I’ve been volunteering to work shifts at the Hub City Mission Severe Weather Shelter at the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds this winter. Typically, I have been assigned the 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift — second shift — to keep an eye on things overnight.
Generally speaking, second shift is usually pretty quiet. Most shelter guests are sleeping. The occasional guest might come out to the common area at some point for a cup of water, but other than that, I usually pass the time doing what little laundry there is — towels and the like — or chatting with the other volunteer. But this past week, I spent a good chunk of time talking with an older homeless man who was in a wheelchair.
He had been sitting at the table next to me for a while before passing me a note.
“I emptied the garbage, wiped down the tables, turned off the breezeway lights, and swept the floors,” the yellow stick note read.
I wrote “thank you” in return.
He continued: “You are extremely welcome.”
This man was only partially verbal at times, he explained, due to multiple medical conditions and a couple of different types of cancer. He was explaining this to me because, if he did have any issues, he indicated that he would refuse to go to the hospital. When I asked him if he was able to get the medical care he needed, he named a Canadian doctor who practiced with Doctors Without Borders.
He told me in another note that he believed the cancer and other medical issues he was dealing with were due to the longterm effects of inhaled fiberglass, asbestos, and “Agent Orange.”
I scrawled another note back to him: “Did you serve in the military?”
“Six years Marine Corps, six years Air America. Nam, Cambodia, Laos, Beruit, and Afghanistan before we were there,” he wrote back.
This is when I thanked him for his service and asked him if the VA had been of any help. He politely motioned his thanks and began to speak in a raspy, quiet voice.
“The lines were back to here,” he said, using his hands to indicate a long wait time. He explained that he had switched to eating only organic foods with the money he had and, even though doctors told him he would pass long before now, here was — still kickin’ around.
I told him that I was angry for him.
“Oh, don’t be angry for me,” he said. “Someone always has it worse off.”
“Well, sure,” I retorted. “But it sure is hard to hear that someone who put in as much as you did for your country is having issues accessing basic and potentially life-prolonging resources.”
He then gave me sort of the synopsis of his early life. He told me that his single mother had named him a swear word on his birth certificate and had given his younger brother the middle name “Satan.”
“How do you go through life with a name like that,” he asked, thinking back on his childhood. In fact, this man had renamed himself a code name he used exclusively at this point in his life.
After his first few years, he ended up being raised by a set of grandparents who had lived through both the American Great Depression, but also the German and Irish depressions, too. He was thankful for the work ethic they instilled in him and he missed them. He later in life found out that he had 61 brothers and sisters — his father had apparently been a serial philanderer.
The man mentioned that he had met many of his siblings years ago at a reunion someone organized. But since then, many had passed on — most of them in tragic ways. The older gentleman began to list all the ways that many of his siblings had passed: Alcoholism, overdoses, suicide, and tragic medical issues surrounding those root issues.
He said there were only eight siblings left in the original group of more than sixty.
Since spending the night myself in the Severe Weather Shelter last winter, as a shelter guest, I’m especially interested to hear stories from other homeless members of our community and what brought them to the shelter. The stories are always fascinating, but often more heartbreaking than anything.
As it neared 1 a.m., he indicated that he was fading a bit, and I asked the man if he needed anything to help him get a good night’s rest. He told me not to worry about him as he wheeled over to a large couch in the common area. I wished him a good night and thanked him for sharing with me.
There’s not much I can do for people like this man, other than volunteer and offer kind words. The perspective he gave me in return was priceless. It was just another reminder that, despite stereotypes, homeless individuals are still human beings and members of our community. Many of them fighting uphill battles that we know nothing about.
Brittany Voie is a columnist for The Chronicle. She lives south of Chehalis with her husband and two young sons. She welcomes correspondence from the community at firstname.lastname@example.org.