In our first two seasons, when we were still rotating among our partner congregations’ buildings, we developed a serious stuff issue. Knowing virtually nothing about homelessness when I started, this was a problem I hadn’t anticipated. I mean, how much stuff could people with no place to put it actually have?!
The answer is A LOT. And constantly collecting more. One of the trauma responses to losing your home, often repeatedly, is a tighter attachment to the stuff you do have. Almost weekly when the shelter is in season, we have conflicts with guests over their stuff: how to store it, who can move it, and how much they can actually have on hand in the shelter.
The guest who taught me the most in those early seasons about the complicated relationships our people have with their stuff was J. If you think of a stereotypical homeless man, the picture you conjure up would be very close to his. A middle-aged man with matted hair and powerful body odor, a military vet with PTSD and a drinking problem, J wore layer over layer of clothing. He always topped it off with a long brown trench coat, full of inner and outer pockets.
Wherever J went he collected more stuff, filling the pockets of his clothing like a chipmunk preparing for a long winter. What he couldn’t fit in his pockets, he put in plastic grocery bags, often pulled from his pockets. Day after day, J would come into shelter larger than the day before, his form literally growing in front of us as he packed his collected items around his body.
For safety reasons, we do nightly bag checks when people come into shelter, and our staff and volunteers would fight over who DIDN’T have to do J’s check each night. We don’t do searches of guests’ bodies, thankfully, or we would’ve need an extra staff person just for J. Each night, our intake team would comb through his bags to find half-rotten food clearly pulled from dumpsters, an assortment of brochures and free pens from non-profits around town, and always a DVD or two to add to the collection under his cot.
At the end of each week, when it was time to pack up the cots and bedding to move to the next hosting congregation, J would inevitably have collected more than he could physically carry, no matter how many pockets or bags he had. He would ask if we could hold onto it at that church just for a few days until he could sort it and take what he needed. We were less hardened in saying no in those days, so often church volunteers or pastors (myself and Erica included) would agree.
A week or two later, after repeated asks to come back for his stuff, someone would notice the smell, coming from whatever closet or corner his pile occupied, and we would get a call. The first few times this happened, we would dutifully go to pick up his belongings and return them to him wherever we found him sleeping. When we could not find him, or the hosting church flatly refused to have anymore of his stuff in their building, Erica or I would take his things to a storage space in our churches, thinking we’d still convince him to come back and sort it.
Fast forward to the end of our second season, after the shelter had closed in April, and staff at both our churches were pushing for those storage spaces to be emptied out. Most of what was left behind belonged to people who had disappeared, so we sorted and donated and threw things away. Then there was J’s stuff. I had repeatedly reminded him that we couldn’t keep holding his stuff and told him when I would be there to help him sort and carry it, but he never came.
Feeling still an obligation to his dignity, and knowing he’d ask for what belonged to him someday, I opened the multitude of bags in his pile, thinking I’d sort at least the DVDs out from among the trash. The smell and the ooze and the bugs that greeted me when I opened the bags is an experience I will never forget. It became clear that everything needed to go to the dumpster if I wanted to keep my breakfast inside my body. Even as I held my breath and filled giant trash bags, I knew the trust that I’d gained of his was about to be broken when I put everything in the alley dumpster.
J has been housed, by a miracle worked between Jesus and his county social worker, for over three years now. He still asks both Erica and I for his DVDs. He’s stopped being angry when we tell him that we had to get rid of them though. And in fact, he stopped into Shelter Church for dinner a couple weeks ago, and Erica was treated to a big stinky hug and a smile that still breaks our hearts wide open.
The story of stuff in our shelter is more complicated that we will ever know for most of our guests, and setting boundaries around it continues to be the hardest part of the job. But we also know more certainly as each season passes that the relationships we build with our guests transcend even their most precious belongings. We give them a place to BELONG, even if we have to throw their stuff away.