Buddy* told me that heroin is like love. It's like love because it makes you forget that life is hell, and then it makes life hell all by itself. And I said I knew what he meant. Because love gets in you first because you let it and later because you can hardly tell it no.
Buddy lived at the homeless shelter in Champaign where I used to work. The shelter is about 25 years old now, about my age. In our brochure it said that it was started after a 1970s state law decriminalized public intoxication and pushed many people who had previously slept in jail out into the street. I've spoken to several people who remember that law, but none of them are convinced that the opening of the shelter had anything to do with it. In the years since I worked there, I've heard other explanations for why shelters like ours started popping up all over the country. The closure of institutions for people with mental illness. Crack. The decline of industry. Reduced federal spending for affordable housing. Global economic restructuring. And so forth. We may never know exactly how homelessness happened in Champaign, or in any other place. And knowing might not do a man who's hungry any good.
What I know is that in 1979, churches in Champaign started a rotating shelter for men. One night here, one night there. The shelter wandered through the town looking for a place to stay. In 1983, the pastor of McKinley Presbyterian Church (located in the middle of the University of Illinois campus near the main retail strip) offered to turn the church's basement into a permanent overnight shelter for men. A home for the home for the homeless. Amen.
Open the door. Breathe deep. Inhale weeks of unwashed skin, mud-streaked socks, burped-up whiskey, generic pine cleaner, government pork, stale doughnuts, piss-soaked corners, soggy coffee grounds, cheap cologne, wet cigarettes, sour milk. Exhale. Inhale. It's the smell of having no place to go. I hardly noticed it after years working there. My nose called this place home.
We said to them: Come to this place. It's the only one you've got. Tell us every intimate detail of your life. Take a shower when we say you can. Do not step behind the counter. Store everything you own in this locker, and if it doesn't fit throw it out. Sleep in a room with 60 people you don't know. Don't mind that in the mornings I will see you in your underwear. Eat stale cereal for breakfast. Do not leave anything under your bed when you leave for the day. Be polite. This mess you've made is your own fault. Close your eyes and pretend that we will help you get out of here.
What I learned but was not supposed to say: If you don't like it here, you can build a fire and sleep by the train tracks. You can pretend to be sick and sleep in the ER. You can get in a fight and lie down in jail. There's another shelter but they'll give you a Breathalyzer test and a sermon before you can eat. If you are white or don't look too homeless you can probably get away with nodding off in the Student Union. Bring a book and pretend you fell asleep studying.
For a while we could have 63 men sleeping there. Then one winter the fire department said we could only have 50. The others would have to find somewhere else to go. That winter we turned people away for the first time ever. We let them freeze to death but we would not let them burn.
We were told we only had enough funding to be open about three quarters of each day, so we experimented with which hours to stay open. People who were liked by the staff or known to be hard workers were sometimes allowed to stay during closed hours--to mop floors, clean bathrooms, or get started on dinner.
So many years later these men still move through my mind. There goes Alan. He walks and thinks in circles. He hates Ronald Reagan and can recite miles of beat poetry. He told me one day that the best place to see the stars is at the cemetery. Because there's no lights, he said. I guess dead people don't need lights, he said.
And if I close my eyes I can see Abraham. Abraham, aka King Abraham, aka Em-Are Period, meaning Mister, meaning I Mean Business. His cane holds him up, and so do his memories. He dances sometimes, to music from way back. Spins those hips and cuts a rug, as he says. His arms are like gnarled tree trunks from dialysis. Most people don't know how to look at arms like that, but it wasn't hard to learn. Once you know somebody, everything about them starts seeming natural.
One night Morris told me that he knew why it's always those rich white businessfuckers who end up killing themselves in bathtubs and bedrooms. "All of us down here, we've done so much crazy shit just to survive," he said. "Our job has not been banker, teacher, or doctor. Our job has always been just to stay alive. To get another goddamn day. And it never has paid too good. But when you work for something all your life, even if it's just your own damn chance to take another breath, well. When you work like hell for something like that, you don't give it up so easy."
Sometimes I worked third shift, 11:30 PM to 7:30 AM. There was never a whole lot to do while everyone was sleeping, so I worked alone. I liked the feel of the night, the knowledge of myself in it. I liked to watch them sleep. I often wondered how many of them went to bed hoping that this was all just a bad dream, hoping that when the sun came up tomorrow they would wake up and be home.
One morning after I had worked all night, I turned on the radio during breakfast. A song was playing about how we are all born innocent. I looked around and saw all these faces fresh from sleep, with creases from the blankets on their cheeks. I saw them shuffling, and remembering who they were. Smoothing what was left of their hair. Clinking spoons in chipped coffee cups. Shoving their hands down their pants. And the song seemed true.
One night a guy was masturbating in his cot. After two complaints I tiptoed carefully toward his bed. I tapped his meaty, hairy shoulder and told him that he couldn't do that here, not with 60 others right nearby. Without a word he zipped up his pants, hopped out of bed, and scurried into the shower. I heard him turn on the water. The next day one of the residents told me that when he was in prison the ones who masturbated at night had to wear pink jumpsuits so everyone would know. At the next staff meeting I brought up the idea of buying some, jokingly. We all had a good nervous laugh. We were all scared, really.
There was this one guy, Mike/Terrance/Tyrone/Larone/Stephen/Lamont/Kieran (he always gave a different name, you see). He sold drugs to addicts at the end of the month, right when the addict didn't have any money left and was getting the shakes from withdrawal. Then, on government check day, Mike/Terrance/Tyrone/Larone/Stephen/Lamont/Kieran came hunting. He'd come in at three o'clock in the morning to walk the rows, searching faces. If he found a face that owed him money, he tried to wake the guy up and hash it out right there. The staff had decided that the next person to see this guy was going to have to kick him out permanently. We were all hoping it wouldn't be us. He came in on my shift. I met him at the door and told him he had to leave. My voice was shaking. He called me sweetheart. He told me he had been around this town a lot longer than me and he was not going to deal with some fucking white-college-bitch bullshit so late at night. I told him again that he had to leave.
By now a guy named Prime Rib was standing behind me. I think he wanted to make sure I was OK. Mike/Terrance/Tyrone/etc turned toward me and Prime Rib, opened up the left side of his coat, and smiled. Tucked into the inside pocket was something shiny, something made of metal. Prime Rib grabbed him by the arm and shoved him out the front door.
One morning Alan stepped up to the food counter and started yelling, snarling. I should have seen it coming. The night before, he had stood facing the wall for an hour, cradling his face in his hands. He hadn't even wanted a cigarette when I offered him one. And now he was going crazy. Saying how he hated all of us. We were spies. We were demons. His face got twisted and cruel, and his eyes sank. The skin around his mouth was twitching. There were little bits of spit flying out with his words.
I'm not sure he saw me standing there--even though we had spent hours together at the bookstores and on the quad and walking down the streets. I had bought him countless packs of cigarettes and books of Kerouac. Another staff member ordered him to leave. I could never have brought myself to do it.
Walking home, I felt that I had watched him die. I could feel my forehead dragging down, the ice in my eyes, the tugging frown of my lips. I wondered if that's what faces felt like when faces got old.
I first went to the shelter in Champaign when I was a freshman in college. For a sociology class we had to volunteer somewhere and write a journal about it. I chose the shelter because I had volunteered at one in high school in Cincinnati, so I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. I signed up to serve lunch and pretty soon I was going every day. Something about it felt more real than the rest of my life as a student. I ladled soup, learned to play dominoes, and feverishly scribbled scraps of conversations on napkins so I could put them in my journal later on. Eventually the shelter director offered me a job and I took it. I learned to cook soup for 80 people, started winning at dominoes, and turned the napkins into this.
We bought cases of hot sauce every month. The men had nothing to say about what they were served, but how much hot sauce they used was up to them. When we ran out there were a lot more complaints about the food. Salt and pepper just weren't the same.
Sugar. We used so much sugar. At first I didn't understand it. I was constantly washing cups weighted down with blobs of wet, clumpy, coffee-soaked sugar. Day after day I watched overflowing teaspoonfuls of sugar dive into cups of already double-sweet Kool-Aid. One day I asked this guy Donald why he thought we went through so much sugar. He said that alcoholics who drink sugary liquor often crave the sweet as much as the booze, especially in places where you can't get booze, like the shelter. He said he knew an alcoholic guy in the county jail who had worked with him in the kitchen and who had eaten sugar by the handful every hour or so. Had hidden in the freezer at times, pouring sugar down his throat, choking and coughing and gasping for air all the way. Donald said it was funny at the time, he guessed, but kind of serious too, when you thought about it.
The shelter began seeping into the rest of my life--what was left of it anyway. I stopped going out. While all my friends were putting on strappy tank tops and clomping down the street to bars, I was at the White Hen Pantry on the corner of Fourth and Green, buying cigarettes and a bottle of iced tea to help me stay up all night. Even when I did have the chance to go to bars, I didn't enjoy myself. The smell of alcohol reminded me of nights like the one when Davis got drunk, fell asleep on his back, and woke up in the middle of the night choking on his own vomit. I held him on his side for half an hour while he threw up into an already sour-smelling bucket. I got depressed watching all the college kids dancing and drinking and screaming and doing embarrassing things they would forget about by tomorrow. I wanted them all to get in a line and follow me to the shelter. I wanted them to see that there was deep suffering in this sleepy town, and I wanted them to be disgusted enough to do something about it.
The way you learned to play dominoes was you sat down and played. No one told you the rules and you didn't get to ask questions. You learned to call them bones, not dominoes. You figured out by yourself that bones that add up to make multiples of five are called moneybones. If they add up to five, you say you've got a nick. Ten, a dimesack. Fifteen, fiddeen. Twenty is a dubsack. Twenty-five, quarterhorse. If I made a good play, I had to say Ta-dow! and slap 'em down hard, no girly shit. And if somebody said to me, "Shortbody, your slow ass is tickling next week," I'd slam some shit down hard as hell and say, "Gimme a dubsack." And we'd play on.
One day a guy from the shelter asked a volunteer what she was majoring in. She said social work. And he said she'd fit in real good down here. And she said, "Yeah, that's what I want to do in the future--I wanna help people." And he said, "Naw, girl, you gonna be living in some shit like this."
Malcolm was on a mission. He believed he was an undercover FBI spy trying to figure out why all the white people were still ruling the country and why all the homeless people were black. He had 75 guns hidden in Texas and was masterminding the next LA riot. He blew up the White House back in '84 and they built it right back up, overnight, the damn Republicans. And Martin Luther King wasn't dead at all, just chilling with Elvis until the apocalypse. Malcolm told us he planted miniature bombs in the entire supply of U.S. white cotton so that all of the hoods and capes of the KKK would spontaneously ignite the following week, taking those motherfuckers all to hell.
The night of the lice. One guy had lice so bad his curly mop of hair was moving even when he was standing still. We took him to public health and they shaved his head. When he came back, he looked broken and naked. We worried that others might have lice too, so we called the public health nurses to come in and check everyone's heads before dinner. The nurses came and snapped on their chalky gloves, the kind that make fingers look like raw bratwurst. They pulled out their oversize toothpicks and started sifting through everybody's hair. You could tell they wished they were touching cleaner people. When they found someone with lice, their mouths made this funny frown thing and their eyebrows raised up in a see-I-told-you-so kind of way.
The guys who had lice had to come up to me and get a bottle of Rid shampoo. Most of them snatched the bottle out of my hand without looking at me. The ones who had lice too thick, we shaved their heads. We did it outside with scissors and some old rusty clippers. I pictured the stupid little bugs falling and screaming as I ran the clippers along the bumpy contours of each head.
None of the black men had lice. The nurses said black people don't get them as easy because of the oils in their hair. One guy said, "This is the only day it's good to be a black man in America." One guy said, "That's what you get for slavery, white boys." Eventually they marched back in, little homeless aliens with pale round heads. Their faces looked completely different now. The shaved ones kept to themselves that night. It was like a civil war: the ones who had them against the ones who didn't. I noticed that the first guy to get his head shaved--the one we'd taken to public health--looked a lot more comfortable now.
Though I was trying to play it cool, my head began to itch. The garbage bag I had thrown on over my clothes and the plastic sack wrapped around my head were starting to get clammy. I felt like lice were everywhere, crawling, consuming me. It was all in my head, I know, but heads matter so much, they really do. And then B.G. cried. He said he must have gotten lice because he was dirty and poor. I told him I had lice in third grade. He said I only got it because I was a kid and didn't know any better. He said he was a grown man, he should know how not to get lice. I told him that anyone can get them, that they're like a cold, except with legs. He laughed a little but then went to take another shower. I think he needed to be alone. I think we all did.
Benjamin brought it up to the counter and set it down. The book was thick and new. I glanced at the cover. Mein Kampf. Staring at me, he opened the book and pulled out a small card. He pushed it toward me so I could read the words. White Power Peoria, Keep Us Alive.
Benjamin wore an Iron Cross and had tattoos that proclaimed the wonders of the white race. He told me that his parents were Nazis and hated Jews and blacks and anyone not white, really. One time he told me I wasn't so bad even though I was a Jew.
For some reason I had always expected white supremacists to be like they were on Jerry Springer. But Benjamin was awkward and quiet. He never started any trouble with the black guys. He wasn't friends with any of them, but he wasn't mean either. He didn't seem to treat them any different than other white people treated them. If you asked him to explain why he hated people who weren't white, he got nervous and fidgety and his hands started to sweat. At the shelter he was outnumbered and he knew it.
He helped me cook dinner sometimes. Once he found a broken radio on the street, fixed it, and brought it in for all of us to listen to. I saw him give cigarettes to black guys, and once he let a black guy use his shovel to make some money in the wintertime. Something always told me that he was racist not because he believed in being racist but because he didn't really believe in anything else. Everything I'd learned in life told me I should hate him, but I couldn't. I hoped that someday he would feel the same way about me.
Like I said, this all began for me in high school, in a history class with Mr. Elliott. I had written an article in the school newspaper about how I thought that affirmative action was wrong, and he confronted me about it. I said that I figured that if I could get educated, get a job, and be successful, so could anyone else. He raised his eyebrows and invited me to go serve dinner with him at a homeless shelter downtown. I went because I figured he'd give me a bad grade if I didn't. On the way there, he told me that in college he had done a project about homeless people. He had gone down to this same shelter we were going to and asked if he could observe the residents. The guy who had started the place told Mr. Elliott this wasn't a fucking zoo. Told him if he wanted to be there he could help out. So he stayed and served dinner. He'd been going there, alone or with students, ever since.
Pretty soon we were in the part of the city that everyone locks their doors while driving through. We parked, got out of the car, and walked through a small, dark, huddled group of people into the Drop Inn Center shelter. It didn't smell too good, and everyone seemed to be moving very slowly. A lot of people were talking to themselves. Men were curled up on benches with their hands between their legs. A woman was calling out the names of people who had gotten mail. I saw a lot of faces staring at her sideways, trying not to look like they had their hopes up for a letter.
Mr. Elliott left my side as soon as we entered. I was sure I would be robbed or raped or murdered. I pictured the headlines. After a few minutes a guy came up to me. He told me he was friends with Mr. Elliott and his family. I wondered what it would be like to be friends with a homeless person.
We talked until dinner, and then I got recruited to serve macaroni. Lots of the men were saying thank you and God bless you, and many of them were wearing work uniforms. I didn't understand how anybody who was working could be homeless.
I went back to the center many times during high school. When I was 16, some friends and I went there on New Year's Eve. There was dinner and an open mike. Anyone could sing. A woman who lived at the shelter got up. You could tell that her hair had been fixed up special. She sang "Amazing Grace" so beautifully. I looked around and saw all the men's eyes lingering too long on her tight white dress. I saw all the men's eyes looking her up, down, sideways. Those eyes, and that linoleum stage, they did not do her justice. Her voice, her life, deserved better.
While I was working at the shelter in Champaign, my longtime boyfriend slept with my friend, but I stayed in love with him anyway. When I told some of the guys at the shelter, they said yes, sister, yes, being with someone who isn't right for you is just like any addiction. People can't be snorted or smoked but they can make you feel just as lost and confused. They can inject you with goodness and then make you feel like you're dying. People can keep you coming back for more, even as you tumble.
Christmas at the shelter. People brought cookies and socks and cookies and socks. It was the time to be giving. Sometimes it seemed like the only time. Like homeless people were only like that on Christmas, like they had somewhere better to go the next day.
One Christmas a guy came from channel seven. He set up his camera and pointed it right at the dinner line. He wanted a shot of the volunteers serving dinner. Most of the guys didn't want to be on television. They had family and friends who didn't know they were here. I asked the camera guy to take down the camera, but he wouldn't. He wanted a warm fuzzy moment, and we were it. There was nothing I could do.
The CEO of the Mental Health Center came too. The Mental Health Center took over the shelter in 1997, after I'd been working there less than a year. They put their name on everything, including the stapler. Once they took over, we were faced with a never-ending parade of what seemed to be randomly selected administrators, all of whom were bored, bitter, and/or afraid. They would come to the shelter once or twice a week for an hour or so to tell us what they had been told to tell us. New rules, stricter penalties, blah blah blah. Then they scurried back to their offices, assuming that we would obey. Usually we didn't. Back then, ignoring these people who seemed to know nothing about what we were trying to do was the only kind of revolution we could imagine.
On Christmas the CEO got in front of the camera and talked about the shelter and how hard it was to be homeless on the holidays. As if she knew. I couldn't remember the last time she had come to the shelter. After she talked to the cameras, she said she would help me make coffee but she touched everything like it was dirty, and her hands were shaking. When she finally left, I was relieved.
Howard had paranoid schizophrenia. He invented light. He thought up love one day while taking a shower. He discovered gravity in a can of caterpillars. With tomato sauce. Einstein stole E=mc2 from right under his nose. He told George Bush to go ahead with the gulf war, and George listened. Howard wore an aluminum foil halo to block the signals so the communists couldn't get at him. He had been alive three million years and had never felt better.
I would read menus at nice restaurants and immediately start calculating how many gallons of soup I could make for the price of one order of chicken marsala. I wondered if anyone I knew would end up eating my leftovers out of the Dumpster for dinner. I imagined Somali children with swollen bellies diving into a plate of Death by Chocolate cake. I imagined them asking for their sour cream on the side.
I heard college kids joking and calling each other crackheads and I wanted to scream. Because I knew real ones, and it wasn't funny. Gabriel told me that when you smoke rock, it's like the crack is having sex with your brain. He said it's like crack fucks your brain and then pulls out and leaves you feeling all empty inside. And he said sometimes you get sick afterward. You feel like the crack that fucked your brain had AIDS and gave it to you.
Kirby collected cans for recycling, and he always knew where they would be before they were there. One morning he woke up at 3 AM to go collecting. I asked him where he was going and he said, "Early bird gets the worm, Sara!" He pulled out a list that he had made of all the fraternities, sororities, bars, and restaurants that had had big parties or shows the night before. Places with the most cans. He gave me the thumbs-up and glided out the door.
Women came to the shelter, too, sometimes. They couldn't spend the night but they could sit, eat, flirt, and use the telephone until 9 PM. We tried to find them someplace to stay if they needed one. There was a shelter for victims of domestic violence and one for women with kids. If you didn't just get smacked in the face or have babies, you were pretty much out of luck. People used to say there were fewer homeless women than men. I don't know, I think maybe there were just more women spreading their legs to get the rent paid.
A lot of these men had grown up with the idea that women existed to be fucked, to hear men's problems, and to take care of the babies that men made by accident. They told me I was beautiful and I told them that I wasn't there to be beautiful, I was there to work. They said they didn't mean it that way, but I wondered how else they could have meant it. I wore baggy clothes all the time, but only after I made a general announcement that I would not be sleeping with or marrying any of the shelter residents did they finally stop asking. Trying to be not a woman but just a person turned out to be a job all by itself.
There were guys at the shelter who would say, "Well, I guess this is it, Sara. I'm leaving tomorrow and I won't be coming back." I wished them luck, told them I would miss them. Then I would get to the shelter the next morning and there they'd be, never mentioning that they had said they were leaving, never mentioning that they had been telling me they were leaving for the last two years. I think they just wanted to hear me say that I would miss them when they left. I think they just wanted to know that someone would notice the empty space in a room where they had lived.
Clyde sang softly to himself sometimes, made you feel like you were in church and should maybe close your eyes and pray. He tiptoed around the outside of the shelter when we were closed because he didn't like to wander too far. It had been his home for 20 years. The only time he talked was when you asked him how he was doing. He would say wonderful. He never really said anything but that one word. He preferred Marlboro reds but would smoke anything. He was in the war and that's when he got crazy. At least that's what they say.
Kurt was lost. The first time he came into the shelter, he said he was on his way to somewhere but he couldn't remember where. He said there were people where he'd been who knew where he was going. But he couldn't remember where he'd been, either. And he'd always ask me, "Hey, do you remember where I was going?" And I'd say, "Uh, no, I never knew where you were going, Kurt. And I don't know where you've been. Are you sure you don't remember where you were going?" And he'd say, very annoyed, "If I could remember where I was, Sara, then I could go back and ask where I was going! Now, where exactly was I is the main question here!" We had this same conversation basically every night. Sometimes he'd jump up from his bed in the middle of the night and run into the TV room, pacing and talking loud. Listing places. Peoria. Springfield. No. Chicago. Chicago? No, not Chicago. Danville? Rantoul? No, no no! Eventually he'd wear himself out and fall asleep in the hard plastic chair near the phone. Maybe he was waiting. For a call on a pay phone in the middle of the night at a homeless shelter that would tell him where to go, or where it all began.
Edward had thrown a plate of spaghetti at someone. I can't remember why. But we had to kick him out, and the administrators said he wasn't allowed to come back until he went to the Mental Health Center to get his shot of Haldol. A few days later he walked back through the door. He looked at me too mildly. I knew he had gotten the shot. It seemed like they had given him a bigger dose than usual. Normally he would have made a sarcastic comment about my frizzy hair or about how the world sucked, or he would start asking everyone for a cigarette and then, when everyone in the room had refused, start asking all over again. But he was tipping over and stumbling like he was drunk. He stared at his arms and legs like they were someone else's. He said he didn't understand what was so wrong about him that we liked him better as a big lump of nothing than as his own true self. I started saying I'd try to find someplace that would give him counseling instead of these drugs. But as I spoke, his eyelids began to droop. A shiny stream of spit dripped down slowly onto his chin. He went blank, I sighed, and we both felt much less human.
A guy came into the shelter once wearing a green army coat with shiny pins and faded patches. He was carrying a bedroll and an old newspaper from somewhere else. After dinner he came up to the counter and delicately unfolded the newspaper. The newsprint was smudgy and the paper looked soft, well thumbed.
He pointed at a large picture in the center of the page. It was definitely him. The story was about how a famous actor was going to be playing him in the new movie Saving Private Ryan. He had been a general in World War II.
He was so proud. I told him that it was really amazing, quite an honor, very exciting. I watched as he limped from person to person, folding and unfolding the story, shyly grinning.
I wanted to ask him whether he thought it was fucked-up that these actors were making millions of dollars off of what he had done for his country. I wanted to ask him whether it disturbed him that he was spending tonight at a homeless shelter, while someone who pretended to be him in front of cameras had a mansion on a hill and could eat filet mignon every night of the week.
But I didn't ask, didn't tell. It seemed like the American way.
Most of the guys at the shelter knew that I was always writing about it. They saw me scribbling on napkins and stuffing them into my pockets. If they asked me what I had written, I'd tell them. I don't know what they'd think if they read this now. Some of them don't even know how to read. If they do read this, I don't know if they'll recognize themselves. I don't know if they'll be angry, proud, or bored. Maybe I've got it all wrong. In fact, I'm sure I do. I guess all I can do is write what I saw. My lens might be scratched but it's the only one I've got.
In 1998 it was decided that the shelter needed a new home. We were wearing out our welcome at the church. I knew we needed a change but I didn't trust the Mental Health Center to do it right. Ever since they had taken over, I had felt the humanity slowly draining from the building, draining from the air around me, draining somehow even from myself.
Finally we settled on a site for the new building. The nearby businesses were furious. They wanted us to build high fences around the shelter. They wanted foot patrols. They didn't want the shelter to accept men under the influence of drugs or alcohol. They wanted us to keep the men inside all hours of the day and night. The jewelry store owner suggested that we start a telemarketing company inside the shelter. That way the men could work but would never have to leave the building. That way they wouldn't be a threat to the community. The community is where we say we hope homeless people will end up. But we don't want them there until they're ready, and if the community has anything to say about it, they never will be.
Some people thought that a vacant lot on the northeast corner of Washington and Market would make a better location for the new shelter than the place we had picked. The place they wanted us to go was much closer to the middle of nowhere than the original site. A real estate company was willing to donate the land. It seemed to most of us that they were doing this to keep us away from their more desirable properties, but we were encouraged by our supervisors to appear grateful. I was told the city council said they would only give us the $300,000 we had requested for the shelter if we took the offer. I learned something back then: if you have money you get to decide not only where you will live but where everyone else will, too.
Before the new shelter was built, I left Champaign to go to graduate school in Chicago. My last night working at the shelter was strange. I wasn't sure how to feel about loving a place that so many of these men hated, about being sad to leave a place that they were all so desperate to get away from. It seemed impossible that a place for people who had nowhere to go could seem so much like home.
From what I could tell reading the newspapers in the few years after the new shelter was built, at first it was very popular. Too popular, according to some. It was bigger and cleaner. The food was better. Too many people were showing up. The businesspeople told the newspapers over and over again that their worst fears were coming true. They put pressure on the shelter to be more strict with the residents. They said they wanted to see a quality program that really helped homeless people. What I think they really wanted was to make the place so miserable and disgusting that all the homeless people would fly south for the winter and never come back.
Last October I decided to go see the new place for myself. I called and signed up to volunteer for a couple of days. I took an evening train down to Champaign and hopped a cab to the shelter. When I walked inside it was practically empty. Somehow I knew that it wasn't because everyone had finally found a home.
There were mats on the floor instead of cots. I asked a staff member about it and he said they switched to mats so that people would no longer be able to store food and other stuff under the cots when their lockers were full. I noticed a television screen behind the counter where the staff stood. It was showing images caught by video cameras in various places in the shelter. There was a piece of cardboard along one side of the monitor, I guess to keep the residents from seeing which parts of the shelter the staff could see on the screen.
The staff members told me hardly anyone was staying at the shelter anymore because of a new system that involved setting goals for personal improvement. People who didn't make progress on their goals within 30 days were out. The staff didn't know where everyone had gone. I wanted to ask them how good their program could really be if its main component was putting people back out on the same streets that they came in here seeking refuge from. I wanted to ask if they really believed that 30 days was long enough for anyone on this planet to start to turn their entire life around. In the office I saw a sign that said, "Get all promises in writing."
There are new rules now. No visitors. You must get a note from your employer to sleep during the day. Too bad for you if you get fired when he finds out you're homeless. Lockers are subject to search at any time. Towels must be signed out. If you don't keep good hygiene you will be banned until you have showered and washed your clothes. If you do not do your chores you will be banned for 30 days. If you litter you will be banned for 24 hours. If you do not take your medications as prescribed you will be banned until you no longer present a risk. If you panhandle anywhere in the city you will be banned for 30 days. If you do not make progress on your goals you will be banned for 30 days.
I didn't recognize most of the people I saw. I was surprised that now more than half of them were white. Before, it had usually been about 10 white guys out of 60. I saw this guy I knew, and he caught me up on how some people from the old days were doing. Most everyone he mentioned had been forced to leave because of the new 30-days-and-you're-out rule. Some had moved to different states. Some had been forced to live with family members who were no good for them, or with their drug dealers. Some were in jail. Others had disappeared altogether. It didn't sound like anyone was happier or healthier or any better off. It didn't sound like anything had changed but their addresses.
I asked what he thought of the new place. He said the food was better and he liked the new director, but the program didn't seem to be working too well. He said the staff and residents don't seem to have fun together anymore like we used to in the old days. Now it's against the rules to play dominoes, and the volunteers never stay for dinner. They just serve the soup and leave.
One of the staff members gave an orientation to new residents. He talked quickly, like an auctioneer--so fast I could barely understand. He handed out a list of rules typed in tiny, faded print on legal-size paper. I could tell that some of the men did not know how to read.
The new director was friendly. She took me to the Eastern Illinois Food Bank and we picked up about 20 bags of sugar. Some things hadn't changed. On the way to the food bank the new director told me that she had been thinking about starting some in-house jobs programs for guys who had trouble working in the community. She was considering starting a business where the guys could rent or buy portable oil-change machines and walk around changing people's oil. She also thought about opening a workshop where residents would make squeaky pet toys. And she was hoping the university would help her carry out her favorite idea--to have the shelter residents plan and run a Renaissance fair in Champaign. I tried to picture the guys as minstrels and knights but couldn't do it.
While I was visiting, I scheduled a meeting with the mayor, Gerald Schweighart. He was one of two city council members who voted against giving the Mental Health Center the $300,000 that they wanted for the new place. At our meeting, the mayor admitted that the shelter hadn't had the negative impact that everyone feared. However, he hoped the program wouldn't get too big or too successful because then people would start coming from miles around just to be homeless in his town. When I asked him what he thought the homelessness situation in Champaign would be like in 20 years, he looked at me incredulously and said, "That's your problem."
The mayor remembered when the shelter first opened at the old location. He had been a policeman then. He remembered when the law passed that said drunk people could no longer be incarcerated. Before that he liked to pick up drunks on the street, lock them up for the night, and then make them wash the squad cars in the morning before he let them go. After the law got passed and the new shelter opened, there was no one to wash the cars.
On the last night of my visit to the shelter, I served dinner. I saw John walk in the door. He looked at me once but didn't seem to recognize me. I figured he had forgotten who I was. When he got up to the dinner line, he looked at me again and said "Hey, Sara" in a flat, dull voice. As if he had seen me every day for the past few years. As if I had never left. As if nothing at all had changed.
* The names of shelter residents have been changed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Lloyd Miller.