My Story of Working at a Homeless Shelter in New York

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Lola PalucaBy Lola Paluca

First generation of women Police Officer to graduate from Police Academy, in Tirana Albania, worked as supervisor for crimes against minors and human trafficking in Tirana Police HQ from 2005-2001.

In 2001 moved to United States, where she went to college and graduated from Grand View University with double major in Psychology and Criminal Justice concentration profiling.

Obstacles of not being a US citizen to join the police force in the states created a void in her career in law enforcement, but that didn’t last long. In 2005 Fitore joined the US Army as an MP (Military Police.) where she served a tour in Iraq and participated in a countless specialized training in the field throughout different states within the country. A few years later she changed her military job to Psychological Operations specialist where she’s currently stationed in New Jersey.

 

It was a cold day in January, and I was heading for my first volunteer work in New York City. As I got closer to the building, and then opened the door, I didn’t know what to expect. A thousand thoughts were swimming in my head. Thoughts filled with sadness and the cherished opportunity to work there. But for now I had to know what I was dealing with. The windows by the entrance were covered with green bushes and a décor of summer look. Nice, I said to myself, and finally stepped inside.

There was a big room full of unfortunate homeless people, men and women, aged mostly over 50, from all walks of life. Some had fallen prey to bad habits of drugs and alcohol, a few had just recently divorced, and for some life was just too harsh on them to still hold it together. Others were just too comfortable with the life in there to seek anything better.

In the corner there was a man with dark complexion aged around 20-25, wearing well tailored clothes, and listening to what I assumed to be music on his i-Phone, And an older gentleman who was friendly, but at times couldn’t control what he was saying or doing and acted strangely. Some of the people in the room were on medication, and if they missed a dose they displayed aggression and hard to control behavior, so I made sure to make them my priority.

I wanted to get inside their heads as much as I could and understand these people. They would be my responsibility and I would have to make sure that they were taken care of. There were scheduled times for early showers in the morning, breakfasts, lunch and dinner, laundry, and evening showers. At 8 pm it was time for everyone to be transported to a different location to spend the night and brought back in again the next day at 6 am. Everything was timed.

Days at the shelter went by fast. When there was cold weather, the shelter was to stay open and assist people who had no place to go. Among them were the ones who had already registered to that shelter, or were told to stay overnight as “punishment”. In the last group there was an older woman, maybe around 65. She was new to the shelter, and still had a lot of adjusting to do, according to the staff that worked there. She was outspoken and not afraid of anything. An attribute I came to learn was common among people that were living shelter life. Every day this poor old woman would tell me how unfairly she was being treated. The morning staff wouldn’t help her do the laundry, the shower schedules were strictly enforced, she complained about the food for being uncooked, and lastly when she was sent to spend the night at one of these shelters, the one that she was assigned to, she “was being treated like a Nazi”. They would do accountability checks 2-3 times throughout the night, and the “residents” were told to not speak, say a word, talk to each other, or go outside, or they would be locked out.

I felt that my people skills were being tested on a daily basis. In my mind, they were only compensated for their lack of a house, of loved ones, friendship, intimacy, and a comfortable bed, with a heartfelt warm delicious soup that I would serve for dinner. An over-achieving thought with much less to work on. As if I needed a wake up call, a male in his 40s brings me to my senses by saying “Why did you give me a smaller piece of chicken than the other person?”

Finally a week later I had the hang of things. Nights were kind of easy but mornings were messy and chaotic between those who had already found jobs and trying to make it there on time, look clean, suited, and fed, and among those who were already retired, or were just in the line waiting for free housing to become available. A few others had no jobs and simply didn’t care.

The work environment looked hopeful but in perspective the day to day conditions were not so good. The staff had to work by the door which was two feet away from the bathrooms, which were open covered, with showers attached and still open at the top. This meant that not only did we have to listen to the users unconscious noises, and body fluids that flowed out of their bodies, but the bad smells released too. At times there were clients who refused to shower, and the smell was unbearable. The building itself looked like it needed to be put through a dishwasher in order to smell or look livable again. The basement where the food was stored smelt of a mix of fungus and mold.

I was pondering about all of this one day as I sat next to an older man on a bus to work. He was tall, with big shoulders, a long grey mustache, and clean matching clothes. He looked at me as if I had just come out of a sewer but didn’t say anything. I didn’t think much of it.

The next day, when I was about to return home on the same bus route, I happened to see a couple sleeping on the floor of the bus terminal. The woman was in her mid-forties and the man in his mid-thirties. They looked so comfortable between the railing and the wall, sleeping and hugging each other facing down. It made me feel bad that they had to leave the facility so early in the morning, but at the same time if there, they could only sleep in a chair and not lay down anywhere, and it made me think that maybe they were more comfortable sleeping at the bus station.

I got on the bus and a young woman sat next to me but within a few seconds she moved away to sit a few rows from the back. Great, I said to myself, it is my smell from the shelter again. After that I made the decision to move on.

It felt sad to say goodbye to a place like that, but at the same time it felt good to have had the chance and the opportunity to experience at first-hand what it is like helping people who society has decided to ignore or forget about.

Footnote from Migrant Woman editorial team: If you would like to know more about the homeless people in England, please go to www.england.shelter.org.uk/home

 

1 COMMENT

  1. I would love to talk to I think Lola Paluca about her work with the homeless in New York, not sure if I have the right person a bit confusing as to who the lady is. Please contact me soon as have an idea that can help.

    Thank you
    Sara Troy
    Producer PLV RADIO

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