A Place Like This
By Michelle Chen
Every day around four o’clock, junkies, winos, bums, lunatics and people with nowhere
else to go all gather on the steps of Columbus House and wait to be let in.
The door is locked. Staff members wait behind tall, arced doors, ready to receive their
clients. First, they call in people on the Length of Stay program, which entitles participants to a
bed here every night for a period of weeks while they reorganize their lives. After the “LOS”
people have shuffled in, the others enter—women first, then men. These regular clients must
enter a lottery for the remaining “emergency” spots.
The clients shuffle into the narrow hallway, which makes up almost the entirety
of the ground floor. They are funneled straight ahead, eventually drifting into the TV room or shabby
A rickety stairwell will take them to the bedrooms on the second floor. These rooms are
patently uninviting, with chipped white walls and tightly spaced metal beds. There may be a
reminder of an occupant somewhere—a pair of sneakers, a tiny mirror on the wall or a copy of
“God sets you Free.” But mostly, there is a palpable emptiness, except for the occasional echoing
chatter of staff workers down the hall and the whir of traffic outside.
The stairwell climbs from these quiet rooms to a white door, which opens into an even
narrower hall, cluttered with bulletin boards and files. These rooms are seldom empty. They
contain case managers and administrators, who struggle to make Columbus House do what it has
to do, from the bottom up.
Until I arrived at the door of Columbus House, the only contact I had had with the place
was through a $2 donation I gave a woman on the street one night. She told me she needed $3 to
get into Columbus House. Slightly skeptical of her claim and interested in the concept of
charging admission to a shelter, I decided to accompany her. But in the end, the walk seemed too
far, so I just gave her the cash.
I saw her twice after that, on the street again, again begging for money. My skepticism
grew into curiosity. I wanted to see the place, to see what made people come back there, or return
to where they came from.
So I showed up one afternoon at the front steps, hoping to speak with the administrators.
When I was told they were all busy, I decided to wait outside. A few of the dozen or so people
outside sensed that I wasn’t waiting for the same thing that they were and, intrigued by my
presence, started to give their opinions on Columbus House.
A man named Alan told me he felt “violated” by the routine search procedures.
“After I was in there, I was searched again, and because I wouldn’t submit to another
search, I was asked to leave.”
“I was there when he came in,” said a man in a knit-cap. “He was eating. … They
thought he was high.”
“I was high.”
“They wanted him to go up to detox.”
“I was going. … They kept strip searching me. My thing was like, how many times …
I’m already inside your program and now you still wanna search me?”
Alan, who had been “using a lot of heroin” at the time, did go into a detox program.
After a couple of weeks on methadone, this was his first time back at Columbus House after
being discharged, or “AD’ed,” by the staff after resisting the search. His shaved head and
lopsided face belied a waywardly pensive disposition. Homeless since the age of thirteen, he’s
made some observations.
He said that “there’s some good people in here, too … that are caring and everything.
But they don’t stay. They just come, bring their donations, and leave.” Alan considers the people
who leave to be educated and well off. The ones who don’t leave are the residential supervisors on
the first floor, who are not “of that class.” The main distinction between them and the third floor
staff is that most of them are former clients, hired after rehabilitation.
Many clients resented the authority of the lower-level staff. They complained that the
supervisors limited access to donated clothes. I asked whom they saved the clothes for. The man
in the cap interjected, “well, lemme see. Anything that’s donated … staff gets first priority before
clients do. Bags that were donated, travel bags … Staff got’em before the clients did … Socks!
We have to beg for socks here.”
A thin blond-haired woman complained that she had requested clothes for a job
interview. “For one hour, I’m going to a job interview, and you know, I’ll have a job tomorrow.
Never gave me any clothes. Never.”
The supervisors were also accused of throwing out food donations without reason. “Goes
right into the dumpster,” grumbled the knit-cap man. According to him, the supervisors claim
there is “too much food in the house. I’ve never seen a place that has too much food.”
A middle-aged man named Bob said with an odd smirk, “One time they passed out AK-47s
but they wouldn’t give us any ammunition. What are you gonna do with an AK-47 without
any ammunition.” He laughed warmly at his gibe, which apparently only he understood.
Ignoring Bob but noticing the chilly weather, the knit-cap man remarked, “Let it be
snowing out here. This is the same length of time that you would have to wait if it was snowing
out here or raining. They’ll let you know when they feel like lettin’ you in.”
Why do they take so long, I asked? A heavy-set man with glasses called out, “They don’t
have any respect for the homeless, that’s why.”
“You know why they take so long?” said the knit-cap man. “They stand around the desk,
yapping about each other … who’s leaving with who tonight.”
Bob said he’d tell me why and requested a pen and paper. He wrote in curly handwriting,
all twisted capital letters: “We get free food and a place to stay. Why complain?”