He's heading home
He’s heading home

A homeless shelter holds different personality types.  There are people living there due to fires and floods; others due to job loss; still others due to personality disorders.  The shelter is a microcosm of society that keeps Joy on her toes and fascinated.

The Shift Supervisor’s Office door is where clients visit to get their toiletries, authorized Metrocards, or borrow the clothes irons. They come to request a dormitory re-opened to get dressed for work or an interview, request a packed lunch or have their dinner saved.  One of the cheerful faces in the crowd is Matt.  Matt is a medium height, string bean of a young man.  He’s a white man from Alabama who has kept the southern charm.

Matt doesn’t seem to be an operator. He seems to be genuinely a good-natured guy. The residents with whom he associates are the quieter ones. Matt tends to spend his days away from the shelter. It turns out he was going to work after weeks of job hunting.

Good morning, ma’am.  May I get a toothbrush and tooth paste, please?”

“Sure thing…here you go.”

“Thanks and have a good day.”

In the summer and fall months,  Matt was a regular visitor to Ms. Davis’ desk.  They’d talk amiably and he’d either give papers to her or give her oral status on his effort to obtain the documents Ms. Davis needed to complete his general population housing application.  Ms. Owens also had words with him because she arranged chest examinations and he keeps missing them. 

Now Matt, if you want housing through us, you have to prove you don’t have TB.  Why do you keep missing the appointment?  It doesn’t hurt,” she said with a wink.

“Ma’am, I just keep forgetting the date.  With all the job hunting and now the job, it gets busy. Schedule me this one last time and I’ll make it.  I’ll talk to my boss when I go in today.” 

Okay.”

The day came when Matt is standing in front of the Shift Supervisor’s door because he is checking out of the facility.  He needs to complete the last bit of paperwork with Helen.  He has his keys to his new home.  Matt walks into the inner office to say goodbye to Davis, Owens, & Joy.  Ms. Davis says her usual last line: “Don’t take this the wrong way but I don’t ever want to see you again.”  Matt understands completely and chuckles as he walks out of the office.

Now if he can be gone for six months, we can count him as a successful move-out.”

“Oh, so six months is the milestone?” asks Joy.  Her question is ignored.  Rather, Davis is chatting merrily with Owens about Matt.  Joy is used to the behavior and understands it to be a method to “shutter” housing program procedures.  But how can it work when the three sit in the same room?

A most challenging case is Douglas.  Douglas is a young veteran of the Afghanistan war.  Originally from Vermont, he is discharged with a psychological diagnosis.  Joy doesn’t understand why the man isn’t in a VA Hospital or transferred to a shelter designated for Armed Forces veterans. 

He wears the same clothes daily and walks stooped over, somewhat dragging himself.  His straight hair is stringy from not washing or combing it.  Joy has passed him on the street during breaks.  Douglas is given to shouting obscenities.  He complains about “the niggers”.  Joy wonders is this complaint actually a death wish?  Is Douglas hoping he can get some black men to beat him to a pulp?

Being the link between families and clients.

Ms. Davis has developed a relationship with Douglas’ mother.   She calls from Vermont to learn how her son is doing.  Ms. Davis indulges her because she’s gone through her trials with her own son.  Ms. Murphy, Douglas’ mother, gets so worked up on the phone that she cries.  Douglas was discharged and sent home to Vermont.  His parents tried to keep him at home but, he beat his father so badly that they had to turn him out. “We just couldn’t trust him in the house.  We didn’t know  when the fury would be released.”

One day in November, Douglas is taken by ambulance to a 28-day detoxification program.  He calls the shelter to give his release date.  It is Joy who takes the call. She writes a message for distribution to the Social Service Director, his Case Manager, and Shift Supervisor.  When Flo Davis returns to the office, Joy describes the call:

Douglas called to tell us his release date from the detox program.  I’ve already distributed the message to the right people.  Davis, I couldn’t believe that it was Douglas on the phone?”

“What do you mean?”

“It sounded like a different man.  He spoke clearly and he seemed calm.”

“That’s what drugs do to people–a different personality comes out.”

“How long do you think it’ll last.”

“I don’t know…so many slip back.  I’ll call his mother.”

Soon after Douglas returns from detox–and back to using–Matt returns to the shelter.  Neither Big Cheez nor Juliet want his return to be easy.  First, Juliet talks to Matt in the Shift Supervisor’s Office:

“Matt, you’ve been gone for four months.  What brought you back here?”

“Well ma’am, the conditions were very bad there.”

“What do you mean?  The property manager inspects all units before a placement.  You’re saying here is better than your own place?”

“Ma’am, it started off okay but then my studio mate started using crack.  I was trying to save to get a room of my own but, I couldn’t take the smell.  That’s all I need is to get on crack.”

“I will need to get proof of what you’re saying.  I’ll get Mr. Casa to visit the place. Big Cheez wants to have a word with you.”

“If he wants to see me now, may I be excused?”

“Yes, please go to his office now.”

Matt underwent Big Cheez’s interrogation and he said the same as Juliet:

 “I’ll have Mr. Casa investigate the living conditions where you left.  In the mean time, you’ll be assigned a bed if one is available.  You know that won’t happen until after 10 pm.  Bed count moved from 8 pm to 10 pm.” 

“Thank you, sir.  I don’t intend to stay here long.  I’m looking for a higher paying job.  When I get it, I’ll save and make time to look for a place on my own.”

“That sounds good.  The Social Service Director will keep me posted.  You know we don’t like clients leaving good housing.”

“I understand, sir”

Joy notices, in the following days and weeks, that Matt asks for her help.  First, it is revising his resume; then it is asking for particular jobs to be posted on the bulletin board. Matt works his southern charm and kindness.  “But you can only be but so kind in this place,”  Joy ponders.  “People will test whether you’re kind or weak here.” 

One cold Friday, late December, Joy is hurrying down the street to reach the bus stop for home.  It is close to 9 pm and she goes vigilant when she notices a hunched figure lurching along the sidewalk. They pass one another going in opposite directions.  It is Douglas.  Douglas hasn’t been in the shelter in days.  Joy promises herself to tell Ms. Davis, Monday, about this chance encounter with Douglas. 

That Monday, Davis is busy looking at the PC screen and Joy is completing Client Interaction Updates when she remembers Douglas.

“Ms. Davis, I saw Douglas on the street Friday night.  We passed each other near the hamburger haven people insist on going to….”

“You saw Douglas?  How was he?”

“His usual: bent over and lurching along.  I wonder where he’s keeping himself.  I was so cold and it was dark that I kept walking to my bus stop.”

“Well, he’s staying somewhere in the area, if you saw him at that time of night in this cold. I’m calling his mother.”

Matt and Douglas are two distinct lives.  One is from New England; the other, Dixieland.  What they have in common is time spent at the same shelter.  Several weeks after Joy sees Douglas on the street, there is a news story about a young white man that jumped from a bridge to end his life. The identification on him indicates he was a veteran.  The newscaster withholds his name pending contact with his family who reside in another state.  At the shelter, it is confirmed that it is Douglas’ body.  Ms. Davis says, “I’m going to have to call his mother.  I just need a day before calling.”

Matt continues to work his plan.  He asks Joy will she give him access to her PC which she permits.  He has a bank transaction to complete with his family.  Afterward, Matt says, “It’s important to keep good relations with your family.”  He gets a job at Integral Yoga starting in receiving and stocking.  He returns to meeting Ms. Davis for housing assistance.  Since his housing application is completed, it is a matter of getting scheduled for housing tours.

One day in the hallway, Matt stops Joy to ask her advice about running to a situation that pays but brings problems. 

“Are the problems worth the money?  You’ll probably get fed up and leave. Isn’t there a good situation that pays well too?”

“So, if I find a good situation and the money is good, you think I should go for it?”

“I thinks so but I don’t know the specifics.”

“That’s okay.  You’ve helped me.”

Matt moves out weeks after that conversation.  He may reach the six-month milestone this time.

Getting Your Own Keys chronicles the professional odyssey of Joy Duggins, a resourceful and encouraging service provider in a Central Brooklyn men’s homeless shelter.  It gives a peek into NYC homeless services procedures and much workplace drama.
What’s the goal of providing temporary emergency shelter?  Getting Your Own Keys

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of BK Reader.

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Akosua Albritton

Akosua is a communicator who loves to inform, engage, and enable her fellow New Yorkers. You may find her in a classroom, in an auditorium, or on a city street teaching the social sciences. Her favorite...

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