Last winter, I spent my Tuesday and Friday evenings working at the emergency shelter that our organization hosted for individuals experiencing homelessness.
It was our first year of staffing a shelter and I was surprised by how intimate the experience was.
The shift began at 5:30pm when we arrived at the shelter site (a church that generously lent us their space) and unloaded the food and supplies that we needed for that night. It ended after 10pm when the lights went out and our overnight staff took over.
We usually encountered a line of folks at the door when we first arrived – people who were cold, wet, and exhausted after a long day out in the cold and wanted to make sure they were the first in the door.
The first hour was pretty busy as we checked in each guest and got everyone situated with a mat, a blanket, and a meal. The process included a search of coat pockets.
You learn a lot about people by seeing what they keep in their pockets day in and day out. I found rosary beads, loose tobacco for rolling cigarettes, letters from loved ones, soaking wet clothing, bits of food for later, tools for work, and so much more.
During the next few hours, our guests were able to take showers, get their laundry done, charge their phones, watch TV… all the things one usually does at home.
As we entered those later hours in the evening, people would settle in, each claiming their own small space in the shelter. As folks walked around in the clothes they would be sleeping in, on their way to brush their teeth or shave, I sometimes was struck by the feeling that I was the guest, not them.
One night, I was sitting at the check-in table when a gentleman, we’ll call him Bryan, walked by on his way to the shower. He was playing music from his phone, and suddenly I recognized the song as one of my favorites.
I knew Bryan, had seen him around, but had never really talked to him at length. There had always been a barrier there – not exactly hostility, but something close to that. He was very independent and wanted to keep me at arm’s length, a boundary which I respected.
But when I heard that Ed Sheeran music coming from his phone, I had to reach out.
(Ed Sheeran just happens to be my very favorite artist. The picture attached to this post is from his concert at Red Rocks that my brother and I attended in 2015.)
“Hey, is that Castle on the Hill?” I asked as he passed the table.
“Well, yes it is,” he replied, turning towards me.”You know your Ed Sheeran music.”
“I love Ed Sheeran!” I exclaimed.
“Yeah, me too,” he said.
And in that moment, we connected.
We could have been two people anywhere.
Each of us weighed in on our favorite songs and we discussed the merits of Ed Sheeran’s new album compared to his old stuff.
All the boundaries of the shelter and where we were fell away; all the other guests faded into the background, the idea that I was a staff person and he was a client totally dissolved; any animosity I had previously felt from him was gone. We were just two people sharing a connection through music.
I admit that I was surprised to hear music I liked being played in the shelter that night. Even after years of working with people experiencing homelessness every day, I am still guilty of making subconscious prejudgements which are often wrong. That night,