Friday, November 18, 2011

Life at the New York Avenue Men's Emergency Shelter: Tough Love

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 The hardest part about visiting an emergency shelter for the first time is coming to grips with the truth: the shelter is not a home. And it’s not supposed to be. In fact, it can’t be.

An emergency shelter is a safe haven from the weather and the streets, open to anyone without question with nowhere else to turn.

Last week, I visited our New York Avenue Emergency Men's Shelter to check out a distribution of warm clothing items to the men staying in the shelter. Augustine Frazier, the shelter's senior program manager, tries to organize these distributions a few times a year to provide his residents with new gloves, hats, hygiene products, thermal undergarments and underwear.

Of course, I was roped into helping. Soon I was handing out 3-packs of new underwear to 360 men of all ages, races and – most relevantly – sizes. Some of the men had been surviving on the streets for years. Others had been working an office job earlier that day.
Residents received socks, thermal underwear,
tooth brushes and more.

Last year, more than 12,000 people in the Washington-metropolitan region experienced homelessness for at least one night. The New York Avenue Men’s Shelter has the capacity to provide a bed, a hot meal, showers and case management to 360 men over the age of 18 each night. During hypothermia season, when the temperature can drop below freezing, as many as 380 men might be in the shelter at night.

Augustine and his 33 staff members walk a fine line between serving their clients and making sure they do not become overly reliant on the system.
Augustine (center) and his staff celebrate when the
successful finish of the clothing drive. 

Managing the peace and meeting as many needs as possible requires a system built on a softened sense of military order. Everything starts with standing in line – for check-in, for food, for sheets. There are rules that must be followed to ensure so many can live and function within one building. The shelter must not be a place that fosters complacency in any of its residents.

Yet, as staff look each person in the eye, they see someone in the middle of a very hard time in his life. And they want to do everything they can to help.

As the men filed through and collected new clothes, the residential counselors joked with them by name, checked in on them, and addressed specific needs or complaints. Residential counselors, RC’s for short, are peacekeepers, case managers, advocates and housekeepers all in one. They are the lifeblood of any shelter.

And while a shelter isn’t supposed to be home, the staff still tries to foster a sense of family. Certainly, some of the men present incredibly challenging needs – years of substance abuse and/or mental illness has left some with severely underdeveloped social, personal and workplace skills.

But the staff emphasized to me just how critical outside support from community groups, volunteers and the business community is to giving each man a sense of self-worth.

Just this week, Benjamin Moore (the paint company) and the US Conference of Mayors teamed up to provide a fresh coat of paint to shelters across the United States, including the New York Avenue Shelter.

The surprise of the residents was visible as they walked into what seemed like brand new dorm rooms. Hopefully, like it was for all of us at Catholic Charities, the professional paint job (for free!!!) was a reminder to each man that the community surrounding them wants to see these guys get back on their feet.

No one should ever end up in a shelter. But to have that safety net in place is absolutely vital. As unemployment remains high and decent housing often out of reach, please keep the residents and staff of New York Avenue in your prayers.