After I parked, I arrived at a sturdy red brick and limestone building in the dark early New Year’s evening of 1994. I had not been in a shelter before. Fears and negative thoughts about “those homeless people” jumped to mind. Would I be mugged? Would I be robbed?
My legs lumbered up the well-lit stairs with my suitcase. I opened the door to a clean and sparkling lobby. The disheveled receptionist gave me a thorough glance, checking off a mental list. He handed me a booklet, and grunted, “You can sit on one of those chairs to fill it out.” He pointed to some comfy leather chairs. “Bring it back to me when you’re done.”
The simple questions in the booklet were intrusive but I did as I was told, worried about my responses. I needed money and help. After I sheepishly handed him the form, he reviewed it and told me to go to the Ramsey County building next to the post office the following day. Then he handed me a map of downtown Saint Paul and buzzed the door to the living quarters.
I was surprised and impressed by the cleanliness and orderliness of my assigned second floor. This place was warmer than my car and better built than the Minneapolis motel I had paid for the previous day. My room was snug and private with a comfortable single bed, a sturdy oak dresser, and a generous closet. The large window had a view of the history museum and green flowered curtains. The smooth terrazzo floor gleamed with gold trim and fresh wax. One of the residents who stopped by to say hello mentioned to me it had been a nurses’ dormitory.
The next morning, I dragged myself out of bed at six-thirty, showered in the neatly appointed common bathroom, and dressed. I found my way to the well-maintained grounds and solid brick walls of the Dorothy Day Center and stood in a long, chilly queue. The main doors opened, and the line snaked out along the street and began to restlessly move inside. There people formed themselves along the sparkling window-walled offices and conference rooms on the side of the large, brightly lit common dining room.
The whole place was unexpectedly spotless. White walls and clean floors with gleaming white tables reflected the sunrise. The upbeat room was full of color and loud, lively conversations. Friendly people were gathered into cliques. They were dressed differently than I was used to seeing, in oversized color-blocked designer outerwear. Women wore skin-tight jeans, and men slouching jeans. My tailored purple trench coat and conservative Levi’s were at odds with the room’s strange, vibrant wardrobes. I was out of place and bewildered. Who were these people? How had I ended up among them? How could I experience poverty again?
I waited alone in the line, fidgeting, and uncomfortable, wondering about breakfast. “Would you be interested in some information about subsidized housing? This nonprofit can help you apply,” a soft voice behind me said. I turned around and a pleasant-looking woman was handing me a flyer. She explained how to get help to rent an apartment with offset utility costs. I thanked her and slid the flyer into my booklet for safekeeping. I could only hope for that.
After finishing breakfast, I headed off on foot to the human services building following the map the hippie receptionist had given me. The red brick building was old and tiring. It was trimmed in weathered grey-tinted paint that was trying to match its limestone features. People with strollers and wheelchairs tried to maneuver through the crowd of early-morning applicants. I followed the lunging assembly toward the back corner of the ground floor, stood in a long line, got a numbered tag, then separated myself from them, settling in on a hard bench.
Cold air from a window seeped onto the back of my neck, and the industrial stucco walls were grey with dust. The mottled asbestos tile floor was stained with black scuff marks. Babies cried loudly and kids squealed and played on the dirty floor. Their toys made obnoxious noisy beeps. The odor of dirty diapers permeated the air. This was simply too much!
I studied the housing flyer and grew impatient while I watched social workers slowly processing intake screenings. “Next!” workers yelled. They spoke loudly, exposing the private information of applicants. Dreading my turn to be interviewed, I again folded the flyer back into my pocket.
While I waited for my interview, I knew I could cope with the welfare system. I had grown up with a disabled, unemployed single mother during my teen and college years, so I was familiar with poverty and its accompanying hopelessness. A dependence upon social systems and the generosity of others for life’s essentials was humiliating to me then, and constantly asking for help would exhaust me again. My spirit had been robbed in the past, and this time I vowed, “Never again.”
At last, Ramsey County’s review of my application brought me cash payments, food stamps, and bus passes. After the long wait in the dreary atmosphere of the welfare office, it was lunchtime. I looked forward to a hot meal at the Dorothy Day Center and a long nap in my cozy private room at Mary Hall.
Adulthood had brought me full circle to face my growing-up years, a tempering of my middle-class dreams, and a difficult adjustment to my status as a recurring participant in the welfare system. I was starting at the bottom of the social ladder again, yet I did become employed, moved into an apartment of my own, and then went back to school. I was on my way.
The people I met at Mary Hall, Dorothy Day, and the welfare office enriched me by allowing me to experience the determination of my peers also seeking welfare, and the compassion of the workers employed within the social system. I learned homelessness is an economic condition one can gain freedom from, not a chronic contagious disease.
As a result of this growing experience, a distinct turnaround occurred in my life. I took a new path. I entered a Saint Paul seminary and learned more about God’s Spirit inhabiting and working through people, all people. I learned everyone has priceless value and that being destitute and homeless can be a condition of the soul, too.
Deeply grateful for the help I have received, nowadays I am a contented homeowner. I live simply because of these transformational influences upon me. They cracked open my heart and showed me the truth that there are no “other people.” We are all just human beings.
DOROTHY PROBST is a creative flash nonfiction writer with a Master of Arts in Education Leadership from Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, MN, and a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ. Her CNF essays appear in the 2021, 2022, and 2023 issues of Gather magazine, a nationally-distributed nondenominational publication of the ELCA Women’s ministry.