“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”
This excerpt is from, “The Karamazov Brothers”, one of my favorite books. Dostoyevsky stands as one of the most psychologically discerning writers of all time. While the story’s depiction of dissenting human nature and morality is magnificent, each character grabs your attention and demands compassion. I hadn’t read the book until after staying at a homeless shelter, yet its insight fits perfectly with this blog’s subject matter.
5 years ago I briefly wandered the U.S. in hopes to see the world in a different light. I wanted to view the world through a vagrant’s eyes, to experience the world as one who travels not for pleasure, but contingency.
This led me to ventures both pleasant and distressing. Though looking back I suppose that was the goal. Some weeks into the trip, I wondered if it was possible to find free room and board as I was trying to stretch my savings.
I cannot recall the line of thoughts leading me to the shelter’s doors, but there I was. After explaining my situation to the worker, they took my photo for an i.d. and told me the shelter’s rules. These included:
- No drugs or alcohol on location
- Maximum stay is 2 weeks unless you can show proof of job application
- Mandatory hour long prayer service each day
- Lights out at 8:30 p.m.
Keep in mind it was my choice to stay. For many this was not, and is not, the case. That being said, here is what I learned while staying at a homeless shelter:
- It is Possible to Have Less Than Nothing
This “nothing” goes beyond debt. This “nothing” represents the lack of purpose and/or the loss of hope.
Born into a loving family, I was raised in a safe house in a safe neighborhood and with plenty to eat. There could not have been a more fortunate upbringing. What I’ve learned of misery came from books, movies, news, etc. Rarely had I experienced the suffering that exists in the world directly.
After roaming the shelter for 10 minutes I sat down and began playing guitar. An elderly woman sat next to me. She listened and then started conversation. She told me her story, mainly of the hard times and why she was there. Some details were difficult to keep straight as she seemed confused or said contradictory statements. However, I’ll always remember the elation she had just from having someone to talk to. She had been in and out of shelters for at least 10 years.
How rich can life be with nothing and with no one? How to cope with these conditions? For some it’s an inescapable spiral of loneliness (more on this later). What is life when there’s nothing achievable beyond survival, with no reason to get out of bed?
From those I spoke to, I saw their joy to have a listening ear, the joy to have made a connection. There was a yearning for rapport, for recognition instead of rejection. After all, connection is what we all seek, right?
- This Way of Life is Adaptable
How is it humans adapt to so the many situations? We stick through demoralizing jobs, bad living conditions, or loveless relationships. Sure we reject stressors, but many “become one” with the burden and seemingly live with it. Familiar stress becomes routine, even though it may be harmful to one’s health.
No one’s dream is to spend their life in a shelter, but with the passing of time, one can get used to just about anything.
The means are not ideal, but routine can bring acquiescence. Most familiar stress comes from the obligatory tasks performed for food and shelter. When obtained, stressful circumstances are more likely to be accepted. A homeless shelter’s conditions are not optimal, but habit can take over and increase the inertia to change one’s lifestyle.
- The Crippling Effect of Loneliness
We’ve all experienced loneliness but not everyone has encountered its debilitating effects. Homeless shelters are viewed in a similar way as Leper colonies. Most of society looks away, hoping someone else will fix the problem.
Again, most inhabitants have nothing and no one. Sure they’re around other people, but this does not necessarily help the forlorn. Some encouragement is given in the mandatory prayer service, which I admit was a powerful experience. However, more help is needed to alleviate despair.
8:30 p.m. came and the lights were turned off. I found myself sliding into a weird sort of depression, as though it was contagious. I felt confusion, bleakness, and a shift in self-esteem. All of this in spite of knowing I’d be leaving. Moreover, all of this in spite of knowing I could leave.
- More Services are Needed
Of those who are in a homeless shelter, it’s assumed they stay temporarily until they find a new residence and/or job. Shelters house those in hard times, but the majority need more than a job.
Every individual has a story to tell. Forgotten is the fact that each case is different. Shelters are havens for the mentally ill, veterans, outcasts, disabled, and addicts. Free lodging for them is great, but it cannot repair such a wide range of maladies.
Too often the mentally ill get tossed into a shelter instead of receiving proper care. If one cannot perform basic daily functions, how can they be expected to leave the shelter and contribute to society? Ignorance does not bring bliss. A blind eye does not fix the problem.
On the other hand, being physically able does not necessarily make one capable of holding employment. These problems require more solution than just a meal and a roof. This work is beyond the expertise of the staff.
The problem has been dismissed for too long. As always, awareness and education are the answers. We must view the problem on a wider scale, considering the factors that cause homelessness and address them in a holistic manner.
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