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Pine Street Inn MAG
The stairway leading to the men's section doesn't smell, even though I'd expected it to stink of urine or sweat. Somehow the emptiness feels even worse, as though the staircase is shaking its head and saying in defeat, There are too many. When we enter the men's dormitory, I can see what the staircase meant. In this overwhelmingly large room, metal bedframes and thin blue mattresses are lined up so far back that I can't count them. The kind of blankets they give you on airplanes, roughly made and in the worst shade of beige, lie in the center of each mattress. Their incredibly neat folds seem like an apology for their inadequacy. The beds are all the same; the stoplight-yellow pieces of tape with scribbled numbers are their only difference. We walk past rows and rows of them. 152. 201. 274.
Leading our line of pale-faced teenage volunteers is a woman with an unnaturally stiff chin, like it has become accustomed to forcing itself up. She explains that the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter can only accommodate 300. Each man gets a number, we're told, and sleeps in the corresponding bed.
It's a good shelter, but there's a reason it's called a shelter. When I look up at the exposed pipes (which seem far too reminiscent of internal organs), and then over at the wide windows that somehow never let in enough light, I can't find a single thing that would make this shelter a home.
I should know the importance of home. For all the time I've spent in one place, you'd think I was a stalk of corn. I was born and raised in the things-are-always-black-and-white suburb Arlington, Massachusetts. I've never lived in another house; I've never transferred schools. My parents have never been suddenly unemployed. My house has a purple door and enough clutter to drive my mother almost, but not quite, insane every night. We drape our coats over chairs instead of hanging them up. Our tablecloths are stained within seconds of being changed. So my house is not merely a place that shelters me from the cold: it is somewhere familiar, safe, and mine at the end of every day. When it rains I sit beside a window and pretend to read so nobody knows that I just like to watch the water coating the glass. On bad days I go home and press my face into a pillow that smells like our house instead of generic detergent. On really bad days, the texture of my duvet under my fingers feels like the most important thing I have.
What would life be like without these things?
We tour Pine Street before we meet the residents. The rows of beds are easier to take in before seeing the people who will sleep there. We never learn their names. Some have diamond-hard jaws and biceps and meet our eyes as if daring us to pity them. Others' eyes wander anywhere but our faces, sometimes fixing desperately on their own shaking hands. A few seem mentally ill but are cheerful, smiling hard and asking our names, why we're there, if we'll be back tomorrow. One man, a former chef, jokes about the quality of the food here. As he talks, I have to look away; his smile looks like my father's.
Their most striking feature is the intensity of their normalness. Yet every night they are numbered like prisoners. After eating a dinner of two scoops of rice, one piece of chicken, and a scoop of peas and carrots, they are sent into locker rooms to change clothes and clean. In the morning, as soon as their feet touch the floor, they become numberless again. Even that tiny piece of identity does not stay; one man may be 45 one night and 164 the next, and if there's no room the next night, he must go elsewhere.
Who can you be, if that's your life? And how can we think that being under a roof means you're taken care of?
My parents have always lived by the belief “Give what you can,” and I was taught to help people on the streets. But “Give what you can” in this world means give food to keep folks from starving, clothes to keep them from freezing, shelter to keep them protected. I never knew they needed more – until that day at the Pine Street Inn when I was greeted with that bleak row of bunks. I had never considered the need for identity and dignity.
When we return to school and tell our story, nobody listens. The teacher shakes her head and clucks her tongue, momentarily wracked with sympathy. “And these are the lucky ones,” she adds; I drop my eyes to my lap. A cardboard box with a blanket, as unwelcoming and grim as it is, still seems like more of a home than that open-mouthed ceiling and assembly line of beds. I have never had to decide between identity and comfort; I can't say which I would choose. But I do know that there's more at stake than a ten-minute walk to the nearest shelter.
That said, Pine Street Inn is a critical organization. It has saved more lives in more ways than can be counted. Just sleeping in a bed, even if it's a heartless one, can be the difference between missing the interview and getting the job. Sometimes just one healthy meal, even if it isn't your taste, can help beat the illness eating your insides. Yet I feel that nothing I do here will ever be enough.
Back in the kitchen, I try to give what I can. The men look at me and then look away; I don't have the answers. I can't explain why I get to leave at the end of the day and go to safe, sleepy Arlington and my home that's full of life. I can't explain why my world brims with possibilities and theirs doesn't. I can't explain why there are houses with indoor tennis courts and people who wear gems worth thousands of dollars. I can't explain why the world has decided not to treat “the homeless” as humans. I can't even justify what I have.
But for now I push that aside, meet their eyes, force light into my smile, and scoop out rice and beans as they walk up, filling their trays, until finally we reach the end of the line.