Finding Shelter

Life isn't easy for the Valley's 3,000 homeless. For one night, Kristi Eaton turned herself into one of them. She stayed at the Church on the Street women's shelter, where she learned a little about surviving Phoenix's concrete jungle and a lot about hers

 by Kristi Eaton
 published on Thursday, October 20, 2005

Deanna Dent / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
John Tyler isn't letting cystic fibrosis stop him from getting a college education. The Make-A-Wish Foundation paid for his first year of school and the English literature major now dreams of becoming a lawyer.
Deanna Dent / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE

On any given night, there are 3,000 homeless men, women and children roaming the streets of Maricopa County, searching for a place to spend the night. For one night, I was among 30 women who found refuge in a temporary shelter.

I arrive at the Church on the Street shelter in central Phoenix at 7 p.m. Friday with $14 to my name and a change of clothes. Pulling up to the building, I look around – up and down the street there is nothing but warehouses. The shelter stands out for one reason – a faint light shines through the glass door, the only way to see in or out.

I walk in assuming I will immediately get a bed. I am wrong. Beds are reserved early in the day on a first-come, first-served basis, I am told. If I want to call back at 11 p.m., an unclaimed bed might open up.

For a brief moment, a surge of panic runs through my body that I imagine the women feel on a nightly basis. My mind races. What am I going to do for the next four hours? Where am I going to go and how do I get there?

I snap back to reality and walk out the front door. Unlike the other women in the shelter, I am able to hop into my Jeep, buy a Subway sandwich and return to my dorm room, where I sit and watch reruns of "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "Full House" while surfing the Internet.

As the clock on my computer strikes 11 p.m., I pick up my cell phone and call the shelter.

"Is there a bed open?" I ask.

"Yes," the lady on the other end responds. "I need to ask you some questions."

OK.

Are you mentally ill?

No.

Are you currently on medication?

No.

Are you currently under a doctor's supervision?

No.

Are you pregnant?

No.

Do you have kids?

No.

Can you sleep on the top bunk?

Yes.

Do you have all four limbs?

Yes.

You are only allowed to bring one bag and one purse.

OK.

You know you are required to go to church, right?

Yes.

We go to church whenever we tell you we go.

OK.

Leaving the comfort zone

I set the phone down and for a few seconds weigh the possibility of backing out altogether. It would be so much easier to just stay here in my dorm room for the night. My roommate tries to be supportive as I weigh both options with her, but I know she thought I was crazy from the moment I told her I would be spending a night in a homeless shelter. I tell myself I need to do this for me (as well as for my deadline), grab my backpack and head out the door.

I arrive at the shelter for the second time around midnight. I walk through the glass door and into a room that reminds me of my grandmother's living area. A coffee table sits in front of a couch and a few chairs. A TV sits turned on with no one to watch it. The carpet is off-white, with rugs placed around the room.

"This might not be so bad," I think to myself.

A different woman greets me this time. She's about 30 and cheerful. She welcomes me and leads me to a door near the side of the room. I follow her as she walks through, and a wave of heat instantly hits me. We are no longer in air-conditioned quarters, I realize. I follow the happy woman down a long corridor. As I walk, I hear voices get louder and louder until finally we reach our destination.

I look around. We are in what appears to be an abandoned warehouse-turned-makeshift shelter with bunk beds. The floor is concrete. Two fans circulate warm air. There are 20 sets of bunk beds in rows of four. Plastic bags, piles of clothes and sheets litter the walkways between the bunks.

I arrive after the 10 p.m. curfew, so the lights are off and the women are all in bed. I sit down and sign my name and initials no less than 20 times, agreeing not to press charges against the shelter if something bad happens. The woman tells me this will be a very eye-opening experience for me. I smile and tell her I think so, too.

My bed is number 20, a top bunk or "upper." I pull up a chair to stand on to get to the top bunk. I struggle for a bit and finally understand why they asked if I had all four limbs. A pink blanket lies on the bed. I look it over. It's thick and heavy, suited more for cold nights in Flagstaff, not the current 90-degree temperature.

I look around. The woman to my left is sleeping in nothing but her underwear. Not a bad idea, I think to myself, but decide against it. The woman to my right is wearing sweatpants, with the blanket kicked to the floor.

When I checked in I was told 5 a.m. is the mandatory wake-up. I wonder how I will wake up with no alarm clock. Do they come bunk to bunk and shake all of us awake? Do they just turn on the lights and wake us up? Lights aren't enough for me, I think to myself. I think about using the alarm clock on my cell phone, but decided that would probably not be a good way to wake up everyone in the morning. I tell myself I won't sleep very hard, therefore wake up when people start making noise. It's 1:30 a.m.

Through the night, I hear the constant humming of the fan (sometime in the night, the second fan dies), a few women snoring and an older woman with a deep, throaty cough. I toss and turn through the night because of the heat. Sweat falls down my forehead as I flip over to my stomach, then on to my back, then back to my stomach. I try to find a comfortable position to sleep in, when really all I need is some AC.

Eerily familiar

I get a few hours of sleep, and at 5:15 a.m. I wake up on my own. Not exactly 5, but today is their "free day" so I'm not in trouble. I head to the bathroom. On the way, I grab the roll of toilet paper that is kept at the front desk so that no one abuses the right to use it.

The bathroom area is made up of four toilets and four showers facing each other, with a walk area acting as a divider. Curtains enclose the toilets and showers. There are two sinks with soap, but no mirrors.

I nervously walk to the bathroom. This is the first time they will see me. Do I stand out? What will they do? Will they say something to me?

The scene that greets me is one that I am very familiar with. It's eerily similar to the communal dorm setting I face every morning.

Women are stepping out of the showers with towels on their heads, three women are gossiping to each other, and others are standing at the sink putting on eyeliner and lipstick. It surprises me that they put on makeup in the morning. But they are normal women living through extraordinary circumstances, right?

After brushing my teeth, I push myself to get to know some of the ladies.

I meet Gina. She is 24 years old. Her hair is full of ringlets and her eyes are piercing but have a look of sadness to them. She is wearing bright pink pants and a pink top of a slightly darker shade. Her feet are scrunched into high heels that are at least 3 inches tall. It looks like she just came from a wild party, which might have well been the case when she checked herself in the night before at 7 p.m. She lies in her bed and recounts her story to me-- how she became addicted to methamphetamine.

Her job as a day care worker fed her addiction for four years, as she lived at home with her mother in Avondale, she says. Her mother finally got tired of her drug use and kicked her out the day before she came to the shelter. She spent that night, Thursday, on the streets of Phoenix. She had never spent a night on the streets before, and it was something she never wants to do again. She goes to church occasionally and her pastor recommended the shelter. She checked in with nothing but the clothes on her back. Today she is starting a nine-day detoxification program. She says she is ready to get off drugs and wants to eventually own her own house or apartment.

She is tired, she says after a few minutes. She's going to go to sleep, she tells me. Today is a free day, so she is allowed to fall back asleep. I stand and thank her for her time.

At that moment, someone yells that breakfast is ready. I look around and see two women carrying brown paper bags with boxes of cereal peeking out. One woman carries a single gallon of milk. I stand in line with the other ladies and wait for my meal. The woman behind me whispers to me.

"They have to bring the food in every morning now because someone contacted the health officials about the kitchen," she says.

I can only guess the kitchen is a problem because it is not very clean and rats could easily enter the pantry.

Wow, I think to myself. Maybe I'm not all that hungry. As I ponder skipping breakfast, my stomach starts to make noises so I grab a Styrofoam bowl. I look at the other women's' portion sizes to gauge the proper amount to take. They all pour enough cereal to fill their bowl, but that is hardly saying anything. The bowls hold a half-cup of cereal, if that. I pour a few drops of milk over my Cinnamon Toast Crunch, grab a plastic spoon and turn toward the table.

I face another uncomfortable situation — where do I sit? The women tend to sit in pairs, and I don't want to disrupt their system. I think about sitting by myself, but that's not why I came here. I eventually sit with two women, one of whom is Judy.

Judy is a large woman, but she is one of the friendliest women in the shelter. She quickly begins telling me her story. She was married for 30 years, until her husband passed away from Alzheimer's disease in December 2004. She's angry he passed away. She has a new fiancé, but he is unhealthy for her, she says. They often drink together, which is something she shouldn't do, she adds.

"I'm an alcoholic," she finally says.

The weekend before, she drank so much she blacked out and woke up in jail. She doesn't remember what happened. Her court date is coming up soon, she says.

"I'm scared. I've never been to court before," she says biting her lip.

I finally see the fear in her eyes. Until now, she was very calm and almost excited about recounting her story. But when talk of a possible jail sentence comes up, she freezes and begins to shake.

"I'm going to plead not guilty," she says.

I realize we need to change topics, or else she is going to break down. I ask if she has any kids.

The fear in her eyes quickly turns to happiness as a smile spreads across her face.

"I have three," she says. "A daughter in California and two sons in Oklahoma."

Being a native Oklahoman, I'm immediately curious why her sons decided to move there. She is very vague on details and I don't want to push, but she says they are doing well and they are happy that she is getting help. She wants to visit them, she says, but she can't right now.

"I need to find out who I am before I do that," she says.

That's a good idea, I tell her.

Time to go home — I'm glad I have one

It's now 9 a.m. and that means we must leave for the day. The women are required to leave the shelter from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day. Most of the women have nothing to do during the day. A few will look for jobs, but most will just wonder the streets waiting for 3 p.m., when they are allowed to return.

I get ready to leave as well. I thank all of the women and tell them I appreciate their help. They say they are happy to help.

I round up my belongings and head outside to my Jeep. While I walk, I think about my evening in the shelter and about the opportunities and possessions I have been given throughout my life. I know there is something I must do. Once inside the car, I grab my cell phone and dial a familiar number.

"Hello?"

"Mom?"

"Yes, honey?"

"Thank you."

"For what?"

"For everything. Thank you for everything."

Reach the reporter at kristi.eaton@asu.edu.


Copyright © 2001-06, ASU Web Devil. All rights reserved. No reprints without permission.

Online Editor In Chief: Jolie McCullough | Online Adviser: Jason Manning | Technical Contact: Jason Wulf

Contact Info | Privacy Policy