the lobby (where I was stationed) until 7:00pm when they hold a lottery for any open beds. I heard them say they had one bed open but wasn't sure if I was supposed to know about the opening. I wondered if anyone would come. I figured there were women out there who could use a place to stay so I hoped someone would come so the bed wouldn't go to waste but I also hoped we wouldn't have to turn anyone away.

A woman came. Her name was Lisa. After some polite hellos, we sat there, not exactly facing each other, not exactly speaking. I wasn't sure what to ask someone who is hoping for a bed in a women's shelter. I figured the people there were going to want as much privacy as they were allowed and I didn't want to pry but I didn't want to seem uninterested either. "How's it going?" didn't seem right. Even, "How was your day?" "Where do you work." was no good. "How long have you lived here" is something you can ask most people how live in San Francisco but I didn't want to ask the people who were living there anything that might sound like I was judging them. I think probably she was the one who asked about me.

When she learned I was from Chicago, she told me that she had studied at DePaul in the late 90s. What a small world. We exchanged stories about the city by the great lake. She had been studying French and while she enjoyed Chicago, she missed San Francisco. She said she was close to completing a degree in Latin Studies at Berkeley now.

When I offered to give her a pamphlet about the place, she said she had stayed there another time for a few months. She asked if I'd been to any other shelters. I said I hadn't. She said this one treated people with more dignity than most. I'd been thinking that the environment imposed several restrictions on people's dignity but was glad to hear that she felt like some was being offered there. While we sat together in the hallway, we could hear a game of BINGO being played inside.

No one else showed so the bed was hers. I was escorted into the kitchen area and given an apron, some latex gloves and a hairnet. I don't know if I've even had to wear a hairnet. If I had been anywhere else, I'd have been pretty humiliated with the way I must have looked. As it was, it was pretty embarrassing. Another woman who I guess was a volunteer got ready to help serve dinner with me. She was loud and boisterous, joking familiarly with the women. Someone asked her about a divorce she was apparently going through. I might have been jealous about her ease in the situation but honestly, she seemed as uncomfortable as I felt. She just handled it differently.

A sweet, soft-spoken woman, who was a resident there, served the drinks (tea and strawberry juice). I had salad patrol while the other woman shoveled out Shepard's Pie. The residents were friendly and appreciative. The salad had Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and two kinds of squash. It was pretty and if I hadn't been scared of the meat, the Shepard's Pie might have looked good too.

I was wishing I could just serve the food and go but knew that socializing, fun and fellowship were part of what I had signed-up for. After basically everyone had been served, the woman who works there came out and took over for me. She wanted me to eat. I didn't see a way around it so I took a plate and looked for a table. It was a bit reminiscent of lunch in the high school cafeteria. Where to sit?

Should I sit with the pretty, together-looking women, the friendliest, the loneliest? I ended up sitting with the woman who had been serving the drinks with us since she'd taken a seat at a table by herself. Mostly, we chewed in silence, each trying to think of something to say. Again, it was the resident who initiated conversation. I stunk at it.

She asked me something about my day. I had had a wonderful day with Sam and we'd had Cam's company as he'd worked from home. She talked about the pain she has in her leg and knee that make it hard for her to walk around all day or from walking around all day. I told her about a new exercise routine Sam and I started that day involving crunches, squats, push-ups and other painful activities. It was a bit awkward talking about an exercise routine to someone who has trouble walking but by saying I can't do a decent push-up, I was trying to say that it is hard for me too. We'd been joined by the woman who works there. She was familiar with the Abs Diet book where I'd read about the routine. We agreed that it is nearly impossible to do those kinds of exercises by yourself and talked about how lucky I am to have Sam to do them with me.

The resident commented on how good the meal was. I agreed but felt bad not being able to finish my one serving. After she'd gone back for seconds, when we were both finished, we bussed our dishes as the rules say we must. She excused herself saying how it was nice to meet me. I hated that I couldn't remember her name and knew she knew I'd forgotten it as I said it was nice to meet her too.

I still had time I was supposed to be there so I started clearing up some random dishes that were lying around, anything to keep busy. Then, one woman asked if I was a volunteer. I said I was and approached her table. I sat down with her and the two other women seated there. She said she was new to San Francisco too. Wherever she had lived before, her landlord had kicked her out three months after she had broken both ankles.

She said she had been looking behind her at traffic when she stepped into a hole in the street. I shared a story about the time in Chicago when I stepped off the curb into a seam in the road. The material that was supposed to cover the seam had deteriorated and my foot sunk down to my ankle into this metal hole. I fell on my face, throwing my cell phone onto Michigan Avenue and scarring the two children with me. Luckily, the only thing hurt was my pride but I called the city to tell them about the hazard because I thought it would have been very easy for me to have broken my ankle. The other women at the table were kind and attractive. It was pleasant sitting with them for a few minutes saying, accidents happen to everyone.

I still had about 15 minutes I was supposed to kill but I didn't think they needed me for anything else and I wasn't up for chasing the women into the room where some of them were showering and others were already lying on their beds. I turned in my apron and told the man who worked there that I was off. He thanked me for coming. I thanked him for dinner. He laughed that it was an even trade.

I had walked past homeless people on my way to the shelter and passed more on my way back to my car. I drove home as quickly as I safely could and was never so happy to be home. I am thankful to be blessed with a wonderful family and a safe home.

Maybe if I was the social worker for the shelter, I would have felt more comfortable. With a purpose, I would have felt better about interacting with these women. I am learning that what I enjoy and am better suited for crisis intervention, responding to people in need who come to me, providing ideas and solutions, encouragement and understanding than I am at small talk. I've never been good at it and don't know that I will sign up for this particular event again but it was a learning experience and for that I am glad I went.

1 comment:

Carma said...

Memory Keeper's Daughter, my mother was telling me about this book and said it was quite good.

You did what you were suppose to at the shelter. You manned the door and made sure that the rules were followed. The rules, as strict as they sound, are there for many reasons. The main reason is to keep the women staying there safe. The fact that one of the women said that this shelter treats the guests better than most is a good sign that they are trying hard to help these folks.