We all need a place to belong.
In the homeless-serving sector, a shelter is where many people find a place to belong, and for some, it is the first place they’ve ever felt like they fit in.
It’s what makes a homeless shelter work. At a shelter, people find a place to belong that does not judge because they have nothing, or are broken, or lost. A shelter accepts you as you are.
You don’t need to prove your worth. At a shelter, you’re worth can’t be found in the things you possess.
At a shelter, you don’t have to pretend you’re not broken. You wouldn’t be at the shelter if something in your life wasn’t broken.
At a shelter, you don’t have to fake you know exactly where you are going. Nobody planned on being there and, up until ending at a shelter’s doors, everyone has done everything they could think of to avoid ending up at the one place they never imagined they would be.
Beyond food and shelter, a homeless shelter represents a place of belonging for those who feel outside the norm. It represents community. Safe haven. A place of last resort. A place where you know having nothing doesn’t matter. Everyone else is in the same boat.
And, it is a place for human kindness. a place where conversation happens. Friendships blossom. Lives change.
“Hey, I got a lead on a new place but I’m looking for a roommate.”
“I’m trying to find a way back to [and they name a country, province, town, or an area somewhere in the city], but I need a ride.”
“Know anyone who’s hiring?”
“I hear ABC has a couple of spots for the next month.”
“Got an extra smoke?”
“I’m workin’ on getting outta here. I just gotta find a place to rent that I can afford.”
As individuals move into and through and hopefully, out of a shelter, one of the biggest struggles isn’t always to find a place to live. It’s to find a place to belong, out there, like they felt, in here.
One man, Karl*, spent four years struggling to move beyond the shelter doors. He was a natural leader. Once, he encouraged others on his floor to contribute their bottle money to buy a young 10 year old a gift because she’d donated her birthday money and created a blanket drive for the shelter. Addiction kept him trapped until gradually, he gave up on staying drunk and reconnected with his former life, eventually moving out of the shelter. But he was lonely.
“In here, I know who I am,” he explained one night, six months after he’d moved out and turned up at the doors, drunk and hollering for access. “Out there, I’m a nobody. A peon. Just a face in the crowd.”
We are all just ‘faces in the crowd’ but when the crowd are the people we know, people we work with, play with, volunteer with… When our crowd shares a common bond, sense of purpose, we feel more connected. More safe. Welcome. Part of something that stretches us beyond the daily routine of: Get up. Get dressed. Go to work. Come home. Watch TV. Have a brew. Go to bed. Repeat daily.
Being a face in a crowd where we feel a sense of belonging gives our daily life purpose, direction. We are moving with the flow. Not standing like an island being buffeted by the waters raging around us.
And in that place, where we see ourselves reflected in the faces of those around us, we don’t feel different. Lost. Alone.
We feel like we belong. And in that belonging is the possibility of something different. Maybe. One day.
But until that day, at least here, we have a place where we know we fit in. A place where we belong.