On the morning of April 18, when I awoke, I wasn't in bed with my wife in the home that we own. I was at the homeless shelter. I spent the night there because I'm on the Santa Cruz, Calif., city council.
The council soon will be reviewing our commitment to services to the homeless, and I thought a night at the shelter would be a way to help me have some information on which to make decisions. The staff trusted me to have an open mind and found an extra bed, to make sure I didn't take the place of someone who actually needed it.
I decided to spend the night under an assumed name, as I wanted to experience a "normal" night at the shelter and hear people's stories without edits.
Like any first-timer, I was anxious to be at the shelter. It has its own norms and its own culture, created by agreement between the staff and the clients. Though the newness of it kept me from being really at ease, I found nothing dangerous or threatening about the place. The atmosphere was orderly, peaceful, kind and sad. Many, though not all of the men I interacted with (I had less contact with the women), were depressed, sad, "bummed out."
Many, both by appearance and testimony, were drug addicts: meth, heroin and/or alcohol. But no one used drugs in the shelter, and no one sold drugs. No one was threatening or violent. Almost all of the people I met had some personal tie to Santa Cruz.
The shelter was not a fun place to be, by any account. You get your toilet paper from the staff and your information about how to use the facility from the other residents. Lights are out at 10 p.m. and on at 6 a.m., with no exceptions. Dinner is over by 5 p.m., and I would have gone to bed on an empty stomach but for simple kindness — a couple of residents shared chips and oranges with me, and a staff member gave me a sandwich.
I did meet some people who seemed to be on their way out. One guy left at 6 a.m. to take the bus to a job interview. Another had just enrolled in Cabrillo. Another seemed close to asking for rehab, if only it could be made easily available. It was clear to me that by creating a safe space, the shelter provides an opportunity for people to turn their lives around. Most of the clients will not take advantage of it. Some will.
When I told my new acquaintances the truth about my identity at breakfast the next day (along with an apology and a promise of confidentiality) most of them were surprised but supportive. A few took the opportunity to educate me.
"It's not some big mystery," one young man explained. "We're homeless because we can't afford rent."
"You get in, and you can't get out," said a mother of two grown-up children.
It was easy to believe her. After 14 hours my self-esteem was lower, my wit was duller and my confidence was shaken. I feel sure that if I spent 30 days homeless, inside the shelter or out, I would become a different person. Instead I went home and held my family, and cried with gratitude for having a place to return to.
Micah Posner sits on the Santa Cruz City Council.