I’m on my knees, gingerly reaching under the bed. Blue latex gloves will protect me from filth but not a stray needle. The bed’s occupant left the shelter last night, and I’m cleaning out his possessions, getting the bed ready for the next guy.
Under the bed, tucked carefully away in the far corner, are a pair of shoes. Brown leather, well worn, but high quality; like your Dad might wear to church. I strain to grab them, walk down the hall, and throw them in the garbage.
Before I got hired at the men’s shelter, they asked me: “Working here, you are going to be dealing with mental illness, addictions, stress, and conflict. How are you going to cope?” In the interview, waxed eloquent about my morning meditation and church group, but as I drive home I can’t get the shoes out of my head. What kind of person throws out a homeless man’s shoes?
It isn’t just the shoes that haunt me. Over the last months, I’ve watched addiction, mental health issues, poor choices, and poor institutions leave people broken and empty. Images flash to mind:
A father frantically calling lawyers after his children were taken away. A teenager too nervous to sleep in the shelter; assault charges preventing his return to a group home. A senior on first name basis with ambulance attendants because the hospital is the only place where anyone will care for him.
What hope can I offer these people? How do I cope?
In Youth Work, Naomi Nichols describes how people experience the Ontario shelter system. She describes the shelter as a boundary community; a place where ‘the street’ and ‘the system’ meet. Nichols reflects a trip to the mall with a shelter resident who casually told stories of rape, abuse, and addiction. Nichols questioned how the teen could be so vulnerable in such a public setting. She realizes that this personal disclosure is a precondition for the teen to receive shelter and welfare. To cross the boundary and access social services, you must be vulnerable, intimate. At the same time, to offer support to those on the street, the shelter worker must be professional, impartial.
Nichols argues that this relationship is fundamentally jarring. The contrast between their intimacy and my impartiality pulls at me. But it has done more than just tug me from my comfort zone, it has left me struggling to find my footing. I watch the same people face the same problems over and over, helpless to intervene. I signed on to bring hope and healing, and now it seems that all my efforts might barely preserve the status quo. After a while, poverty is not jarring, it is wearing.
Prayer comes as an afterthought, a duty I’ve neglected. It seems irrelevant to the mundane world where I distribute blankets and dispose of old shoes. I don’t even know what to ask for. I hang so tightly to my desire to cope, but deep down I know I’m not enough.
Weary, I return to the one who promises to lift my burdens. Trust and rest remain distant hope rather than personal experience. My heart is still broken, my vision clouded. But as I close my eyes, a light breaks through.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
There’s hope here, too.
A note left at the front desk: “Dad, I forgive you. Please call.”. A late night conversation, “Will you pray for me?”. An unexpected visitor, “I’ve found an apartment and a job, thanks for being here when I needed it.”
I’m on my knees.