Seven Scenes from the Shelter

  1. It is 6:30am, and the dishwasher is broken. Someone from a previous shift left a note on the door of the machine that said, “The bottom rack is missing its wheels, so we used knives to prop it up as a temporary solution.” This appears not to have worked, because the rack has collapsed onto the rotating spray arms of the machine, preventing them from moving. The dishwasher is full of dirty dishes, and there are no clean cups for breakfast.
  2. I start up coffee and light the stove to make scrambled eggs, cracking a full dozen into a huge skillet, per usual. I look for the pancake mix I usually use but can’t find it. Turns out the family-size bags are out, but there is a huge twenty-pound box of mix stored on a high shelf. I consider the time, the dirty dishes, and my lack of a volunteering partner this morning because she is on vacation. Today will be just eggs, unfortunately! I’m glad that there is plenty of bread, instant oatmeal, cereal, and fruit to offer, as well, remembering past weeks when one or more of these staples were simply not available.
  3. James* comes in, blanket wrapped around him, one eye focused on me and the other somewhere else. “Good morning, James! Eggs today?” I feel a twinge of regret for not making pancakes, because James, who works at a restaurant, is the one who taught me the secret to making pancakes perfectly golden and fluffy and not too dry. He did this because he protested the way I made them when I first started volunteering here two years ago. “Where’s your other person?” James asks. “You mean Katie? On vacation, I think.” James then asks after my roommate, whose name he remembers even though she hasn’t come in to volunteer for months. “You know the girl who comes on Friday dinners has the same name as your rommate? She’s real cute.” I hand him his eggs, hot off the griddle. “Enjoy!”
  4. I crack more eggs into the skillet and get to work washing the dirty cups. About ten shelter guests have come into breakfast, and it appears to be a slow day, meaning not many more folks will come in to eat. The morning staffer comes in to respond to some guests’ queries. “I’m sorry, we’re all out of socks,” she says with audible regret. She informs me that the shelter was not at full capacity last night (which is about thirty beds), so it’ll be a quieter morning.
  5. A young Black woman approaches the window between the kitchen and the dining area and holds out her hand. “Hi, what’s your name again?” I smile and respond. “It’s nice to meet you,” she says, “I’m Shayna. Yeah I just been calling you the Eggs Guy because… you put your foot in them eggs!” I smile, unsure if this is a compliment. “Uh, what does that mean?” Shayna laughs and looks at her friend who is pouring himself some cereal. “He doesn’t even know what it means!” she cries. Her tall friend leans over the window and tells me, “It means you put a lot of effort into them.” Shayna continues, “Other people don’t try with the eggs, but you put your damn foot in ’em! Heart and soul.” I’m thinking, well, it’s just eggs and cheese… and oil… but I say, “You’re very welcome! Let me know if you want seconds.” The tall friend asks, “Can I have seconds before I have my firsts?”
  6. It is nearly 8:00am and the staff worker comes in. “The Berg Room is closing in five minutes! Ronnie says get all your shit out of there or else he’s taking it!” Everyone in the room laughs, and some leave to pack up their things before the shelter closes for the morning. They’re able to leave most of their belongings in lockers at the shelter but won’t be able to access them until the doors open tonight at 8:00pm.
  7. Fanny leaves her blanket and a bowl of cereal at the table to gather her things. Not knowing she intends to come back, I clear the table and begin to wash a small mountain of dishes. It’s past closing time and I want to finish up quickly. Unfortunately, Fanny returns and bemoans the loss of her breakfast. When Fanny gets upset, her behavior becomes somewhat childlike. The staff worker quickly rushes to her aid and makes a to-go breakfast: cereal and milk in a Ziploc bag. But Fanny opens the bag and sniffs it: “You didn’t put almond milk in this, did you?!” The staff worker apologizes, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you didn’t drink regular milk!” I hear this whole exchange from the kitchen and cringe: I knew that Fanny is vegan (or has a dairy allergy), since she asks every week where the soy or almond milk is, and although it’s always in the same place, it seems like every other week we have run out. Eventually, Fanny collects her breakfast and her blanket and leaves with the staff worker. I continue washing the dishes until 8:45am.

I volunteer weekly at a homeless shelter called YEAH (Youth Engagement, Advocacy, and Housing). We are always looking for volunteers to help cook and serve breakfasts and dinners or monitor the sleeping quarters and rec areas of the shelter, which is located at the Luthern Church of the Cross on University Avenue in Berkeley. We are also collecting donations of items that our shelter guests need as it gets colder: sleeping bags, blankets, clean underclothes, travel-sized toiletries, and the like. I am personally trying to amass donations from my friends and church to deliver to the shelter just before Christmas this year. Please get in touch with me if you would like to help.

* All names have been changed


Word of the Day: shelterless is the English translation of the Greek word ἀστέγους (astégous), which is used in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew word מָרוּד (marud) in Isaiah 58:6-7. The full passage is: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” The Hebrew word marud refers to outcasts and society’s marginalized individuals. The Greek word combines the negative prefix a- with the root stege, which refers to a roof or a shelter. It’s the same root used to name the extinct roof-tile lizard Stegosaurus. But the Greek verb stego doesn’t just mean to cover or be protected, it can also mean to bear with or endure. This is the same endurance Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 13:7 when he writes about sacrificial love: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
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2 Responses to Seven Scenes from the Shelter

  1. zhallber says:

    This reminds me a lot of Carrie Newcomer’s music, if you haven’t heard of her before (

    Anyways, one thing I think a lot about is how it’s the simple things that define love and not the big things. It’s hard – impossible, even – to put the *smallest* moments into the right words. The closer I am to people/events/things, the harder it is to describe them in words because, well, putting feelings into words is really hard.
    This gets into a major criticism I have of my students/friends/etc when I’m editing personal statements. You can *say* that you’re driven, motivated, etc. all you want. But that will never *show* a person that you are those things the way that a story will. Of course… stories take longer to both write and read! So the difficult part of describing something/someone convincingly (while concisely!) is to find the shortest story that gives the greatest impression.

    To end that digression, Carrie’s lyrical constructions are usually quite good at telling a story in a way that reminds me of the extraordinary behind the ordinary while being succinct. I think you managed the same. Which I think is difficult to do.


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