It’s a beautiful, seventy-five-degree day, and the whole city block smells of piss.
I’m outside the ARCH shelter in Austin, on 7th and Nueces, sitting against a wall. A stereo nearby blares “Don’t Take It Personal” by Monica as a hint of marijuana smoke floats by on the February breeze. My shift starts in 30 minutes and I’m eating an apple and taking in the scene on the street. Some people lie against the walls of the building, asleep, while others sit or stand around in groups, talking, laughing, and arguing with each other. A cop drives past and slows down, eyeing us. A man walks by with a few sandwiches on a plastic tray and asks me if I want one. When I say no, he holds the platter out, offering sandwiches to whoever walks by. His tray is soon empty.
It’s vibrant out here, with people living their lives in full view of the world. On the street, there’s no privacy, no hiding, I think to myself. I stare up into the stern eyes of Willie Nelson, brightly enshrined in a huge mural across the street. Under his watchful gaze, a heated argument begins further down the sidewalk. A large black woman breaks away and comes striding toward where I’m sitting, still yelling over her shoulder. She passes me and joins the group with the stereo. I can hear her telling them about the argument and their murmured responses. In the meantime, a youngish white guy with curly hair has stepped up to me. He’s wearing a Superman ‘S’ t-shirt and glasses and carries a big backpack. He asks me how I’m doing, and starts telling me about a tent city on South Lamar. He’s living there, trying to save money for a moped so he can get a job. He offers to take me to the tents and show me around, and instructs me to ignore anyone who might hit on me, implying that their motives might be suspect. I smile and tell him that I’m volunteering. “So you’re not homeless?” he says. I shake my head. “Oh. That’s good. I actually feel relieved. I was worried about what could happen, you know, if you’re on the street alone…”
By now it’s 11:55, so I gather my things and walk up to the front door of the shelter. A long line has formed in front of the door. I go up to the man at the front of the line. “I’m volunteering. Do you mind if I get in front of you?” I ask. “Yes,” he says. “Yes, I do.” Then he laughs.
I go up to the window and wave at the woman inside. She reaches over and runs her badge over a sensor. The door opens. I go inside and am met by another woman, who’s smiling at me. “Hi. I’m working at the mail desk,” I tell her. She gives me a lanyard with “Volunteer” written on it and has me sign my name on a list. The list asks what organization I’m with. I leave that space blank. “I’ll take you up there,” the woman says, and leads me to the elevator. When we get in, she asks if I’ve been here before. “Yes.” “So is this your second time, or third..?” I laugh and tell her I’ve been volunteering here for almost a year. “Oh wow,” she says as we get out of the elevator. “So have you applied for a job yet? We always have openings.” I tell her that I looked, but I wasn’t qualified for any of the jobs. She laughs at that. “Just apply, girl,” she tells me. “They always need people.”
The mail desk has two functions. One, homeless folks can use the ARCH’s address to receive mail, so I go through the alphabetical sections to find mail for each client. Two, the mail desk is right across the hall from the showers, so this is also where clients come when they need shampoo, soap, razors, and other toiletries. Today, we have no shampoo or lotion. Last week we were out of razors. And we hardly ever have deodorant. People come up and ask me for these things, and when I tell them I don’t have it, their faces fall. I can tell they really count on the ARCH’s showers and hygiene desk. As I go through the mail, most of the folks who come up tell me they’re looking for their W-2’s, or their bank cards. They roll their eyes and sigh when I hand them their bills, the same way I react when I see a bill in my own mail. We’re not so different.
After two hours of sorting mail and handing out shampoo bottles, my shift is over. I walk down the open stairway in the center of the building, taking a last glance at the people inside the shelter. They laugh with each other, holding plates of food in one hand and their bags in the other. I turn in my lanyard at the front desk and walk out the door. On the way to my car, I move through big groups of homeless folks outside. It’s hotter now, and they sit in the shade cast by the building. I raise my hand in greeting as I pass by. I get into my car and pull away from the curb, thinking about all the people I’ve met today.
I like working with the homeless folks. Most of them are just regular people, people who are on the wrong side of luck, or who are unable (for whatever reason) to function in society as well as everyone else. Others are mentally ill or have addiction problems, but they should be pitied, not vilified. The folks I come into contact with at the mail desk are friendly and polite. There are exceptions, as with anything else- but whenever someone comes up and gives me attitude, someone else will berate them for being rude and thank me for being there. It’s important for me to be exposed to the humanity of the homeless, and to view them for who they are- humans. They are not blemishes on the streets of the city. They aren’t scary. They’re people, just like you and me.