Thursday, July 2, 2009


There is a rhythm and routine to my work at the shelter that brings me comfort. Upon arrival each night we put on gloves and begin lugging gray mats to their assigned places. Each mat has a number, and we deliver 29 of them to their designated spots according to a detailed map. There is a red number on one side and a black number on the other side. On odd numbered days we place the red side up, and on even numbered days, it’s black side up. We have to leave at least two tiles’ space between them. Then we put a pillow on each mat and a Rubbermaid container for belongings at the foot of each bed. We disinfect the mats and start stacking bedding with one blanket, sheet, and pillowcase for each guest.

Getting the shelter ready each night is a series of small, easy tasks. My body is more engaged than my mind. There is steady movement and the satisfaction of a job well done. I’m really good at setting up mats; my success is guaranteed. I don’t even fully understand all of what I’m doing. Don’t ask me why we have a map for our numbered mats. I have no idea, but it doesn’t really matter. Someone else is in charge here; someone else is "the boss of me". I’m just following directions. I love these kinds of jobs. I always have. Secretly, I like doing meticulously scripted work. I crave more structure and supervision than anyone would suspect. It makes me feel safe.

I’m beginning to think this is true of us all. People often talk about how children crave structure or need boundaries, but so do adults. That is why 25+ guests show up at ROOTS every night. Because they are seeking a structure and routine that is never present on the streets. For 11 hours at a time they are happy to trade in the independence and freedom of their street lives for the rigidity and rules of shelter life.

My experience is that successful programs for homeless friends tend to be pretty rules-y. They gave me pages of rules at volunteer training, but after being here only a week I understand that they are necessary. These are not rules for the sake of having rules. All the systems and procedures for beds and food and bathrooms and clothing and the ways we monitor conversation and behavior, they are the structure that holds this place up. And ultimately, it is all part of the attempt to make everyone feel safe. And it seems to work.

When guests check in for the evening, they are asked a series of questions. The first is whether or not they feel safe. I love this question. Why? Because safe matters. The health of individuals and communities depends on it. It’s a question that we all answer for ourselves a hundred times a day in each of our many contexts and relationships. Am I safe? Unfortunately, many of the horrible things that happen in our world on both a global and relational level happen when individuals or groups feel unsafe, but when people feel safe it opens the door for unlimited possibilities. This is why ROOTS goes to great lengths to create a safe space. And I love that. I love the sanctuary that this place provides for guests, many of whom I suspect have had very unsafe journeys that have brought them here. But at least for tonight, they have a safe place to land...on these gray numbered mats in nice, neat rows. And that makes me happy.


Christine said...

Great insight Tobi. We all need to feel safe in order to produce. When this is removed we are placed in a very awkward, stale environment. Structure is vital and sustains us. I have thought a lot about this lately, and to have you "blog" about it brings it home....making people feel safe in our relationships with them, is a gift that we have the power to give. Good job, Tobi.....

Spiegs said...

there are two things that i love about this post. 1. i love that i totally agree - safe is SUPER important. but somehow as adults, we can't allow ourselves to feel that, even though that doesn't change our desire or need for it. and 2. that i can hear you saying these words. i could hear your tobi voice, even though i haven't heard it for real in years. yay for facebook and blogs!