Friday, July 17

Reflections on the House of Charity

It is amazing for me to consider now how little I have written about the House of Charity. For the last half of my junior year and all of my senior year I worked there part-time and full-time last summer. At least one day every weekend and more than a few evenings and afternoons throughout the week were spent at the House yet all the space it has merited on this blog are a few oblique references and a single dedicated post. This is boggling. My work at the House of Charity was honestly life altering. It led me to see my life in a new light and to seriously re-evaluate the rest of my life. How is it possible that I avoided writing about such a pivot? But that is how it goes, I guess. You remember the lecture on Ovid's take on Apollo and Daphne, but the whole of your first semester of world literature washes over you even though you now find yourself reading writers you had never before heard of.

Now the task of writing about the House of Charity seems nigh impossible. By my reckoning I spent over 1,200 hours behind the front desk and wandering among the clients. How do I begin to capture all that time, all the people I met, all I learned, all I felt and experienced in a single post of a few hundred words? In the simplest terms, I don't. It comes piece by piece, a sliver of memory, a connection with the now at a time.

The House of Charity is one of three main shelters for homeless and transient men in Spokane, Washington. Of them, the House deals with the toughest. The other two, Union Gospel Mission and Truth Ministries, actively seek to take their clients off the streets. They demand discipline in order to prepare the men for life in traditional society. Acts of disrespect and signs that they are not of the highest moral standing and thus undeserving of the staffs' time receive little tolerance. The Mission requires incoming clients to pass a breathalyzer test with a 0 before they can come in to sleep. When checking whether a client could sleep at Truth that night, I was told he had been banned over a year ago for telling dirty jokes.

All those who couldn't go or were unwilling to go to the other shelters came to the House. Chronic alcoholics and drug addicts, pimps and prostitutes, felons and the mentally ill freely used our services. They could be high out their minds and so drunk they couldn't stand still without stumbling, but, so long as they didn't bring their product on the premise, treated the staff and their fellows with minimal respect and avoided confrontations, they would not be asked to leave. We did this because the first need is a safe place. The House of Charity offered two hot meals a day and a bed at night to most anyone who came through the doors. It offered mailboxes and showers and gear storage too, necessities not so immediately apparent to the comfortable as food and shelter but necessities just the same. All the rest, transitional housing and similar programs, came later and only following inquiries by the client.

It could be a tough place. I called 911 on more than a few occasions when fights broke out or a client collapsed. It could be frustrating trying to accommodate everyone's desperate needs and petty requests, especially when the weather was foul and put everyone in a sour mood. But more often than not, it was quiet, skirting and crossing over into boring most Sunday afternoons, affording plenty of time to talk with anyone who felt like it. I learned a lot at those times.

I came to the House through State Work Study, a government program which would pay half of my salary with select businesses and non-profits in the hopes that I could begin to practice my professional skills in real-life situations. There were no journalism positions open when I searched for a placement, and I chose the House of Charity because I had volunteered there my freshman year and thought I may as well try to do some good in the community if I couldn't write.

I don't know how much good I did, but I know the House and its staff and clients did me a world of good. I hope I can somehow explain it all to you.

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