Everyone has this picture in their head of what homelessness looks like. For some, it’s bums in tents, somewhere in the woods or under a highway overpass, drinking and drugging to their heart's content. Others, particularly in larger cities, see the men or women sleeping on park benches, at bus or train stops, or in a pinch on church steps. My image was that of old drunks with holes in their socks riding the rails, like a 1920s comic strip. Yet, when it happened to me, none of these images would prove to be my fate.
In the early fall of 2003, I was a young 20-year-old with a wife and a 9-month-old baby. I had made a series of foolish errors in moving from where I was living in Huntington, WV to my hometown in Ohio then back to Huntington again with little regard for money or employment. Upon my unheralded arrival back in Huntington, we were dead broke. We were driving someone else’s car (with their permission) and had nothing but what was in it. I had no family to turn to at the time, so I reluctantly pulled into the parking lot of the Huntington City Mission. I was scared, out of options, and was slowly realizing I was a complete and utter failure.
As an aside, realize that neither I nor my wife had come from “bad” or “irresponsible” upbringings. My father was and still is a practicing physician and my upbringing was so white-bread, gee golly normal that it it bores me to even think about. My wife came from a single parent home, but her mother worked her way from nothing to be a police officer and was, by all accounts, stricter and less forgiving than my own folks were. I say this to say the only sin we committed to fall to the point of homelessness was being young and stupid. That’s all it took.
Without going into names that I struggle to remember anyway, when we walked in we were sat in the large open lobby of the Huntington City Mission. It looked clean and sterile, almost like a clinic and had the faint aroma that a second-hand store always seems to have. There was also perfect, still silence. Not a sound to be heard. No clicking of keyboards, human voices, or doors shutting. Just a black hole of sound except for our breathing and my son worming around in his coat.
Eventually, a woman came out and introduced herself before taking us to her office. We told her our situation and how it had come about. I remember her being very polite but firm and could tell she was not someone to be trifled with. Over time, she told us she was the manager of the Women’s and Children’s area at the shelter, that there was a room with a bathroom for my wife and son, and by the way I will not be allowed to stay with them until I’ve lived over at the Men’s Shelter for some number of days. Here the real fear began. The above images I described—and a torrent of new, more horrible ones as well—ran through my mind. This was a bridge I had not been ready to cross. Staying with my family was one thing, staying alone was entirely another.
I politely asked for a moment to talk to my wife and the manager stepped out. We agreed she and my son should stay. By all accounts, it was safe, warm, and was the best option. I, on the other hand, would be leaving. I figured I could live in my car or eventually make some family or friend take me in until I could right the ship of my life. Having settled on this, the manager came back in and we informed her of our plan. This would not work, we were told, as if I left and came back, the days I had to spend at the Men’s Shelter would remain the same. There was no avoiding the fate of the good doctor’s son staying at the Men’s Shelter.
Salvation would arrive in the form of the Director of the shelter. An older man, I’d say mid-fifties back then, came in and introduced himself as Pastor Pete with the above-mentioned title. He asked the same how this happened questions the Manager did but had a kindness and a thoughtfulness she seemed to lack. He learned of our plan and that I would not be staying due to the Men’s Shelter requirement. Upon asking some further questions about us, none of which I remember off hand, he passed down a verdict: There would be no need for me to leave nor be alone. I could stay with my wife and son.
I was beyond relieved, as relieved as one can be to stay in a homeless shelter. Still, this was a great kindness during a series of accumulating disasters.
Leaving the office, we climbed a set of stairs to a locked pale green door. Beyond it laid a corridor with rooms on either side. There was a common area that contained couches and a TV. A few windows were here and there on either side of the building. We were told when and where the meals were served, what time we had to leave the building in the morning (you couldn’t just hang out unless you had a reason), and when to be in the building to stay for the night and what time lights out was. There were other rules, but none were egregious or cumbersome.
Shown to our room, we put the little that would fit down and took in our surroundings. There was a double bed with a thin green plastic mattress, a chair, and a small bathroom. The floor was hard tile like you’d see in a school cafeteria. The whole place was about the size of a large walk-in closet. It looked and smelled clean and was not all that bad considering the circumstances. Beggars can’t be choosers, after all.
There were no other families that I remember, mostly single women of various ages with their children. Over time, we would learn that some had substance abuse issues, some had been beaten by their partners, and some had just gotten down on their luck. None fit the stereotype you would imagine.
We had made it in time for dinner, which we filed down the steps with the others to head to. The front of the Men’s Shelter served as the cafeteria. Men ate at a different time than the folks from the Women’s and Children’s area so there weren’t many of us in there at all. The whole process, including the taste of the food, reminded me of school. I saw no signs of rats or roaches, no stomach-turning displays of foulness, just volunteers giving food to people who had none.
Following dinner, we walked back to the shelter and sat around watching TV or reading the books that were around. My wife and I got to know some of the other girls better and were given toiletries, diapers, and some blankets and pillows. Lights out time approached and those still in the common area headed to their rooms.
As I laid there on that first night of what would become sixty, I remember contemplating how all this had happened and what the hell I was going to do to get out of this situation. It was not as bad, not nearly as I had imagined, but I still wouldn’t want to ever go it again.