A Place Like This
By Michelle Chen
The day after I had dined with the clients, I again found myself at the door of the shelter,
glad to be out of the cold, gritty rain that comes so often this time of year. Approaching Bill’s
office, I saw Paul sitting in a chair at the end of the hall, like a kid outside the principal’s office.
At his desk, Bill declared that Paul had finally “outfoxed” himself.
Paul poked his head in after I had sat down and said he was going back downstairs. “I
think that’s advisable,” said Bill.
“Alright … Don’t worry, I got you in my corner.”
In his wry monotone, Bill replied, “Oh yeah. You do.” After Paul had said bye to me and
left, Bill explained that Paul had visited the third floor in an attempt to get the administrators to
reverse their decision not to let him sleep at Columbus House that night. Why couldn’t he stay, I
“ ’Cause he broke the rules.” Since Paul was on pretreatment, he wasn’t allowed to leave
without “prior approval.” According to Paul’s story, he went with the other clients to a clinic,
stayed behind after they left, and “bullshitted” with the receptionist. He ended up returning a
couple of hours late, which was enough to earn him an “AD.”
I inquired about the chances of the administration reversing its ruling. “Well, that
depends … What we’re trying to do is make them accountable for their actions.”
Bill explained that ordinary homeless shelters don’t work to instill a concept of
accountability. “They’ve skipped in school, they’ve skipped in life, and everybody let ’em slide
… and then all of a sudden they come to Columbus House and they can’t slide. That’s why we
don’t call it a ‘Disciplinary Discharge.’ We call it ‘Accountability Discharge.’ ” I recalled that
most clients I had spoken to downstairs either didn’t know what “AD” stood for or thought it
stood for “Administrative Discharge.”
Bill said that it’s often hard for the administration to communicate the need for clients to
“[take] control of their lives.” According to Bill, Columbus House’s principles should be easy to
understand, “but at times it’s very difficult to bring sanity to insanity.”
I was still confused about Paul, though. “He’s a pretty smart guy,” I said.
“Very smart.” That’s why he had “outfoxed himself.” He was being disciplined now
because his irresponsibility had put him in this position. Before I had entered the office, Bill was
telling Paul that “if you could harness that creativity between your ears for something other than
this bullshit nickel and dime shit, you could be … very wealthy, or very successful.” But Paul
had decided just to waste his brain. “If that’s your life,” warned Bill, “then so be it. But I’m too
old to be bullshitted by that, that kind of bullshit.”
So it might have worked on him when he was younger? It might have, said Bill, “ ’cause
I was in bullshit myself, so …” He shrugged. Bill admitted to doing some “crazy-ass shit” when
he was younger. He pulled himself out of it only after analyzing his life and seeing that it “wasn’t
going like I wanted it [to].” At some point, “you have to take stock of your life.”
Bill recalled being deeply depressed on his thirtieth birthday, when he first evaluated his
position in life. “I had it all mapped out … I was gonna have a house, I was gonna have a good
job, big job … making big bucks.” But at that time, he was divorced, only had a car instead of a
house, and was living with his parents again. “I wasn’t there. You know. I didn’t have it.”
At thirty, Bill disliked himself for not having done it all. He has grown up since then,
however. Now in his fifties, when he surveys his accomplishments, from his office at the top of a
shabby building full of chaos and unhappy people who depend on him, he knows life is “not about
money. It’s about relationships.”
But I thought he said before that life was all about struggle. That too, said Bill. A
relationship is about combining individual struggles. “You bring into this relationship your shit,
and I bring into our relationship my shit, and we create new shit. Okay?” In dealing with clients
and managing his own life, compromise has been essential.
“It’s having standards,” he explained. “Only in rules are you really free.” When he
worked for a corporation, he learned that the standard business uniform was, paradoxically, the
only way you could be yourself. Though you are “free” to decide to wear something else besides
a the convention of the collared shirt, wingtips and necktie, “you’ll never get anywhere without
it.” With a standard, “you knew where you stood.” The clients, in Bill’s view, don’t know where
they stand, so the rules of Columbus House are intended to give them a sense of their role in
So Bill expected the clients to complain to me. “They’ll tell you there’s too many rules
here. And I know that that’s their ongoing beef about Columbus House. But tell them, ‘What’s
the difference between Columbus House and the other shelters you’ve stayed in?’ ”
He was sure they would reply that at the other shelters, “Oh, it’s chaos.” Of their
complaints, Bill said simply, “They don’t really listen to what they’re saying.”
Right after that comment, Paul poked his head in again to say that he had gotten a bed for
the night. I was still confused. After Paul left the second time, Bill explained that Paul was told
he didn’t have a bed reserved for him, as he usually did. So he waited outside and went through
the lottery like everyone else. But the supervisors, due to latent sympathy, or perhaps a
purposeful misunderstanding of the administrative order, had given Paul a break. They had
reserved a bed for him in secret. The disciplinary measure was, in practice, to force Paul to
appreciate having a warm place to sleep.
I asked Bill what he thought about allegations of staff abuse. First, he said, “not many
people want to work for the amount of money that we offer to start off. Two is: if you and I ran
together, and I got clean … and we ran together long enough for me to know your shit … then I
can call you on your shit, and you know exactly where I’m coming from. Because I know exactly
where you’re coming from. And you can’t bullshit me anymore. They don’t like that.” Although
he conceded that the supervisors may sometimes be “too hard” on the clients, he understands
why reformed clients “have very little patience with our clients who have relapse after relapse
He looked at the situation from their point of view: “I’ve done all this for you, Michelle.
You know, I’ve taken you to the doctors, I did the urines, I got you clean, and got you some new
clothes … got you a part time job, and you go off and—blow it.” What’s a reformed addict
supposed to think?
So life is about Bill’s struggle, the struggle of his clients, society’s struggle, and how
they all relate to each other. Witnessing clients’ struggles has helped him gain perspective on his
past experiences. “I cannot see them but for seeing myself.” When he compares himself to the
people downstairs, he knows he is fortunate to have been raised in a stable blue-collar family and
to have had a comparatively normal life. Still, he sees some of his own struggles in theirs. He
knows what it’s like to beat an addiction—in his case, smoking: like Tony, he counted each
agonizing minute he passed while resisting his overwhelming compulsion. When I told him about
Paul’s desire to be distracted from his addiction, he responded, “No. See, that’s putting it on
something else.” He learned from quitting cigarettes that the key to controlling a vice is
“focusing on you and saying, ‘I can’t do it.’ ”
Bill sees his clients as his “greatest teachers … they taught me about myself.” Their
experiences resonate with his own. “And when I see me in them, I can’t be as hard on them as I
sometimes want to be.” Mother Teresa claimed she saw Jesus in everyone, he said. Though he
admits he hasn’t quite reached that level of authority, “I can see me in other people, and I look
for that. Negative or positive.”
His clients probably don’t empathize with him the same way, he told me matter-of-factly.
Yet he still feels that they have a unique appreciation for him. “I believe that sometimes, I’m the
only father figure they ever had in their life.” This role made him uncomfortable at first, “but
then I learned to accept it. I thought … You are old enough to be a whole bunch of these people’s
fathers, yeah. And the way you fooled around at one time,” he chortled, “you could’ve been.”
Now, he sees his job as a sort of motivation to keep himself in check, so that when he gives
advice, he knows it’s honest advice, knows that he teaches by example the way his clients teach
Every day, quietly frustrated and tacitly benevolent, he observes with tired eyes the same
familiar routine—people falling apart and coming back together again. It’s hard to gauge what
impact he’s having, because they stay only when they feel like it and leave when they shouldn’t.
“All you guys go. For four, five, six days, till you blow all your money and then you come back
here. All tired, and weepy, and apologetic. Until next month. Then you do the same shit over and
over again. And you keep doin’ it. And you never question why. And they all laugh.” He raised
his eyebrows as he concluded, “And it’s all true. It’s all true.”
That evening, Tony discussed Paul’s predicament with Bill. He had made some phone
calls and found out that Paul had in fact not been with the receptionist that afternoon, and that no
one could actually verify where he had been during those few hours. Paul had also confessed to
Tony that he had used the previous Friday, after getting the dope delivered straight to Columbus
House. For all the disciplinary codes the administrators try to enforce, there are some holes in the
system that they just can’t plug.
In Bill’s office, Tony argued that Paul’s light punishment could instill dangerous feelings
of security. “He’s back in charge of Columbus House again. He’s the boss now.” Tony believes
Paul suffers from “a narcissistic borderline personality disorder.” He could “be anything he
wants to be,” but instead, “drugs have really changed a number of positive things he could have
Tony said firmly to Bill, “Emergency status. And that’s the bottom line.” The staff had to
get Paul to the Salvation Army treatment facility in Hartford as soon as possible. Tony joked
about letting him drive Bill’s car there. He hoped the intensive treatment would “put a little bit of
Jesus in him.”
“You know what?” said Bill. “I think he’s scared shitless.” Bill saw Paul not as a
narcissist, but as an addict plagued by feelings of unworthiness. Paul tried to “prove that he’s
unworthy” by destroying his potential.
Even Tony, who has seen a lot of things, was disturbed. “He can’t save himself,” he said
with a tinge of sadness and exasperation. “He can’t.”
The conversation drifted on to Tony’s plans to work on his novel treatment plan with the
Harm Reduction Coalition, which might offer him a grant. He disagreed, however, with the
organization’s general philosophy, because it does not advocate complete abstinence, which was
the only thing that got Tony off drugs. “But,” he added, “for some people it’s not possible.”
“Yeah,” muttered Bill.
“Some people we bury.”
“Mm-hmm. We buried enough of them.” There was a trace of pity in Bill’s flat voice.
At the end of the day, I mentioned to Tony that Paul had told me he was determined to
change his life.
“Did you believe him when he said that?”
“Don’t know. I didn’t know what to believe.”
Tony smiled. “Very insightful of you … He has the ability to manipulate, especially
females, to make them believe whatever he wants.”
Oh. I wondered if I had trusted him too much after all.
I recalled that Tony had stated, “There’s nobody hopeless here.” But cases such as Paul’s
had to breed some doubts in his mind, right?
No, he was still hopeful for Paul. He had to be. He still believed Paul’s common sense
would overcome his addiction in the end. And when it did, Columbus House would be waiting
for him. Tony was also certain that if the treatment facility in Hartford failed to help Paul, Tony
would be the first one he’d talk to once he reentered the shelter. Tony said even a manipulator
will eventually realize that the only people who can help him are those who can’t be tricked. He
told me that his “hard-nosed approach”—not “compassion”—was the only thing that could help
On his way out of the office, Bill reported that the staff downstairs was taking up a
collection for Paul, to buy him a bus ticket to Hartford.
“Good,” replied Tony. He said to me, “So there’s the hope.”
Bill reminded me of what we had discussed earlier about staff abuse. The staff’s effort in
this case was a good counterexample. Only half-joking, he said another “part of the abuse” was
people’s abuse of the staff’s compassion. For Bill and the rest of the Columbus House workers,
this constant, complex tension between what we know is right and what we want to do—that’s a
struggle everyone is responsible for.
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 open.
The reporting for this article was done in the fall of 2001, when it was facing a severe space shortage.
Columbus House has since relocated and continues to develop and provide services in the New Haven
community. To learn more, visit www.columbushouse.org.
Michelle Chen is a native New Yorker who has been involved with independent media for the past
eight years. Her work has appeared in The New York Press, Nonviolent Activist, The Allegheny
Review, Babel Magazine, Wiretap, Eastern Art Report, and her zine, a compilation of philosophical
ramblings titled "cain"