It’s often been said that many of us are only one or two paychecks away from being homeless and that’s very clear in GFC-stricken USA.

Millions of people are unemployed, rents are high and even people with jobs can no longer afford to make ends meet.

In the past, many of these people would have turned to their family for help, but now, their family members may be homeless too. This report in the Huffington Postsuggests the problem is about to get much worse.

The official statistics for New York City are sobering.

The census taken on December 9, 2011, records 23,061 adults and 16,726 children were homeless. There are many people who weren’t counted.

I’ve been volunteering for a homeless shelter in Manhattan for the past couple of months.

We work in pairs. If one of us fails to turn up, the shelter closes for the night and our guests have nowhere to sleep. I do feel the responsibility.

The term ‘shelter’ is a bit of a misnomer. It is a church hall in which we set up cots and heat and serve a meal prepared by another volunteer and brought in from home. The hall is clean enough but there is no shower, little heat and many mice. We provide a weekly change of sheets and a towel and a meal.

Only a street away my own family sleeps in heated comfort.

It is so little, yet in all the years I have worked in human service jobs I have never received so much appreciation.

 width=Our guests thank us excessively for everything. And they are so concerned for the comfort of us volunteers.

They are keen to share their meal with us. They worry that we won’t be comfortable and won’t have privacy because we sleep in the same room and on the same cots as they do. It is only when I explain that several centuries ago I had been in the army reserve they are satisfied I will be ok.

They need to give to us too so they can feel worthwhile.

Our group are all women. The expected mix of sinners and saints you find in any group. Some are well, others ill. Some quiet, others bolshie. Only one was drunk last night but we chose to ignore that (although it is against the rules) as sending her away meant she would be outdoors all night.


There are naturally tensions as you would expect in any group competing for resources. Sometimes they are verbally cruel to each other in that peculiar way females are but mostly they look out for one another. They love my accent and I am subject to lots of good-natured teasing. They ask lots of questions about Australia and being intelligent and articulate they enjoy a good political discussion.

In fact most of them are better informed about the world than many other New Yorkers I have met.

We have a lot in common too. We certainly agree about the inflexibility of the local New York bureaucrats. They just love my stories about settling in here and have plenty of stories of their own struggles but with far more serious consequences.

They are all ages from very young to post retirement. The reasons they are here are varied and complicated. But their backgrounds are not exactly as you might expect.

Some have failed marriages or have bravely left violent or dangerous situations. Some  made bad financial decisions. Others in poorly paid jobs were overwhelmed by the cost of living. Poor health and no insurance lead to unemployment and insurmountable debt.

Many of them have degrees and a fair few were previously employed in the ‘safe’ financial and IT sectors.

After losing their jobs they lived on savings, until they ran out. And so it goes on…

Then came the eviction notices. Most of them lost everything in their apartments. There is no where to store it.

What they do seem to have in common is a belief this could not happen to them. But it did.

We are all only a pay or two away from being in the same boat.

So we set up cots and dining tables and do our very best to make it look inviting and homey. But of course it isn’t home. Home isn’t a room full of strangers.

We try to keep it as dignified as possible as we tick off the manifest and explain the rules (this is NYC, there has to be lots of rules!). If an extra person arrives that is not on the manifest we are allowed to feed them but then we have to turn them away. This is very hard but accepted by the rejected with grace and dignity.

But our real work is to listen. While some just curl up in balls as soon as they have eaten, others need to talk until lights out. The conversation may be about general events but often they are keen to share their story.  They are teaching me a great deal about perseverance and human ingenuity.

Homelessness is hard work.

There are numerous visits to social workers and case officers. Finances are a constant dilemma. Even the homeless need soap and a new toothbrush occasionally. Accommodating  basic monthly feminine needs is a challenge.

The drop-in centers do their best and offer a range of services but resources are tight. It is first come first served. At least in NYC emergency health care is available through hospitals but dental care is non existent.


Each day meals have to be sourced. There is enough food, but healthy food? Now that’s harder. Public toilets are few and far between and filthy (I can vouch for that!). Showers are impossible. One lass still has her gym membership (soon to expire) so leaves us for the gym and a shower before work.

I did evoke a laugh when discussing the importance of wearing thongs in public showers. They are flip flops here. Thongs are something entirely different!

Laundry is possible given the numerous laundromats but expensive. Another lass has calculated it is cheaper to purchase ‘new’ clothes from thrift shops so she wears each set until filthy then disposes of them. She says it also saves her lugging around a case all day.

Those cases. For many all that is left of a lifetime of work and memories.

Small, crammed full of treasures and carried all day long as there is nowhere to store them. It is interesting to see what we keep when we have nothing. There were many photos.

The cases were sad but what struck me the most was that last tenuous hold on being female. Despite the absence of showers, in the morning the girls get up and wash at the basin and primp and pluck wanting to look their very best like woman everywhere. One young lass spent her last money on a manicure yesterday. Frivolous, maybe. But she just wanted to feel clean and decent again. I get that.

In caring for herself in this way she reclaims her humanity.

And each night the struggle to find a bed. And most shelters are only open between January and April. That’s a lots of cold months left either sleeping outdoors or in a chair.

And you have to qualify for that bed too. That means complying with any program requirement. Otherwise it is a chair at the intake center. For some, often the mentally ill, it is all too much. Collapsing on a subway grate or traveling the subway all night is the answer. At least it’s warmer.

And our guests are very concerned about the welfare of their subway friends, even describing themselves as lucky (in comparison.)

At 10pm it is lights out. Everyone settles quickly. They know they need their sleep. They can’t afford for fatigue to affect their job if they have one and if they don’t they need their strength to get through the day.

There are the usual human snores and grunts and farts, and the occasional sob into a pillow, the sufferer having absolutely no privacy in which to express their personal sorrow.

Us volunteers are allowed to sleep, so we nap with one ear open.

We take our responsibilities for the safety and welfare of our group seriously. All the years of night feeds and nursing shifts have prepared me well for this task.

I am the newbie on the team so I take the opportunity for a quiet chat to learn from an old hand. My partner last night, a warm and dignified man, has been a volunteer for 20 years “because it is the Lord’s work”. He tells me that in that time he has never had a problem with a guest or had to call 911. He says they know there are no second chances if they blow it. Sobering.

I have had more problems with my well-heeled, well-fed private practice clients.

It is an early start. Up at 5.30am. There is no need to dress as everyone sleeps in their clothes so a quick wash and that all-important primp and then breakfast. (If there is any. We have lost funding so it really depends on what we can bring in.) After eating we all pitch in and clean up. Getting everyone involved is one way we try to give them a sense of control.

The bus comes for them at 6am. Another long day with little hope but as they leave I tell them this is one job where I hope not to see them again anytime soon. They all laugh at that as they stuff their pockets with any left-over food.

But most of them will be there next week.


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