I have just over one week left at Our Savior’s Shelter. The experience has been fairly decent compared to other shelters. In terms of the shelters I have experienced so far, each one has its own advantages and disadvantages.
The free to stay shelters I have stayed at include Tramp Camp on Currie, Harbor Lights Safe Bay, and Dorothy Day in St. Paul. Of the free emergency shelters I have been to, I feel that Dorothy Day in St. Paul was the best. The food was not great. It required a breathalyzer at check in. Nevertheless, you can rent a locker there and the spacing for the mats on the floor was fairly decent.
Tramp Camp is not a very good place to stay in the free to stay category. The following refers to the free to stay elements at Tramp camp. The food is not great. On the first floor there are no lockers. It is crowded. You sleep on a mat on the floor. You have to get there early enough to get a bed. Sometimes there is no room at Tramp camp. If it does fill up and then your only choice is to go to Safe Bay next door.
Safe Bay remains the worst place for free to stay. The following is an assessment of the free to stay area of the shelter known as Safe Bay. In the free to stay portion, there are no lockers to secure your possessions. You can get a blanket if you give them some form of identification. The food is not great, some have called it a “nutritional” line. You cannot go back for seconds and the food service tends to be earlier in the evening than at other places like St. Stephens, Simpson’s shelters, or Our Savior. People note that they feel hungry again at night when they eat so early. Safe Bay has no privacy in the bathrooms. The bathrooms are generally very crowded in the morning. Most people note the lack of doors or curtains on bathroom facilities. Conditions at Safe Bay are very crowded. There is almost no spacing between the matts. It is very hard to get sleep at Safe Bay. You sleep in a crowded room with a lot of other people. There is always some activity to disturb you. You worry about the security of your possessions because you cannot lock them up and must keep everything on you. There are no extras at the shelter- there is no television, no computer room, and no exercise equipment (none of the shelters I have stayed at has provided any exercise equipment). It remains the free to stay shelter of last resort.
In light of that, let us look briefly at Our Savior.
Our Savior is much nicer as shelter environments go. It opens at 6 p.m. And you must be out by 7:00 a.m. The latest you can check in is 10 pm, unless you have a work exemption.
You are allowed to leave Our Savior and check back in later. It is not like some shelters which require you to stay after you check in. Unfortunately, there is not much to do in the immediate area after 7:30 pm, so most people tend to stay in after they check in for dinner.
Volunteers provide food for the shelter. They are usually church groups. For the most part, the selection alternates between easy to prepare Mexican dishes (burritos, tacos) and pasta dishes (Lasagna, etc…) Dinner is served at 7 pm.
Breakfasts are much more complicated. You only have half an hour to eat and use the bathroom after the 6:00 a.m. wake up. The kitchen and bathroom close at 6:30 a.m. With everyone rushing around in the morning, you can get traffic jams during the early morning, especially with the sink area. Most of the time, your options are breakfast bars, bread (peanut butter etc…) or cereal. I usually opt for the cereal. Once in a while, a volunteer group will serve a “hot breakfast” which is usually an eggs or omelets and sausages. It can vary depending on the group. One time, a group came in and there hot breakfast was cold. Although they subsequently reheated the breakfast, many people had to eat their breakfast cold owing to the time constraints. This was a rare exception, however, to an otherwise acceptable breakfast service. The weakest part of breakfast appears to be the constant spoon shortage in the morning. People opting to have coffee compete with people having cereal and spoon shortages routinely occur in the morning.
The shelter does not require you to leave until 7:00 a.m. Most people do not have a place to go before 7:00 a.m. Branch 3 of Catholic Charities opens at 7:00 a.m. and is a likely destination. A 7:30 departure time would allow people to take advantage of Branch 3 second shift much more readily. If you get to Branch 3 for the 7:00 a.m. breakfast service, you will have to wait outside between 7:30-8:00 a.m. to re-enter after breakfast. It is much better to arrive for the second shift, where the wait time is only for the post breakfast clean up (usually ten minutes).
Most people may be unaware that the shelters are closed during the day. This means most homeless people end up at the library (opens at 10 a.m. weekdays), Branch 3 (opens at 7:00 a.m. weekdays), or a job center (openings vary by location).
It is not clear why the shelters, including Our Savior, are so insistent on early departure times when there are very few destinations for people to go to. On the weekends, it is especially tough for people as most places, including the skyways, do not open early. Sunday is particularly problematic with a 12 pm. library opening in the downtown area and Branch 3 being closed entirely. I keep recommending people opt for coffee on the weekends at a location, like Dunn Brothers on 3rd Avenue, which allows for free refills of coffee and limited computer access. In any event, on a weekday, the usual goal is to get into the skyway as quickly as possible and find a destination. I recommend the law library at the Hennepin County Government Center. It is on the 24th floor and opens at 8:00 a.m. You can get limited computer access as well as read a newspaper. It is a good place to spend until 10:00 a.m. when the regular library opens.
Our Savior has a computer lab which is open whenever there is a volunteer to staff it. The computers are very old and the internet access is very slow. Not surprisingly, the computers have limited functionality. They do allow guests to use the printer liberally. Some computers have Adobe readers and others do not. Currently, one computer is broken down. I find my Asus 1005 PEB is a much better machine than the ones available.
Our Saviors could improve peoples access to the computers. The computers themselves are very slow and outdated. The software offering is not first rate. Allowing Knoppix USB bootable systems (or other linux USB bootable systems) would overcome security concerns and improve user flexibilty. The computer lab should be open everyday. For the most part, most users do not experience significant technical difficulties and simply opening the lab would be nice.
Second, Our Saviors could expand the ability of people to use their own technology. People should be able to access wifi networks at the shelter. It is inconceivable why free wi-fi networks are not offered at the shelters. Currently, at our Savior, at least two of us could benefit from wi-fi access at the shelter.
The shelter also has a photocopy machine and fax machine. Guests can use the photocopy machine upon request.
A phone line is downstairs and people can use it for up to 15 minutes.
Our Savior also has a visiting doctor once a week. In addition to that, other visitors may also arrive to provide additional services. Since I have been there, at least one county worker has come by.
You can do laundry for $1 at Our Savior. The laundry schedules are very competitive. You may have to settle for a 3:00 am laundry time if you are unlucky.
To get into Our Savior, you need to win a place at the lottery. The lottery occurs on Monday night at Simpson shelter. You need to arrive no later than 6:30 pm to be eligible for a bed. Simpson and St. Stephens have a policy of 28 days on and 28 days off. That is, you can win a bed for 28 days, but then are not eligible for the subsequent 28 days. Our Savior by contrast has a policy of 28 days on, but 60 days off. This means after your 28 days are up, you are not eligible for another 28 days.
Unlike other shelters, you can get a 28 day bed through the wait list. At Simpson and St. Stephen’s, wait listed people only get a stay for one week. At Our Savior, the wait list stay can be for the full 28 days. Although it is unlikely that you will get in owing to the lack of beds, as the week goes on, your chances of getting a bed dramatically improve. Amazingly enough, last night so few people were calling in that there were beds available and no one to take them. At Our Savior, you must call in every night to be eligible for a bed. My guess is that as the weather gets better, the shelters in general will empty out as people will prefer to stay in less restrictive environments outdoors.
You do get assigned a case manager at Our Savior. If you get a job and reach certain savings goals, you can extend your stay. Most of the programs I am aware of target ex-felons, veterans, or chemically or mentally ill people. It is not clear how much over-reporting of chemical and mental illness occurs. My guess is it is substantial as people are trying to fit themselves into benefits boxes in the absence of alternatives. My guess is the number of “mentally ill” and “chemically dependent” homeless people would drop dramatically if programs were offered to regular people. What I am suggesting is that the data on homelessness people is being skewed by the absence of social programs for people without mental illness or chemically dependent people.
Our Savior does have a job club. It meets semi-regularly on Monday and Thursday. I have not been able to attend the club. I tried to attend it on a Monday, but it was not happening that particular Monday. Monday is a strange day in any case for the shelter staff to have job club meetings as it is also the day of the lottery. It would make more sense to have the events on Wednesdays or Fridays (Tuesdays and Thursdays are late nights at the library- 8 pm close). Ideally, Saturday and Sunday would also be a great day for job clubs as it is very hard to get any job club services on the weekends in the Twin Cities. Places like the workforce center and PPL are closed. I am still not sure why there are no job sites open on the weekend.
Sex segregation is the general rule. The men and the women sleep in separate wings of the shelter. There is no ability to enter the opposing wings. Women are not allowed in the men’s wing and vice-versa. Men and women do encounter each other in the common areas, such as the kitchen and television room.
Chores. Each bed gets assigned a chore to do. For the most part, these are simple things that involve sweeping, emptying garbage cans, or cleaning a specific area. The chores usually take a short amount of time to do. I have the night chore of sweeping and mopping the men’s bathroom on Weds. Thurs. Friday. In the morning, most people perform their chores between 6:30-7:00 a.m. (after kitchen/bathroom) system.
There are a lot of rules at Our Savior. Violation of rules can result in strikes. Three strikes and you are out of luck. There is a process for challenging strikes, but I am not sure how effective that is. You can get a strike for seemingly trivial violations.
I have only seen a few people be immediately thrown out for disturbances. Most of the time, staff asks them to leave. If they offer resistance, the staff policy appears to be to call the police. In general, the staff is friendly.
Our Savior follows the trend of widespread surveillance. There are cameras in the hallway and common areas that monitor everything. The staff watches two large monitors in the entry room. Each monitor has multiple camera feeds. Ocassionally, a loud voice will proclaim, “Please get out of the kitchen” if someone is in the kitchen.
Grayson Barber (PERSONAL INFORMATION IN GOVERNMENT RECORDS: PROTECTING THE PUBLIC INTEREST IN PRIVACY, St. Louis Public Law Review) includes an interesting discussion of the effects of constant surveillance by George Kateb.
“One is crudely treated as interesting and even as presumptively or potentially guilty, no matter how law abiding one is. . . . . . . . One is placed under constant suspicion just by being placed under constant watchfulness and subjected to the implicit interrogation that exists when the accumulated information on oneself is seen as a set of integrated answers that add up to a helpless, an unauthored autobiography. Such a loss of innocence . . . . . . . is so massive that the insult involved constitutes an assault on the personhood or human status of every individual.” George Kateb, On Being Watched and Known, 68 SOCIAL RES. 269, 275 (2001) at 274-75.
Our Savior also engages in the destructive practice of random breathalyzers. Although it is important for people not to be disturbed by drunk roommates, it is not clear why shelters cannot limit their testing to people who show actual signs of intoxication rather than conduct random breath tests of everyone.
Our Savior has an internal smoking room. The smoking room is next to the dining area. While allowing smoking, Our Savior also promotes smoking cessation programs.
On the issue of sleep, Our Savior does a fair job compared to other shelters. The rooms are usually shared with one to three other people. This means you do not have the constant interruption in sleep that occurs at places like Tramp Camp or Safe Harbor. In Safe Harbor, one feels almost constantly sleep deprived. Safe Harbor is nothing more than a place to stay warm. At Our Savior, sleep is at least possible.
Nationally, there has been a crackdown on people sleeping in public. For a brief time, the ninth circuit attempted to follow Robinson in challenging the city anti-sleep ordinances, but the decision was ultimately vacated by agreement of the parties. (I refer here to the decision in Jones v. City of Los Angeles). In my opinion, the decision placed too much emphasis on whether or not there was shelter space and not enough emphasis on whether or not you could actually get sleep at the shelters. That is, in my opinion, the focus should be on whether or not you are likely to be sleep deprived rather than on whether or not you are being sheltered because as Safebay demonstrates, the two are not necessarily connected.
I recently saw someone removed from the main area of the library for trying to sleep on the property. Sleep is a valuable and hard to get commodity for homeless people- finding a place to sleep during the day to make up for a poor nights sleep would be invaluable. (Some have suggested Branch 3, but it seems far too noisy and only offers chairs).
Storage at Our Savior is fairly decent compared to other shelters. You get a locker which is much more expansive than most lockers. It is the largest locker I have had in any shelter settings. You can also store things under the bed (unsecured).
Our Savior does provide you with soap, a toothbrush, basic toiletries, and even some laundry soap at check in. Like most shelters, it does no provide a toothbrush holder or offer hard cover glasses cases.
The shower configuration is okay. There are four showers behind a curtain. Each shower has its own shower curtain. Generally, people can undress behind the main curtain and then get behind the shower curtain before getting completely undressed. There are curtains on the showers affording some privacy. (In Los Angeles, it was group showers at Union Gospel Mission, for example. There is very little privacy at Safe Harbor). (St. Stephen’s and Simpson both have more privacy in their showering options.) The water at Our Savior is much too hot. It takes time to adjust to the very hot water.
On the weekdays, the lights go out at 10 pm. For the most part, your sleep will depend on your roommates but many are as tired as you are by the end of the day. The wake up is an early 6:00 a.m. This may not seem strange to people who get up to go to work, but understand, there are few places homeless people need or even can be very early in the morning. On some days, when it is extremely cold, the shelters will allow a slightly later departure time. However, there are plenty of cold, windy, and rainy days, when you will be outside at 7:00 a.m. It is at least a 20 minute walk to the nearest skyway- usually at the convention center.
You are allowed a few nights out. You can tell staff you will not be and will not lose your bed twice during the 28 days. You must stay at the shelter your first two nights.
Television viewing generally occurs after dinner time and before 10 pm. You can stay up until 11 pm on some days, like Friday. Our Savior does have cable. Women get to pick the show certain nights and men other nights. The shelter has some movies on DVD which you can watch upon request.
Some resident art hangs in a hallway, but I’m not sure what other cultural amenities exist.
Our Savior did have a short community meeting with shelter residents. The community meeting did not provide for extensive feedback. Instead people were told to make comments in the suggestion box. I am not sure how effective this is. I also feel that the relatively short stays do not encourage systemic reform as most people will be gone before they can make or implement changes.
In general, like the rest of the shelter system, Our Saviors does not seem to broadly encourage the input of “clients” or residence in the administration of its programs. Most programs in general would do better if they understood the residence needs better. It is also driven by staff intensive administrative concepts and a traditional shelter organizational and operational technique which seems expensive and outmoded in light of what might be achieved more effectively at less cost. If there was more emphasis on self-direction and less on homeless monitoring and management, the environment would be healthier.
That’s my quick assessment of Our Savior.