Tag: shelter life

A Sheltered Life

Bâillement hystérique
Bibliothèque de Toulouse from Toulouse, France


Since I’ve announced on my blog that I was in the House of Friendship men’s shelter, I’ve been asked in a private message a few times what it’s like to live in a shelter.

That’s not an easy answer to give. It depends on what shelter you are in, since all shelters are NOT created equal.  Some shelters are nothing more than a gymnasium or distribution centre size room where everyone sleeps in their own bed with a tote box nearby. On the other hand, The House of Friendship has rooms that hold between 4 and 6 men to sleep in, gives breakfast and dinner, and provides excellent services for obtaining affordable housing and strategy planning to help men get out of the shelter and (where necessary) off the booze and drugs.

Each of the men at the shelter have their own story of how they ended up here.

Some are like myself: they are well-behaved members of society who through no fault of their own lost the ability to keep paying the rent or mortgage. Since they have no place to go they end up homeless. We have one young man with a lovely wife and daughter in the Philippines and is a real go getter and a hard worker with a lot of confidence. On paper this guy should NOT be here, yet here he is. Like me.

Next we have those who are battling drug or alcohol addictions, served time, suffer from a mental illness, have serious anger management issues, or are vexed by something else that prevents them from holding down a job and having a roof over their heads. I don’t judge them: they are human beings like me who are in need of help and deserve just as much help as I do.

Having said this, this does not mean everyone is safe to be around.

Those who suffer mental illness or have anger management problems can become a danger to the wonderful staff at the House of Friendship. It can also introduce a potentially unsafe environment for the residents here.

It did for me two days ago as of this date of writing this blog post.

We had a resident (I’ll call him Rex) arrive to share the room I was in with the other guys. The first moment I saw him I knew there was something VERY off about him. He looked like he was running on autopilot most of the time, and for those few times Rex was “there” he looked at you with the face of a bulldog. Every night he would stand almost immobile for 10 minutes by the side of his bed before climbing into it.

Before I continue, I learned a few things about living in a shelter. One was to never maintain eye contact with anyone for more than a second lest you set that person off. Another was to never escalate an argument with another resident even if the resident started it. As one staffer said, “Just ignore it and walk away”.

That’s easier said than done. As I said, Rex shared a room with me, so it is hard not firing back a retort or walk away when he cusses at me me and two of the other guys sharing my room.

Or when he calls us, “three fucking faggots”.

Or when he accuses us of having a circle-jerk session in the middle of the night.

Yeah. That brutal, yet I still ignored it. It was tough ignoring him but it was not worth getting into fist-fights over, or reporting to the staff.

A few days later and after coming downstairs from my room, I saw Rex yelling at a staff member about something . She was trying to calm him down, warning him to restrain himself. He stopped berating the staffer, looked at me, then yelled, “WHY DON’T YOU ASK HIM!?”. He then followed up with a “WHY DON’T YOU ASK THIS GUY!?” after seeing  one of the three roommates I mentioned before turn the corner.

I politely asked what this was about and he threatened to punch my teeth in and that it was worth going to jail to get rid of me.

You know, as in killing me.

Fortunately the staffer heard all that and told him to take a walk to cool off. He screamed that he was raped as a child by his father — a pretty public disclosure to make — then stormed off.

I was pretty shaken. I swear I saw skulls in his eyes. His face was contorted in a way that told me he was pretty serious about his threat. I told the staffer that I wanted him out of my room.

After I helped clean up after dinner, another staffer and a really great guy told me a meeting will be held about Rex’s behaviour. From this meeting, a decision will be made whether or not he will remain at the shelter. I was asked if I felt unsafe with Rex in the shelter.  I was very clear in my answer: I not only felt unsafe I was scared.

Rex was out the door the same night. Things settled down in my room for the moment but it does bring up a point I want to talk a bit about.

I take mental illness very seriously. I think anyone suffering from mental illness deserves fully funded care to help get a handle on it and become contributing members of society again.

Having said this, I don’t think a shelter is a place for the mentally ill. The staff, bless them for being there, are not trained to be asylum staff. The caseworkers each of us are assigned to are not professional psychologists or psychotherapists. This is not their job.

In Canada, every individual has the right to refuse treatment for mental illness unless he or she is seen to be a danger to him- or herself or to others, or at risk of serious physical impairment due to a mental health problem. This is an important right that protects us from misdiagnosis that could savagely curtail our freedoms. Still, everything has a place, and the mentally ill have no business being in a shelter.

They should instead be in a hospital getting the medical care they deserve, so the homeless can get the social assistance they deserve without interruption.

Thanks for reading!