Being elderly in a shelter
Being elderly in a shelter

There’s an African proverb that states, “The shrieking of children at play is the music of old age.”  Imagine being under a tree in the warmth of an African village.  Warmed by the sun and warmed by the care your family and neighbors shine on you because you’re just you at that age. You’re a venerable elder, a walking and talking repository of knowledge.  Pretty wonderful, after working hard as a fisherman, tailor, or banker and giving to people what they need, your social security is your family.

Do you think the US government ought to set up special relations with various West African nations to care for elders of African descent in towns and villages there?  Even with the lowest Social Security monthly check for each willing elder, that person would live extremely well in a West African village.  One big issue would be the younger women flocking to these septuagenarians seeking wedlock: “I beg you, Nana, please marry me, oh!”  The average older New Yorker on a fixed income can only hope for a thirty-something to smile as she rushes by to work or play.

Now picture the homeless old one who’s gotten into a shelter.  He’s out of the wind, assigned a bed; can bathe daily, wash his clothes, and has three aluminum trays a day.  This is far better than living rough on the streets wearing layers of jackets to stay warm and to build up a smell to ward off the rats.  In a shelter, you have scheduled activities in which you may choose to participate.  Many shelters have cable TV.  Yes, it’s much better than living rough and warding off rats.  Does the lucid older homeless shelter client reflect on his life and see the turns in his path that lead to where he is sitting presently?  Where is he sitting?  Is he in a huge rec area/cafeteria playing cards, snoozing, or talking with other elders?  Is he sitting on a park bench under a tree?  Is he walking in the morning light, pulling a shopping cart as he hunts for bottles and cans?

The Housing Specialist is responsible for finding permanent housing for him.  The housing may be NYC Housing Authority senior housing, a nursing & rehabilitation facility, or shared housing.  It may take weeks or months for the move-out.  Some people may become impatient with the waiting period.  Adult shelters are comprised of young, mature, and elder clients.  Elders have little tolerance of the antics of young clients who want to argue, “front”, “sell wolf tickets” and overall blow off steam.

Miss Joy, may I have a word with you, please?

Of course, Mr. Tyler.  What’s the matter?

Miss Joy, I’m on the waiting list for the Jefferson Senior Towers, uptown.  Will you write a letter for me to ask where I am on the waiting list?

Mr. Tyler, you know I’m the Vocational Program Coordinator.  Ms. Davis  and Ms. Owens handle housing?  Have you asked either lady?

Yes, I have.  They want me to forget about the Jefferson Senior Towers and wait on another housing program they want to put me in.  But, I believe in having options.  The one that opens up first is the one I want to take.

I understand that.  I don’t want to be caught in the middle of a struggle.  Do you understand?  Have you asked Ms. Owens or Ms. Davis for this letter?

Yes.  It’s already a month ago and Ms. Owens hasn’t done the letter.  I figure since you’re good at writing cover letters and resumes, writing my letter would be easy.  What do you say, Miss Joy? Help me leave as soon as possible to a decent place.

Okay,  I’ll help you.  I’ll draft the letter for Ms. Owens’ handling.  If it sits too long with her.  I’ll print another copy, have you sign it, and put in the mailbox.


Joy, to her word, drafts a two-paragraph letter to the key decision makers at the NYC Housing Authority responsible for that building.  She talks to Ms. Owens about Mr. Tyler’s concerns and hands her the letter so that Owens follows through. What Joy witnesses Owens do, after Joy is seated in front of her workstation, is push the letter into her top drawer and return to whatever she’s doing.  The following week, she approaches Mr. Tyler to ask about Ms. Owens and the letter:

Miss Joy, I thought you forgot about my request.  No, Ms. Owens hasn’t shown me the letter and I checked in with her a couple of days ago in the office y’all sit in.

Hmmm.  Mr. Tyler, I’ll print another copy of the letter and print an envelope now.  I’ll be back a minute to go over the letter with you; then you sign, and I’ll walk to the corner to drop it in the mailbox.

As Joy walks down the hall to her office, she wonders why would Ms. Owens stall on this?  Why not allow the elder to have his options?  He was here when she first started the job and that is ten months ago.  But Joy does not want to interfere in other people’s work so she’s resolved not to help another client in this matter.  She has plenty to do with preparing clients for interviews, attending Community Partner meetings, and posting job openings.  Thinking about  the end of the work day, her mind flies to her garden box in the community garden: Yes, there’s nothing like nature, pulling weeds, and watering my box to boost my energy.

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 opinions, content and/or information in this article are those of the author and are independent of BK Reader.

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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