My shift at the Day Center is a pastiche of overheard conversations, half-seen exchanges and passing mini-dramas. As a volunteer, I have to gauge whether I am allowed to listen, to see, to enter into conversation or to toss out a joke.
The rules aren't clear. Sometimes eye contact is an invitation to talk. For others, it means, don't mess with me today. Lack of eye contact can carry those same meanings.
I've been around long enough to crack wise, but it depends the people and the situation. I'm not one of the homeless, and to assume too much familiarity can be a problem.
Last week a volunteer made what she thought was a light-hearted remark to a woman loaded down with bags and got an earful about how "bag lady" was demeaning and put people in box instead of treating them as individuals. After an uncomfortable moment, the conversation worked around to why "bag lady" was a pejorative, while a "bag man" was someone loaded down with money.
For many of our guests, a backpack serves in place of the bags.
It may carry spare clothes, laundry, food, tools, tobacco, cell phones, books and papers—often documents related to disability claims, veterans benefits and court cases. One bagless guest today clutched a three-ring binder stuffed with papers and decorated with baby pictures.
Another regular's backpack carried a two-liter soft drink bottle that he filled with coffee from our pot, to save for later. Then he extracted a copy of the Colorado Revised Statutes, a volume as thick as my arm.
I asked him if he always carried the book around with him, and he said, no. He'd brought it in for another guy who was involved in some dispute over a drivers license revocation, so he could be aware of his rights. Lawyers don't know the law, he said. They just know how to file paperwork. They should teach Colorado law in school so we know our rights, otherwise, we just keep getting squeezed by the government for every dime. He quoted statutes and subsections with apparent authority, and I nodded him into eventual submission.
"V" repaid "D" the $20 he owed him. "M" handed "J" a cigarette. "C" gave an extra set of long underwear to "R," who last week passed the time reading the dictionary he carries. "P" promised "L" he'd bring in a couple pair of jeans to replace the torn pair "L" was wearing. Thievery takes place in the camps and on the street, but here there's a lot of sharing, too.
There are limits on how much sharing is allowed, though. Toward the end of the morning, a couple locked themselves in a restroom, one of the few private places our guests have available, prompting some door banging by the management. The services at Catholic Outreach only reach out so far.