A bunch of us from our church went down to a Mustard Seed location last night to pitch in for a few hours. For those uninitiated, the Mustard Seed (in Calgary, anyway) is a non-profit Christian organization that provides a variety of things for homeless people in Calgary: food, shelter, job training, and even transition housing depending on the situation. It’s a ministry that’s more focused on the needs, from what I’ve seen and know.
There was 10 in our group, and four different areas that we were assigned to help out: A clothing “store”, soap/towel distribution and laundry, a computer room, and a locker area. Our group was assisting a skeleton staff in keeping things running for the evening, for a large shelter area (made from an old warehouse) that held 400 people. I don’t know how many people they had on staff there, but it couldn’t have been that many more than our group in all.
I ended up in the locker area with two others, helping run that.
It was, to me, a reasonable system for a volunteer group: You check a person in, confirming their name against a list of people with assigned lockers. Then someone else with keys (a volunteer or staff) goes and opens their locker, and locks it up when they’re done.
As a bus of people had arrived from downtown at the same time as us, our team was thrown into the fire with a lineup after the staff member quickly showed us the ropes- I started checking off people, while Karen and Micky were the runners, opening up lockers in a row for the people staying at the shelter (those who had lockers, anyway- going through the list, there were 400 there, with a handful empty or with broken locks).
About twenty minutes in, we had survived the initial rush, and had some time to breathe.
With how the converted warehouse was set up, we had an interesting vantage point from the upper level where we were, opened into the bottom: We could see the eating area on the left, constantly crowded with people eating or playing games. On the right, a sleeping area, with gym mats spaced out, some folks dozing off for an evening nap or reading or buried in blankets. Micky and I picked out a game of Yahtzee at one point.
Idle conversation with my fellow volunteers was tough- well, it was for me. The people staying at the shelter were polite for the most part- the moods no more or less varied than you’d get in a crowd at Chinook on Saturday, though it tended to swing more male than that crowd might. There was one memorable guy who was trying to convince me he’d figured out the financial system (and that I “seemed smart enough to get on it”), which I only indulged to the point that he would let the line through. Karen remarked on how patient and upbeat I was with people, which I credited my bank training with. I meet new people every day- difference here is, I wasn’t wearing a suit and tie.
We had our system down pretty quick, and we were even issuing blank lockers, which seemed to be a popular item once word got out that we could. Outside of the initial rush, the people came and went, with some folks coming and going back, once they’d done laundry or showered or eaten, or any of that.
Each station had a walkie-talkie, as did all of the staff, who were identified by the bright yellow shirts they wore. We never used ours except to monitor any chatter- apparently their code word for an emergency was adding “now” to anything, which seemed to Micky and myself as perhaps not the greatest one to use, given how easily it could slip into random chatter.
At one point, something from the walkie-talkie got our attention, mentioning that a staff member needed to come up and clean out one of the lockers- number 178. We wondered for a moment if we needed to do anything, but I surmised that they’d asked for a staff member to do it, not one of the volunteers.
Shortly, a yellow shirt came by with a garbage bag, following up on the chatter on the comm, and left a few minutes with the bag full, and the locker (presumably) empty.
The locker system there is additionally interesting in that it’s not really a storage unit- you have to check-in on your locker at least once a week, or you lose the privilege of having one. It makes sense for a temporary shelter to have a system like that- with limited space, you need to make the best use of what you’ve got, and encourage the idea that being in the shelter IS temporary. There were some with notes like “hold until this date” or “someone else has access”, but once someone was there, you checked off that they’d been there that day, and let them through.
After the staff member left, it was Karen who asked what all three of us had to be thinking: “What do you think happened to him?” and went on with speculating on what it might be.
We didn’t say much then. But it was hard for me to not wonder- not just about the man in locker 178, but all the people I saw that night. As I mentioned, it was a fairly normal cross-section of people- young, middle-aged and old, men and women (swinging more towards men, whether intentionally or not), and people having good days, mediocre days, and bad days. Seeing one young couple several times was heartbreaking to me- couldn’t have been more than early twenties, but they were putting a brave face on things.
What were their stories? What brought them here? Were they me once, young and hoping and wondering and uncertain? Would they be me, in a different life? How many were there by circumstance, or luck, or by their own making? How many thanked God that they were alive, or cursed Him to be in that situation? It had a way of making struggles with moods or work or women seem arbitrary and useless. Perspective is a great, great thing. I know I have it good. It helped to be reminded of that.
It was Elaine who, after our group had finished, knowing how busy it had been even with our supplementary help manning a few different spots, had asked: “Do you do this every night?”
The gal who’d gotten us set up- whose name eludes me- nodded, with a smile born of both strain and bravery, as if trying to assure us that it was fine, even when it wasn’t, really. I already admire people who give of their time to help with these kind of ministries, who do it as their life, knowing that it is an uphill battle, always stretching and pushing for more with less.
Elaine seemed shocked. I felt my heart go out to the staff, though I’d already known what the answer would be before our de-facto supervisor had replied. They depend so much on donations and volunteers at any kind of street ministry, so our being there was mostly a bonus.
“You can’t possibly,” Elaine continued, awed by the response. “You can’t.”
“We rotate stations,” the gal replied, explaining, her smile thinner, her eyes tired. “Do what we can, but some nights…”
There were grave nods, pursed lips around the room, and we didn’t ask further. Her insinuation only added to the overpowering reality we’d seen, made the odds seem even larger for not just the homeless, but for those trying to help.
She thanked us for our help, noting that several people staying at the shelter had commented on how polite we were, and how quickly we’d picked up on everything- not all the volunteers did, apparently.
I- like most of our group- was somber when we left. Glad for being able to help for a short time on a hard evening, but also struck by staring into the face of poverty and hurt, rows and rows of lockers and gym mats and people crowded into the dining room. Seeing so much from our vantage point in the upper level, sitting at the desk checking off people going to their lockers, is something that will stay with me. It has to stay with me. I can’t let myself be forced back into a comfortable cynicism, ignoring how much there is to do out there, even in a supposedly well-off city like ours.
That was three hours, in one evening that we saw. The back-and-forth, people coming and going, having good and bad and mediocre days, and whoever had once had locker 178 but no longer did. How many more are there out there? It’s a sobering thought.