By Nick Do, Centre College Student
Going into this, we were quite nervous. Being the third of three pairs getting dropped off at various shelters in Louisville, we had the experience of watching each group disembarking from the van and Professor Axtell laughing quietly at our nervous solemnity. Having learned about the shelter system for the few weeks prior, I probably had a better idea of what to expect than if I had no previous knowledge; but at the same time I knew that even having it explained to me had probably been insufficient for me to really understand what it meant to stay at a shelter. From our brief tour of Wayside Christian Mission two weeks before, I had a better sense of the physical plant of a shelter — not quiet the warehouses of the indigent that I had understood them to be before, and more than merely a big row of bunks for cold nights. As someone who lived in Louisville for the first eighteen years of my life, I was ashamed to admit that I had not once interacted with the shelter system in a direct, meaningful way. Sure, we’d do canned food drives and blanket drives, but those were such sanitized, hands-off interactions that I never once saw a shelter. On that ride from Danville to Louisville, I reflected: I was certainly apprehensive, but I also recognized that I had my cell phone (a number of clients possessed cell phones of the “Go-phone” variety) and someone picking me up the following morning (few if any clients have this luxury).
Wood and I arrived at St. Vincent de Paul around 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon. It was a dreary day, but warm for the beginning of March. We entered Ozanam Inn (the shelter portion of the complex) and went to the front desk, where we were promptly told that we would not be able to check in at that time, but that in the meantime we could wait in the television room with other clients, and that dinner would be available across the way in a converted sanctuary at 5:00.
We rounded the corner and headed into the TV room, in which around 20 men — ranging in age from 20 to what I would estimate to be 65 — were raucously enjoying the University of Louisville men’s basketball game against Memphis. As we sat down towards the back of the room, the man next to me glances over, then looks me up and down, before asking, “Are you all students?” We had dreaded this very question, and had mentioned it to Professor Axtell on the ride down. What do we say? Our goal was to immerse ourselves into the experience to try to really understand what it is like to depend on a shelter, and we feared creating a divide between us and the clients if they were to view themselves as the objects of study. Axtell counseled us that first and foremost we shouldn’t lie. So we explained to him that we were in fact students from Centre College, in Louisville to study the shelter system from a firsthand perspective. We explained quietly so that maybe we could get by with just him and the few guys around us knowing, but he proceeded to stand up and announce to the entire room who we were. Great. But far from it to distance residents from us, as we had feared, I think it brought us into greater contact, and with greater depth, with these individuals. Throughout the night, having heard we were students who were genuinely interested in what they had gone through and were going through, various clients approached us wanting to tell their stories. The fact that we entered the room right around when the Cards started losing ground to Memphis (and eventually losing the game, thus making us appear to be the bringers of bad luck) probably hurt their perceptions of us more than being students with homes to return to the next day. Plus, Wood was a Cats fan.
Throughout the night, we listened to their stories and to a lesser extent told them about ourselves. Over dinner we heard from one client about the difficulty associated with living in the shelter’s transitional housing upstairs (that is, more long-term housing, often measured in months rather than the hours or days one would stay in emergency housing) and working long hours across the river at the Wal-Mart in Clarksville. I heard from men who came from locales as diverse as Memphis, rural Ohio, India, and the Philippines. Not only did many of these men hail from diverse origins, their stories of their paths to Ozanam Inn were all different too. There were common themes in their stories, too, ones that we had touched upon in class: a broken home in Memphis left one client with little to tie him to a community, so he simply left; spiraling drug use; coming to the United States in hope of a better life that is increasingly out of reach. Many clients, especially those who came from out-of-state, emphasized that the Louisville shelter system was basically the best there is, and that St. Vincent de Paul was the best within that. When they would hear that we were just one of three groups of students staying at various shelters in the city, the universal response was that we were the lucky bunch: we had the best meals, the cleanest facilities, the most reasonable rules, and obviously the most interesting conversation companions.
One thing that stood out to us became more clear after debriefing the following morning with the other groups at a local coffee shop. Almost everyone we encountered maintained a positive outlook on life that seems to defy their circumstances. Many of them were proud to show off what belongings and plans they had, and seemed driven. One of the older clients who had taken on something of a leadership role in the shelter had an interaction with a young man of 19 who had recently come to the shelter. It would be easy to be defeatist, seeing a young man relegated to the shelter system so soon, but instead the older man was relentlessly positive. He pointed out that the young man was skilled and intelligent, and promised to kick his ass if he stayed in the shelter any longer than was necessary. While we had heard so much about the negative feedback loops that tend to keep people in poverty or homelessness (and these certainly do exist), it was encouraging to see scenes like this, which speak to a sense of mutual accountability within this community.
For me, the biggest takeaway from this experience was the human faces that I can now associate with what before had been a purely academic matter. It’s been over a month since that stay, and I can still recall so much of my conversations with these men because of how earnestly they wanted to share their stories, and because, realistically, I live in a world that is largely insulated from these sorts of stories. It’s because I can put names like Danny, Big Joe, JT, Tim, Winston, and Birdman and their faces and their stories to this system reminds me that my world and my city have more to them than is immediately obvious to me.