A Place Like This
By Michelle Chen
The steps to the entrance were crowded. As the staff prepared to let the clients in, the
knit-cap man said the supervisors “have a chip on their shoulders. They walk in here, and if they
have a problem at home, this is where they come and they take it out on the clients.”
Alan told me that much of the conflict between supervisors and clients was due to the
intense, narrow division between the two groups. A supervisor may be just “one breath from
being in our position … They’re just one step above us, and they know it, and they use that
façade to make themselves feel better by shittin’ on us.”
A few of the clients on the steps were worried that if the supervisors knew I was listening
to their complaints, they might propose an AD to the administration. “They’re always threatening
you with that,” remarked the blond woman.
“They gonna put an act on for you,” warned the knit-cap man. “Oh, the best act in the
world … As soon as you leave, their attitude changes. And they’re like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
They’re good for five minutes to somebody from Yale who’s here. And then when they’re gone,
then the shitty part come up from out of them.”
As they began calling people in for dinner, I followed. A large, square supervisor told me
to wait outside, because I had missed the call for women. It took me a while to realize they had
thought I was spending the night. Someone told him I was from Yale, and he let me in with a
chuckle. I suppose that staff member hadn’t gone out of his way to treat me differently, but, then
again, how was he supposed to know that he should have?
The phone in Bill’s office connects him to the tumult below.
A supervisor called him from downstairs to tell him that a homeless woman had just
come in with an 8-month old baby. “All the baby had on was some pajamas,” so he had given her
an extra blanket he had found, “’cause she didn’t have no coat, no hat … okay?”
“Okay,” said Bill staidly. He asked if she needed anything else, but the supervisor had
already hung up.
Doesn’t Columbus House take children? “No, just adults.” The woman probably got a
blanket and a meal and was sent on her way.
In his hoarse voice, he explained, in slow, meditative terms, what Columbus House is.
“Columbus House is about death.” Only two people have actually died in the building—
one from an overdose, the other from conjunctivitis. But Bill knows many lives that pass through
here end before they should. Despite efforts to dig them out, there are always those who are too
deeply buried in hopelessness. “I think that a lot of people don’t understand that even that
Protestant work ethic creeps into [homeless peoples’] consciousness … a lot of them are very
despondent and depressed.”
So he must be desensitized to this kind of ordeal, I thought. “No, I don’t think you ever
get desensitized,” he rebutted. Bill’s philosophy about death is “just different than most
people’s.” He said he believed that death is just another state of being and therefore shouldn’t
be feared. He was raised in a strict “Hellfire and Brimstone” Baptist family, but as a rebellious kid,
he began to believe that people who do bad things are not punished in Hell.
“I believe Hell is what you experience on a daily basis.”
So his clients are in Hell, I asked?
“Yes, and despondent and—don’t know how to get out of it.”
“And you help them get out of it?”
“I like to think that I do. They get out of it themselves.”
I first encountered Paul shortly after walking with the crowd of clients through the doors.
As people were being patted down and beginning to amble around, the woman called me into the
dining hall. There, beneath the blaring chatter of the clients, Paul advised me discreetly to
talk to individuals in private, away from watchful supervisors.
Paul actually seemed to enjoy the risk of talking to an outsider and even gave himself
that fake name. As he related his experience to me, he revealed an appreciation for the delicate
power balance among the administration, downstairs staff and clients. Relationships in this place
are more complex, he told me, than many clients would admit.
“It’s a two-way thing,” he said. Clients often initiate conflicts when dealing with
supervisors because a supervisor might have been a client just a short time ago. “I might have an
attitude because he changed his life. And now here, he’s telling me what to do!” Paul said
supervisors are accused of “kissing up” to the management. But he thinks that in reality, Bill
would never hire them unless he believed they deserved a chance to demonstrate their progress.
Bill “gives people shots,” said Paul, his eyes wide.
He was conscientious not to complain too much. This place was much more pleasant
than Emanuel Baptist, another local shelter, which he described as “off the hook.” He also didn’t
delude himself about his own shortcomings, admitting he had a problem “learning to listen and
listening to learn.” Entering pretreatment—a sort of sensory deprivation period intended to cut
him off from his addiction—was an initial step toward recovery. He seemed to understand
himself better than most other clients.
As clients began to line up for dinner, he asked me to tell him what I had learned about
him so far. I relayed back to him: he was in the middle of changing his life, and that gave him a
different perspective on how people interact here. He approved and left to get food.
I hadn’t planned on staying for dinner, but Paul and some other clients encouraged me to
eat with them.
The dining room is too small to seat all the clients, so many eat in the row of chairs
lining the hallway. Tonight was meatloaf, boiled ham, canned corn and bread.
Paul sat next to me as I ate. He pointed out an elderly black man a few chairs down with
a strangely twisted torso in a green sweater vest. Paul explained that he knew the man as
well as anyone here knew him. The old man hardly ever speaks. But once, Paul was singing, and after
just a little coaxing, he got the man to sing with him. They had fun that time. “You have to have a
sense of humor,” said Paul, to survive here. “There’s a serious side and a laughable side” to this
Paul drifted back to the serious side. “Sometimes when you’re on pretreatment,” he
reflected, “you just sit here.” While trying to restrict yourself within the shelter’s walls, your
mind can wander to places where it shouldn’t. “You’re just reminiscing about the streets.”
People like Paul need distractions to keep their thoughts “constructive” and away from the
temptation of a familiar lifestyle.
Bob was sitting a few chairs down. With a rumpled smile, he told me to write down this
statement: “No ammunition for our AK-47s. What use then?” and then dictated: “Why is it
always ladies first? Answer: Landmines.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of this place. As the clients around me seemed absorbed in
their meal, I was grateful for the anonymity, but I felt I was too close to them to be just an
observer. I cleaned my plate to avoid being seen throwing out their food.
After dinner, Paul invited me to sit in the TV room with the other clients. He then
casually asked me if I had a boyfriend. Hoping to avoid awkwardness, I replied flatly that this
was on the record. We both quietly dropped the subject after that. As the television and voices
blared in the darkness, he told me to write down that he had recently mysteriously lost $79.35.
A woman sitting near us just laughed.