My Time at a Salvation Army Shelter

Cn: emesis, bodily fluids

Back in 2014 I had to stay at a women’s shelter run by the Salvation Army.

My first night there a worker yelled at me during intake because I glanced at the security camera while she processed my information. She didn’t explain why; just told me not to look at the screens.

You only had 21 days in the shelter. You stayed there while the City placed you in a long-term women’s shelter.

I was assigned a bed on the last floor; the fourth in a building without an elevator. You had to sign for your bed every night. If you missed signing you’d lose your bed even if you were on the premises.

Women were assigned to dorms. But they were really huge rooms with about 25 beds each. Next to each bed was a locker which you were given the lock and key for. You were given one pillow, a thin blanket and bed sheets.

There were washing machines on the first floor so you were allowed to wash your clothes but you had to buy your own soap.

My day started at 6:45 am. Breakfast was at 7:30 and if you missed it you wouldn’t be able to eat unless you had money to go out but there wasn’t any outside food allowed in. Otherwise you had to wait until lunch time about 5 hours later. There weren’t any fast food places close by either. Just one bodega.

My first morning there I had a slimy oatmeal, under-cooked breakfast sausage and watered down coffee. So watered down you couldn’t taste the coffee. I couldn’t finish the food. The texture was disgusting.

The showers and bathrooms were filthy. Once someone smeared period blood and feces on the walls. I think I only used the showers there once and I kept my slippers on. I didn’t feel clean either. The curtain was full of mildew and the walls were grimy.

My first morning I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth and someone had left green phlegm on the sink. The toilets were never cleaned nor was there ever enough toilet paper. One stall had a broken door.

Since I had to share my space I did not get any kind of privacy. I learned to lose any shame I had because there weren’t dressing rooms either. We all just changed in front of each other.

You had to keep all your valuables in the locker. I locked it even if I stepped out the dorm for 5 minutes. The shelter brought the worst out in everybody. The women stole things, yelled at each other. I barely slept because everybody was so loud and asking for some quiet got you mocked. It was best to keep your head down and stay out of the way. I think the shelter dehumanized us in such a way a lot of us lost our compassion.

My stay was during the winter and once there was a cold snap and the heat wasn’t working. This was an old building and drafty. They wouldn’t provide extra blankets either.

You needed to leave the room during the day. Even if you stayed in the building all day you had to stay out of the dorm and you couldn’t go back until after a certain time. There wasn’t much to do. They sometimes had donations laid out but you had to sit through a sermon in order to get what ever it was.

Once I was late to dinner by five minutes. They wouldn’t let me eat and I didn’t have any money so I spent the night hungry.

There were women of all ages there. I met an elderly women named Maria. She didn’t speak English and she was starving. She asked me if I could take her to the bodega and buy her something to eat. I bought her coffee and a danish. I’m not sure she even chewed properly; she was so hungry. I held her hand while we walked and she told me how her daughter dropped her off at the shelter. I tried not to judge the daughter too harshly, I couldn’t possibly know the circumstances. But it was hard seeing someone who reminded me of my grandma basically fending for herself.

Complaints to staff were always ignored. The staff treated us like we were an inconvenience. Like us asking for anything was a literal affront to them. They’d audibly sigh or roll their eyes when asked a simple question, like what is someone supposed to do if they were late to sign a the bed roster? Obviously they had to spend the night in the chair and not be late next time. Obviously.

Visitors weren’t allowed and since they were was nothing to do, I’d go to mami’s house almost every day. I was lucky in that regard, I was able to eat and shower most days at mami’s.

I wasn’t assigned to a new shelter until the very last day of my 21 days. And even then I had to find my own way to the new shelter. They gave me a paper with MapQuest directions and sent me away and so one rainy winter night at 9pm I was out with trying navigate my way to a new shelter while trying to stay warm and carrying my bags.

I wrote this because it’s the holidays and we hear a lot about donating to the Salvation Army.

All those bell ringers out in force but where does all the money they collect go?

It certainly didn’t go to making the shelter warm, or the facilities clean and hygenic. It certainly doesn’t go to the employees salaries, I have to imagine they don’t get paid much otherwise why be so miserable?

So as a formerly homeless person, I am asking you: Please do not donate to the Salvation Army. None of what I described should happen in a good shelter. And while some of it was the own residents’ behavior, like I mentioned, the environment in the shelter is such that it dehumanizes you, so you lose any compassion you may have. It is hard trying remain compassionate when you’re angry, hungry, cold and dirty.

My Time at a Salvation Army Shelter
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