Thursday, May 28, 2009

Three nights at Overflow

I just made it out of Overflow [aka Winter shelter] after a three-night stay. On the third night, on the day that Sister Libby and VOA CEO & Pres. Leo McFarland had ballyhooed the need for Overflow to remain open past its scheduled June 30 close, Maria, the Overflow director, was threatening to immediately close the facility, herself, because of suspected marijuana use.

As people who have stayed there must know, the place is a nightmare. It gobbles up an enormous amount of homeless people's time, while offering very little as a "Shelter From the Storm." Indeed, being inside Winter shelter is the storm.

As Kenny – a central member of the staff – was telling someone during a day's long, drawn-out intake session at the so-called staging area, "You're getting a free night's place to stay, be grateful."

Yes. I, too, chose to stay at Overflow -- in deference to an unlikely-to-succeed effort getting a bed at the Union Gospel Mission, or staying awake all night, or sleeping at a hospital emergency-room lobby. Yep. It was my choice.

But, truly, the one thing staying there had going for it was the hope, against hope, that things had improved, since the Neto bad times, and that being at Overflow would feel OK.

Of the myriad problems, there were these:
  • The buses broke down. One had a decommisioning flat tire; another, bad brakes.
  • One of the two men's bathrooms flooded.
  • They ran out of linen and blankets. One night, I and others slept on bare mattresses.
  • They ran out of food. I don't eat much, usually, but one night's meal was a portion of a sausage, a third-cup of overboiled brocolli stalks and two pieces of bread.
  • While many on the staff are capable and likable, all are usually cranky and some are vain pigs. The staff is untrained, having no customer-service skills.
  • The guy who is supposed to unlock the storage shed to give people their belonging, hadn't arrived more than an hour after my bus arrived at the staging area, one morning.
Checking in for a bed one has, or securing a bed, is a mindboggling experience of confusion. Men seeking shelter need to get to the staging area, in the parking lot at Loaves & Fishes' Delany Center, before 4pm. Woman (and children) need to get to Mary's House, nearby, even earlier. Then, basically, you wait and wait and wait -- sometimes until 7:30pm while slowly and great-painstakingly bed assignments are determined in a confused and byzantine process.

Kenny is clearly the staff expert at the process. On my third night he was reviewing the lists that Maria and another woman were in charge of.

But even with his knowledge of how the paperwork flows, Kenny, like the others, gets flustered frequently, and seems oblivious to the frustrations that people trying to secure beds have. The process to get a bed changes every night; there's no regularity about how things are done, and information about how busses will load is given out piecemeal. People are rightly confused about what is happening and what is expected.

True, too, is that things are made all-the-more difficult since many of my brother homeless are without timepieces to remind them to check in on time or are cognitively impaired [due to many of the problems that cause and plague homelessness, including brain changes due to injury, mental illness, substance abuse, medication side effects, etc.]. Regularity re how things get done would be helpful, but that doesn't get established.

In Overflow culture, the staff communicates with the sheltered in Parent-to-Child transaction mode, rather than Adult-to-Adult, which would be proper. While this is a problem elsewhere in Homeless World Sacramento, it is at its worst at the Overflow shelter.
ParentPhysical - angry or impatient body-language and expressions, finger-pointing, patronising gestures,
Verbal - always, never, for once and for all, judgmental words, critical words, patronising language, posturing language.
ChildPhysical - emotionally sad expressions, despair, temper tantrums, whining voice, rolling eyes, shrugging shoulders, teasing, delight, laughter, speaking behind hand, raising hand to speak, squirming and giggling.
Verbal - baby talk, I wish, I dunno, I want, I'm gonna, I don't care, oh no, not again, things never go right for me, worst day of my life, bigger, biggest, best, many superlatives, words to impress.
AdultPhysical - attentive, interested, straight-forward, tilted head, non-threatening and non-threatened.
Verbal - why, what, how, who, where and when, how much, in what way, comparative expressions, reasoned statements, true, false, probably, possibly, I think, I realize, I see, I believe, in my opinion.

While it is very time consuming getting in and out of the shelter, even at the shelter there is unrelieved and unnecessary tedium. EVERY night there is a House Meeting at 8:30pm. Everyone of the some 250 sheltered and staff are expected to attend, which serves as an opportunity for the senior staff person there to give verbal gold stars for good behavior and then regale against problems that occured because of some sheltered person's mischief. Because there is no organization to the meeting, a lot of time gets spent on the problems of single individuals. It does not seem to occur to the meeting leader that it is a misuse of time to investigate a soletary indivual's problem in the presence of everyone.

One might suppose that sleeping time, at least, would be honored. But sleeping is made difficult since the staff chooses to play music, loudly, and converse, noisily, in the kitchen area. All. Night. Long.

Meals are notably spare, compared to elsewhere. Dinner is served on a small plate. Breakfasts are better, but always either cold cereal or instant oatmeal packages -- with donuts, fruit, milk, coffee and juice.

But the most obnoxious thing is the time it takes out of homeless people's day being at Overflow. It is impossible to get or keep a job while sleeping there, except for Loaves & Fishes employees or a select few who have part-time jobs, midday.

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