My wife and I had the privilege to volunteer through our church to help out the Servants of Shelter program here in Bemidji. This program begins in November and runs through March 27th. The Servants of Shelter program has participating churches giving homeless men, women and children a safe place to spend a cold winters night off the streets. Some churches actually take turns hosting the guests while other churches also provide meals, money and volunteers. The night of our first session that we worked at earlier this winter had only 2 guests. This Monday evening in March we had 13 guests…9 males, 4 females and no children. This was maximum capacity of the facility that was hosting.
The guests arrive after 4pm and are given a supper cooked by volunteers. As you can imagine with “church food” there is always more than enough. The counters were filled with cookies and bars. The guests are “checked in” by trained volunteers who look for alcohol and drug usage, and checks all backpacks for contraband. Two volunteer monitors are present all the time. Shifts for monitors are from 4pm to 8pm, 8pm to midnight (our shift), midnight to 4am, and 4am to 8am. The 4am to 8am shift includes breakfast and all guests must vacate the premises by 8 am. Sleeping arrangements are in 4 large rooms…in our case tonight 3 rooms being occupied by men and 1 being occupied by women. There is a shared bathroom facility and another separate bathroom down the hall. We were explained that guests are given “tokens” to use showers at a local hotel pool facility.
Our shift begins at 8pm. The 4pm to 8pm coordinators explain to us a bit of what is going on. We receive a list of the names of the individuals. We hear that someone is sleeping on a sofa and the rest are watching a movie. One couple is married and also has the husbands’ sister with, one couple is boyfriend/girlfriend, and the rest are all “singles”. I am explained one woman is on medication. Medication is kept locked up and must be controlled by the coordinators. We let the 4 to 8 shift out and lock the door behind them. All guests must be in by 8pm. There is an emergency phone outside the door that can call to the TV room. Coordinators are left phone numbers of trained people to call in case of any trouble.
Having volunteered before, we realized the TV at this facility did not have cable, so we brought the movie PUBLIC ENEMY (about John Dillinger) which seemed to be appreciated by many. Everyone is quite gracious and seemed to be sincerely appreciative of the volunteers. A Native American couple was at a table watching the movie and making beaded jewelry. We sat down with them and they were very proud of their creations and she showed us the earrings she had created and he brought out a red white and blue necklace. (He called it a Twins necklace). At 10 pm it was suppose to be quiet time, we turned the movie down a notch or two. Several people went outside for a “smoke” while others made a final bathroom run. We dimmed the lights a bit and 5 remained for the rest of the movie. About 11 pm another movie was started as it seemed the ones remaining were not real interested in bedding down.
My wife soon was involved with a conversation with a gentleman having a cup of coffee. As with many of these individuals, there is a story to be told, yet being respectful of their private lives you usually do not get involved unless they initiate the conversation. He explained that his girlfriend of 3 years was bipolar and he was very concerned for her well being. He was on disability and got a check for $750 per month, but could not find anyone in town to rent to them. He admitted he had a “record” and as soon as a background check was done they would be refused. They had come to town to be a “caregiver” to an aunt of his girlfriend, but she had an argument with the aunt and basically was thrown out of the aunt’s house. So he was working with several public agencies desperately trying to get something lined up. He was worried ….the S.O.S. program was ending at the end of the week and he did not know what would happen if nothing could be lined up for an apartment. He said the girlfriend would probably go to a women’s shelter and he would “go to Pamida and buy a tent and sleep in the woods” until something materialized.
The uneventful night ended at midnight for us with the switch over of coordinators. It was uneventful, but the looks on the faces of each one of these 13 individuals were etched into my mind. There has been so much talk about national health care, and State of Minnesota programs that were cut, and their affects on the “people who have fallen through the cracks”. It became clear to me that night just who those people were
The next day I was at a “public space” several miles from the church and saw the Native American couple who were doing the bead work sitting on a bench. I didn’t know if I should come up and say hello, or if they would be embarrassed by the situation. I thought about how my daily life is so busy…how would I pass the time if I was homeless. I guess like these people I would look for work, and hope for shelter. These are the faces of the homeless in Bemidji. What a wonderful program Servants of Shelter is to the Bemidji community.