It would be dark when I got there, both outside and inside.
Outside it would be before dawn. My shift ran from 4:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. but I was often late, mostly because I wanted to arrive when there was work to do instead of sitting with other volunteers waiting for when it was time to wake people up.
Inside the large gym where homeless people were sleeping on the floor it was dark except for light from the doorway into the cafeteria where a few men who never slept sat talking and drinking coffee. I would come in from the parking lot through the back door of the church and tiptoe through the gym, careful to avoid stepping on people or their blankets or their belongings which covered the floor in an almost seamless quilt of humankind.
Eighty people — men and women — were sleeping on the floor because it was below ten degrees outside. That’s when the warming room opened, when it was ten degrees or colder. So it was a tough bunch in the room, survivors. When they weren’t there in the warming room, they stayed outside under bridges, in parks and alleys, in tents and sleeping bags, on cardboard on the sidewalk.
I’d decided early on to focus on my jobs — waking people, gathering blankets and stacking them in the storage room, wiping down tables, picking up trash, and finding things for people — scarves, gloves, jackets — that would make going back outside in the still frigid air more bearable. I didn’t chat other than to say good morning. I didn’t know what to say.
We had a streak of very cold weather, day after day of under ten degrees. The faces became familiar, the routine automatic, and the blankets thick with the smells of dozens of sleepers. People would wake, gather themselves, and then fold their blankets, bringing them to me like presents. Sometimes a blanket was too far gone, rank and smelly, and I’d set it aside to take to the garbage barrel later, not wanting its returner to witness my throwing it out.
I learned many lessons in the warming room.
I learned that people, no matter how little they have, want to control their own space and time. Two days in a row I hurried to gather a man’s blankets only to have him scold me, “I said I’ll take care of it.” The first day I heard him. The second day, I mistook him for someone else. Not wanting to err again, I started asking each person if it was okay if I helped gather their blankets rather than plowing in to straighten up.
I learned that people have friends who are dear to them and for whom they will sacrifice. Friendship seemed to be about basic survival — emotional, psychological, and physical survival. A true lone wolf was a rare customer at the warming room. I asked a woman one morning where she would be if she hadn’t slept there and she said, “Oh, I’d be with my friends.” I figured out only months later that she was talking about her friends in her encampment, the same ones sleeping near her in the gym.
I learned that homeless men are easier to talk to than women. Men were casual, quick with jokes, teasing. They were ready with hugs, like brothers, smiling with open arms. It made me happy to hug them. It was wordless, maybe that was why, but also genuine and simple. Women were guarded, eyeing me like they were wondering why I was there, what was my deal, my agenda. It made sense to me, as the time unfolded. It is so dangerous being a woman who is homeless. One needs to be plenty guarded.
I learned that I will always be a blanket stacker and that I will never be one who counsels people who are homeless, helps them figure out a next move, arranges things they need. When I tried just a little bit, I was overwhelmed by the hardness of everything, how cold it was outside, how there was no place for anyone to go. I gave up fast, pulling one of the other volunteers, a good fixer, in to take over. So I know I will always be a laborer in this homeless volunteering business. That disappointed me at first but now it feels right and realistic. And valid. Someone has to stack the blankets. Why not me?
This year, the warming room is run by a different group and I haven’t volunteered yet. I may not, I don’t know. It was -5 degrees here in Milwaukee today and I feel compelled to do something. So I organized a quick 48 Hour Long Johns Drive to gather sweat pants and thermal underwear from friends and neighbors as a way of helping out and that may have to be good enough.
The most important thing I learned from the warming room was to do something, to not be impervious to people freezing outside, to not think other people are taking care of it, to feel an obligation to be present in some form. I knew these things, of course, from having lived a long time but I didn’t really know them until I spent those early morning hours in the dark of a church gym stacking blankets.