OPINION | Handy-dandy guide to surviving a homeless shelter


More and more it’s less the usual clients in homeless shelters—chronic ex-cons, shiftless drifters, drug dealers and such—added to this mix these days are legitimate folk, regular men and women—some may even have jobs—who lost their home because they just don’t pull down enough scratch to make end’s meet. After all, it’s hard to pay even affordable rents (considering what passes for affordable) much less electricity, a phone (which is no longer a luxury) and, even if you supplement with charity pantries and soup kitchens, that little, indispensable thing called food.

So, there they are, flat on their behinds in somebody’s facility. What they are also in is an environment they don’t know and one that the veteran homeless know like the back of their hands, especially those who’ve opted to make homeless shelters a lifestyle, instead of a place from which to eventually rejoin the world. And in the Twin Cities, where there’s practically as many shelters as there are Dunn Bros. coffee shops, it’s not impossible to make homelessness a way of life, moving from one place to another each time the allotted staying time runs out, revolving in the system until they return to the first place and go through the process all over again. And, again. Folks who do this, to all intents and purposes living on the street, have developed the heartless cunning of sharks with a comparable, single-minded appetite for victims. Citizens who fall through society’s cracks and wind up in this world are, well, shark food. If you wind up in this predicament, it’d help to have a Handy Dandy Guide To Surviving In A Homeless Shelter. They don’t give you one at the front desk, though, along with toothpaste and fresh linen. So, I’ve drafted one, a rule of thumb checklist, that works (I know it does, because it’s how yours truly made it through the old Drake Hotel when it was a shelter back in ‘92).

1) Mind your business. Don’t go around trying to make nice-nice and, for God’s sake (and your own sake), never stick your nose in somebody else’s conversation. Not even innocently. The friends you’re trying to make likely can’t wait to gain your trust so they can fleece you of whatever you may have worth stealing. Inviting yourself into a conversation is an excellent way to embroil yourself in an argument with some malcontent dying for an excuse to cave someone’s face in. Yours will do just as well as anybody else’s. Note: if staff come around asking about some incident that took place, I don’t care if it happened right under your nose, you don’t know a thing. You think nobody liked a tattle-tale back in grade school?

Try it here and you’ll wake up in a hospital bed. If you’re lucky.

2) Hide your money and jewelry. For that matter, don’t wear any nicer clothing than necessary. You got a suede or leather jacket, leave it with a friend. You don’t got a friend, sell the damn thing at the pawn shop, because sure as you’re born, unless you sleep in it, someone is going to snatch it. They may wake you up with a knife at your throat and take it, anyway. If nobody knows you have money or jewelry, that considerably decreases—but doesn’t eliminate—the chances they’ll rob you of it. For crying out loud, never leave footwear laying around. If you have shoes put them under your pillow at night. Veterans are constantly wearing out shoe leather and will feel entitled to yours.

3) Resources. Find out where Sharing & Caring Hands is. It’s a food and clothing shelf, a clearinghouse for social services assistance and the best soup kitchen in Minneapolis. Folk get herded in like cattle, but it’s about getting help. And you’ll get it there (last I heard, there’s even free dental care). Find out where the other tramp camps are, too, places like The Salvation Army, Charity House and so on. You can probably get a list at Sharing & Caring Hands (better known as Mary Jo’s—as in the nationally profiled Mary Jo Copeland).

4) Communication. It’s common for shelters to provide telephone usage and, sometimes, access to voicemail. Use the phone to stay reasonably in touch with the world, i.e. any friends and family, but, importantly, prospective em-ployers. Yeah, I know, job hunting is a joke with unemployment rising like hot air in a balloon, but if you don’t at least try, the laugh (a mirthless one) is on you.

5) Get out. Fast as you can. It’s not easy, true. But, like somebody once said: the difficult we do first, the impossible takes a little longer. No matter how bleak your situation is, it’ll get worse each day you stay shelter-bound. If you have a job, look into renting a furnished room somewhere. If you don’t have a job, bust your butt looking for one. Permanent gig, temp job, whatever. You can’t find opportunity if you ain’t at least looking for it.

So, that’s the skinny. Have the common sense God gave a goose and keep in mind that the best aid comes from helping yourself.