If you haven’t heard, I’m doing an internship downtown with Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. I work at the front desk at the Welcome Center, so I’m basically the first face people see when they walk in the door. My official job as an intern is to answer phones, direct foot traffic, and manage the front desk.
My real job is to model healthy relationships for people who’ve never had them.
This particular building of UGM—an organization which has buildings all over the Seattle area—is a men’s shelter on the first floor, but it also houses a number of different programs (dental, law, addiction recovery, etc.) between its five floors. It’s a big building. Part of the addiction recovery program, after people get cleaned up, is learning how to manage in a real work environment. While most of the people passing in front of the desk are utilizing UGM’s emergency services—meals, clothing, and warm bedding—most of the people behind the desk are utilizing UGM’s other services. Most of them are part of the addiction recovery program. They also sit behind the desk with me. It’s actually more of a front office than a front desk. It’s called the “Welcome Center”.
I didn’t fully realize that my co-workers were part of the recovery program until today.
If you want to get a bed for the night at UGM, you have to come to chapel. Chapel is at 7; lights-out is at 8. If you don’t make it to chapel on time, you have to wait outside. If there’s any beds left, you can have one after chapel is over, but first priority goes to the guys who make it to chapel. To get a bed for the night, you also need a white ticket. If you’re waiting outside, you need a red ticket. I’m not really sure how the whole ticket thing works yet.
Either way, today this guy did not have a white ticket.
Most of the men who come through UGM, especially African-American men, wear old, very baggy clothes. Not Brandon. Tight, dark red skinny jeans with multiple belts, a very nice black jacket, popped collar, do-rag, and a baseball cap.
Very, very well-dressed. What’s William doing at a homeless shelter? I don’t really know. But apparently he was not well-liked. My co-workers looked on him with suspicion. He waited in line at the front desk for something earlier in the night, and when I flashed him a smile as I sat in the back—someone else was in the hotseat at that time—he returned the favor. But I could see the anger in his eyes, and got the distinct sense that he had something to prove.
Bedtime, like I said, is at 8. Later that night, around 8:10, Brandon is still fully dressed and wandering around in the hallway between the rooms where all of the guys bed down for the night. I’m sitting in the back of the welcome center while one of the program dudes is sitting at the front desk.
“Hey, do you have your ticket or not?”
I can see why Brandon reacted the way he did. The program guy’s voice was harsh and accusatory, though I don’t think he realized it when he was talking.
“Man, why the hell is everyone asking me the same damn questions!”
I don’t really remember much of the rest of the conversation, but suffice it to say that it was not a friendly exchange and that thirty seconds into it the program guys had kicked Brandon out of the shelter for the night.
Shortly after that my boss, who is—have I mentioned this?—the coolest guy in the world, comes in. The program guys tell him what happened. I’m still just watching, although by this time I’ve made it back to the front desk.
Turns out the side of the story that we didn’t hear about during the shouting match was that when Brandon had been trying to find a place to sleep, all the other guys had been saying, “Hey, don’t lay next to me, faggot.”
In my mind, that changes the game a little bit. It means that Brandon wasn’t trying to start a fight, but that he was wandering because he couldn’t find a place to sleep where people weren’t calling him faggot. It also means that he was already on edge, insecure, and uncomfortable, and that any harsh tones from somebody behind the desk would definitely be interpreted as an attack.
My boss, the coolest guy in the world John Herman, invited me outside to see if we could go find him. We couldn’t, but John and I had a great talk anyway.
“Eventually, Mike, you’ll have gained these guys’ trust and you’ll be able to intervene in a situation like that, which is really what you’re there to do. Stay at the front desk as much as you can, because what you get to do from there is mediate between the guys in front of the desk and the guys behind it. When something like that happens you can pull people aside and say, ‘hey, can we talk about that?’ Or if you see someone calling this guy a faggot or whatever, you can pull them into another room and say ‘Hey, you know what? That word is really, really offensive. Can we talk about the way you handled that situation?’ These guys don’t know how to deal with conflict. That’s part of why they’re here. And that’s part of why you’re here: to show them how to deal with conflict in a healthy way.”