The first sitting is for families with infants.
There are three of them. Three mothers. Five children. One child is celebrating his 2nd birthday.
I wonder about celebrating a birthday in a homeless shelter. About the memories built. The one’s lost.
I wonder how the mother keeps up such a brave and loving face. How she manages to smile and love-on her two infant sons so beautifully in such crisis.
I do not ask.
It is not my place to do so.
I am there to help shelter staff manage the chaos that is dinner-time at the shelter.
We are understaffed. Over-capacity. Summer holidays. Sick time. Maternity leaves. And an unprecedented number of families seeking shelter.
In a building designed to accommodate 27 families, we have not been under 30 families throughout July. One night we had 40 families in shelter. That’s unprecedented.
At the same time, we are giving the 3rd floor shelter space a Big Refresh, painting it to be a more calming and supportive environment. Less institutional. More welcoming.
It’s a week long exercise to paint each of three shelter areas. The second floor was completed two weeks ago. We’ve moved onto the third. Which means the families staying on one side of the third floor are being sheltered every night at our external emergency space in the basement of Knox church throughout this week. Next week, the families on the other side will pack up and move to Knox.
It is not ideal. But we need to ensure the shelter space is renewed and clean and intentionally designed to promote healing through its environmental look and feel.
It was scheduled now because July is generally a quieter month. We didn’t know it would get this busy.
Yesterday morning, at a leadership meeting, one of the team leads talked about the chaos of dinner-time. Of trying to feed over 100 people in an hour to ensure families get nutritional meals as well as are able to get to where they need to be on time.
We’re constantly short-staffed, a team lead said.
How can I help? I asked.
Come to dinner!
Who could refuse such an invitation?
Which is why I ended up helping supervise mealtime with the team.
I was mostly just an extra body trying to keep children from racing out of the dining room without their parent(s).
Mostly, I stood in awe and watched shelter staff manage children and parents and plates of food and glasses of milk and water, wipe up spill-overs, catch plates before they hit the floor and answer the questions of the volunteers who came in to serve the meal and make lunches for the next day.
In the face of crying children, laughing children, children who would not sit and eat and children who wanted to hang off the gate installed at the entrance to the doorway to keep children from wandering out and walking out onto the busy avenue, as has happened twice in the last month, the staff are engaged. Caring. Compassionate. Kind. They share fist pumps and pick up children and carry them around as they make them laugh and help mothers navigate strollers and tote bags and coax unruly youngsters who don’t want to eat, or don’t like salad, or would rather have juice than milk.
It is, in many ways, a typical family dinner scene with young children.
Parents trying to get a child to eat more than one bite. To drink their milk. To not bounce up and down in their booster seat. To not fight with a sibling.
It’s dinner at family tables the world over.
And then, it’s not.
Because this is an emergency family shelter. A place of crisis. Of high anxiety and feelings of loss, uncertainty, fear, confusion. Of young minds developing, seeing and experiencing in a place young minds struggle to comprehend.
It is a communal space. Meals are in shifts. Twelve tables. Five chairs at each table. Families with young infants first. Knox families second so they can get on the bus at six. Second floor next. And then the remaining families on the 3rd floor in two more shifts. Each family called down via radio as tables become free.
There is no time to linger. To talk about the day’s happenings. To share stories that last more than a few moments.
This dinner time is exactly one hour and fifteen minutes long, broken up into fifteen minute segments.
Because once the families leave, the volunteers clean up, do the dishes, finish off sandwich making and get everything spruced up for the next day.
They too need to get home to families and dinner tables.
The kitchen staff need to get the prep work done for the next day and the shelter staff need to ensure families are where they’re supposed to be before the night shift turns up.
I helped in the dining room last night.
I left feeling tired. Humbled. Grateful.
Grateful the shelter is there to help families in crisis. Grateful for the amazing staff who care so deeply. Grateful to be part of such an amazing team.