O P I N I O N
Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.
It was with no small sense of trepidation that I left my living situation in a comfortable house (albeit where I wasn’t really wanted) for a shelter I knew little about. I went to the New Horizons Shelter on Manchester Street in Manchester, NH. From the outside, people congregate on the sidewalk, often sleeping in nooks and crannies. There is often shouting. Police cars can be seen regularly there. Tall, fit officers with short hair stand around taking in their surroundings. Outwardly, the place seems dangerous.
Inwardly, having gone to their soup kitchen and food pantry now and again, I hadn’t seen much to dissuade me of this opinion. Supper at the soup kitchen is loud. The place is packed with temporary shelter residents and people who come to eat, some of whom have full-time jobs but can’t afford to buy their own food. Many are the stories I’ve heard from poor people there about how tough they have it. Bills are too high, rent is too expensive, good jobs are hard to find, bus routes aren’t the best for going to work, etc.
Homelessness is a systemic problem that has a lot of different factors that cause it to arise. Since moving in, I’ve met quite a few shelter residents who work for a living. Those who do are given yellow passes so that they can come back after 8 p.m. curfew, if needed. Others find work during the day. I’ve yet to see a regular discussion of this anywhere in print or news media; nor have I seen anyone become particularly inquisitive about the problem of homelessness, other than those whose job it is to do so. They are not there because they’ve been irresponsible. They are there because making it on low wages is impossible, because it’s easier for non-profits and politicians to fund supportive services that help a person when they’ve hit rock bottom, rather than services that prevent someone from getting there in the first place.
On my first day, however, I had thoughts of drug dealers and drug addicts in my head. I had seen needles lying around the sidewalk in town, had read stories online about people overdosing. As a poor person myself, I knew how acute the problem was. In my anxiety, I allowed myself to wonder whether taking drugs would be a rite of passage for the shelter, a way to be accepted by others. I wondered how much peer pressure factored into this, whether there wasn’t a group of people who deliberately forced folks into taking drugs in order to develop customers later.
That, I soon discovered, was pretty far from the truth. No one was pushing anything. I would receive polite inquiries about doing a particular drug called spice – most often by people I didn’t know very well. They did not press the issue when I said no. I didn’t want to do that. Others have difficulty saying no. I’ve seen a person passed out on the bathroom floor, puke dripping out of his mouth. I’ve seen people shooting up in the bathroom or sticking a needle in between their fingers in a place where they think no one might be watching. I’ve seen others high as a kite walking around, taking in the sunshine. That has never been for me.
In her book, “On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How it Drives America Insane,” professional writer Emily Guendelsberger speculated that people who are in stressful situations seek relief in whatever way they can find it. Alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, anything to shift the mind away from persistent, unsolvable problems will do. Naturally, since drugs only make existing problems worse, going back to them may seem like the only answer. The devil’s embrace, while agonizing, also contains a comfortable familiarity. It should also be noted here that, contrary to what one may expect, legally purchased cigarettes are more expensive to obtain than hard drugs.
The constant shouting by participants in the shelter program, as near as I have been able to observe, results from stress and trauma being too acute. The slightest implication against someone’s character or actions can set a person off. While the screaming can be obnoxious, often in the extreme; at the bottom of it is unresolved emotional trauma and stress. Coping skills don’t necessarily work, even if any are present or known. Emotions are too strong, too present, too overwhelming.
The staff at New Horizons, while inflexible at times, is often a great deal friendlier than I had been led to believe. From the first week there, I was assigned a caseworker who has been helping me with documentation for various processes (a constant difficulty) one such example being getting a new Social Security Card after the previous one was lost from a stolen wallet. Thus far, we are working together on brainstorming activities for shelter participants, instead of just having everyone sit all day with nothing to do. With a laptop and a Netflix account, I have (at times) played movies for people, which is a nice treat in contrast to the constant blaring of WMUR on the television morning, noon, and evening.
We also do watercolor painting and coloring. Artistic activity, I am reliably informed, has therapeutic value – both for the participants and the staff. The staff, dealing with so many patients who have their own trauma and difficulties, can develop second-hand trauma. Therapeutic self-care for staff members at shelters like New Horizons is important, as well. Otherwise, they could get burned out, after which they would not be any good for anyone.
Food is provided for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. While the food served is much the same from one day to the next, it’s difficult to find fault with free nutrition. Wake-up time at the shelter is 6 a.m. when all the lights turn on. The lights go off at 9 p.m. In my experience, the early wake-up time is the most difficult adjustment of all. Some folks, rather than adjusting to it, choose to sleep during the day and futz around on their phones at night.
Sleeping time is the shelter’s most inflexible rule. Only those with a medical exemption or a work-related reason can get around it. The idea is that people should be able to get up early, be productive during the day, and go to bed equally early so they don’t wear themselves out for the following day. It’s not always so easy, though – insomnia crops up. Screaming can happen at night. Some nights just don’t want to cooperate. The result is half-asleep, yawning, tired people moving from one station to the next through the day.
As a transgender person with autism and an unstable (though nevertheless provable) income, I often find myself caught between two fires. I have extreme sensitivity to noise. I’m a schedule person – if I can plan it in advance, I’m comfortable with it. Day-to-day chaos, which is often the case at New Horizons, sometimes proves a difficulty that can’t easily be overcome. Sharing supper with a group of loud people isn’t the best fit for me.
On a particular Friday, my sensory issues had been kicking up very strongly. I went to the bookstore and tried a meditation with rain sounds from YouTube in my headphones. I tried taking Tylenol. I tried distancing myself from noise as much as possible for as long as I could. Yet, when supper came around, the loud noises returned. Suffering for three hours followed.
It will get better with some sleep. Sleep, shut down all my senses, let me recover. So I hoped.
Saturday morning brought no more relief, even after breakfast and another round of Tylenol. I sat in the staff office, crying about how overwhelming it all was, how I couldn’t take it. Whether I had anxiety like the staff and the doctors claimed, or whether it was just autism kicking up too much, the result was that I found myself lying in a bed at the Elliott Hospital early Saturday morning.
Sleep came at once. I slept the morning away, and felt better afterward. A mental health professional that I’d worked with before came to talk about my situation. The staff at the hospital repeatedly took my vital signs. Paying attention to them, I learned that my blood pressure had been up during my admission. It went down soon after.
When I thought that people weren’t listening to me, that my voice wasn’t heard, the crying started up again. It would for the next couple of days, sometimes without warning. I went into the stairwell where the noise was less present, and put my hands in my eyes. More than the frustration, or the pain, I felt a sense of hopelessness at my situation. Nothing would ever change unless it was for the worse. So I thought.
In this, at least, I was proven wrong. Upon admission, I was placed in the men’s dormitory. With a pair of breasts that came from taking hormones and my long brown hair, it was clear to most people from the first that I was transgender. The idea came to me from a friendly staff member who suggested I could move into the women’s dorm.
At first, as with most new changes, I was apprehensive. Would they welcome me there? Would they see me as an intruder into a space where I didn’t belong? I certainly wondered whether, despite my desire to be seen as female and treated as such, it would be okay for me to go in there. I’m only too aware of how conservative the people of New Hampshire can be, and how repressive some situations are.
The first night I went up there, I didn’t use the women’s bathroom. I couldn’t. The feeling of being an intruder remained with me. It didn’t matter that I identified as a female, or that I’d been taking hormones to feminize my body for the last two years. It didn’t even matter that I’d begun exploring options for surgery with my medical provider. In that moment I was sure that I would be perceived as an extraneous element that didn’t belong.
Contrary to all expectations, nothing happened. I went to bed and fell asleep. That was it. In the morning, women from the dorm came to find me during breakfast to offer their support. Plenty of hugs were exchanged. I was even told that I was beautiful, something I didn’t expect (there’s no way I would ever use that word to describe myself). Since then, the women in the dorm have been nothing but kind and compassionate.
Walking the streets of the city has brought a bit of peace to me that I didn’t have before. You won’t see me sitting around on Elm Street with a cardboard sign, or panhandling on South Willow Street. You won’t see me shouting at the air, or putting needles in my body. You might see me going off to work, or taking in the sunshine in the park. If you see me at all, a friendly greeting wouldn’t go amiss.
Most of all, though, I would hope that anyone who sees me doesn’t automatically think drug addict or loser wasting their lives. Please don’t go in front of the city council and say that I’m a nuisance to the city who ought to be removed. I would ask that anyone who sees me doesn’t get tempted in writing a letter to the editor of the local paper saying that the homeless have to be put to work; I already have a job.
I’m not asking for money; I already have some of my own. I’m not asking for anyone to treat me in a special kind of way. I’m a normal human being (mostly) with normal human being needs. I’m homeless, for now. I probably will be for the next while. I’m doing okay. There’s no need to legislate me away or use the law like a broom to sweep me aside. In time, I’ll find a place to live. Until then, please be patient with me. Please try to be patient with others who don’t have the advantages that I have. We are all trying our best to cope however we can. I promise we are.
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Winter Trabex is a writer from Manchester.