I'm back volunteering at the Catholic Outreach Day Center* in Grand Junction, Colorado. Leaving the pre-school in Minneapolis and starting here again always involves transition.
The most abrupt change, of course, is moving from teaching homeless kids to serving homeless adults. The kids demand an active, engaged presence, and they compete for attention almost all the time. The adults at the Day Center socialize mostly with their peers. The volunteers adopt the friendly, non-judgmental demeanor of shop clerks who've been told "I'm just browsing." We stay out of the guest's faces and only try to help those who ask for it.
The biggest difference, though, is in the trajectories of the lives I get to know.
When I leave Minneapolis for six months, I can be almost certain to start over with a new group of kids after I return. For the most part, the shelter is aimed at families who are seeking to get back to stable housing situations. When they leave, it's usually good news — at least I can be hopeful — but it means I'll never see the kids again.
My first day back, several of the regulars parked elaborate shopping cart configurations at the bike racks. They typically showed up with shopping bags of clothing and other possessions, but these contraptions approached Mother Courage scale. I don't yet know what it means about how they are living or how their circumstances might have changed.
Because the weather has started to turn cold at night, it was possible to tell those living rough at the camp by the river from those who had a shelter bed. The layers of clothing and the grime are tip offs.
I don't mean for this to sound bleak. I saw several people who were doing much better than when I was last here.
It's odd to be glad to see someone again when it means they are still homeless. On the other hand, it also means they're still alive.
* I've been volunteering there since 2009. The Day Center provides guests with laundry and shower facilities, a mail drop and phones, a safe storage for some belongings, and a warm place to sit with free coffee, creamer and, perhaps most important, sugar.