I’ve been a *homeless shelter volunteer for years, so am familiar with the scope of that work on a normal evening. Last weekend was different—a few of the residents were severely agitated, a disturbance that required more than our usual responses.
Usually I come home from those late-night shifts with the usual mixture of emotions—admiration, sorrow, guilt, frustration, gratitude and resolve. From my work years ago as a social service provider, I have known people like our guests, and always feel privileged to be part of their lives. Because the program is well-run and heavily supported by thousands of volunteers and donors, it has been a mainstay in the larger societal effort to help those who are homeless regain their economic and emotional footing.
But that weekend night was different—the emotional and physical pain was evident in the guests with possible mental illness. I came home unsettled about the experience, and what it means for my place in caregiving that shows God’s providential love.
With other shelter guests, those of us who volunteered that night handled the situations well—even though police and emergency response personnel were called out—and the troubled guests eventually settled down to the remainder of their night’s rest.
What created the unrest in me is the realization that those who may be mentally ill face a troubling existence every day of their lives. This program is one of our suburban county’s social service enterprises that serves people who are poor. PADS is good at what it does, but now is faced with increasing numbers of mentally ill people.
For many people, PADS is their last resort and only home. That’s because police and emergency personnel are legally prohibited—and sometimes ill-equipped—to deal with the emotional and physical problems these individuals face. Local emergency rooms can offer only short-term help before these patients are turned back out on the street. Mental health services rarely offer long-term help—our society closed mental health residential facilities decades ago. So if you’re someone who is poor, in need of quality mental healthcare and at the end of your ropes, homeless shelters like PADS may be your last and perhaps best hope for care and concern.
Which brings me back to my experience last weekend, to my unsettled emotions and to my sense of what’s necessary. I realize that I will continue to encounter mentally ill individuals in other places in my life. With other volunteers, I’m not giving up on this unique ministry of caring for people who are homeless. I’m confident of my abilities to handle some situations—thank God for those years of social service experience—but not sure about other unpredictable moments. I am more appreciative of the difficult work of law enforcement and emergency personnel in dealing compassionately with mentally ill individuals. Perhaps strangely, I am also more aware of the multiple factors that weigh on our society, the crush of events and circumstances that might contribute to any number of widespread psychological problems that seem to be blossoming in greater numbers.
As I write these words, I am curious about the special place for older adult volunteers in these matters. People of faith have uniquely powerful gifts to get at the roots of mental illness.
One thing I know for certain: How fiercely God loves and cares for people who are homeless, including those who occasionally experience psychological trauma!
*Our area’s homeless shelter program is called PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter). It operates as a series of one-night sites—usually churches—along several commuter train lines. Guests are site-resident for that one night only, moving to the next day’s stop in a regular pattern. Trained volunteers offer safety, nutritious meals, a good night’s sleep, showers and cordial hospitality at each church. A staff of professional workers administers the larger program, which includes job placement, counselling, medical and other support services at a permanent day site.