I awake to see a woman waving a flashlight in my face. It’s about 1 a.m. and I seem to be in some kind of a warehouse. It’s sweltering hot and I’m sleeping on a plastic-coated mattress. It smells like dirty diapers, sweat and Vicks VapoRub. Ugh … this is not a typical Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporting assignment.
A cursory survey of my surroundings reminds me that I’m sleeping in the Institute for Human Services homeless shelter alongside hundreds of men, women and children, who just hours before were unknown to me. A quick glance at my assigned cubicle assures me that my computer and other work equipment are still there. I consider navigating the darkened path to the communal bathroom, but decide the task is too daunting. I fear confrontation if I accidentally wake someone up.
At 1:30 a.m., my full bladder and I drift back to restless sleep. My bunkmate, 30-year-old Krystle Marcellus, a Star-Advertiser photographer, snoozes away.
It’s 2:30 a.m. I hear a baby crying. My nearest neighbor, 23-year-old Alyssa Miller, grabs a bottle of formula and her 9-month-old infant, Kelsey, quiets. The shelter is filled with children of all ages. In the early hours of the evening, they roam from bunk to bunk like housed children visiting neighborhood friends. Teenagers sing along to their favorite music. The tweeners play Kendama and electronic games. Toddlers play hide- and-seek among the plastic under-bed tubs filled with reminders of old lives that have been lost. A newborn came in with a family earlier tonight. I hear his father crying himself to sleep. In the morning, he won’t be able to meet my eyes as he shyly asks what time men are allowed to shower in the communal family bathroom.
It’s just shy of 3 a.m. and that darned woman is walking through the shelter with a flashlight again. I hate her. But I realize the constant checks are keeping me and the other shelter guests safe. She’s got our back. That’s a familiar theme in the shelter, where other guests warned us not to sit on the toilets and to wear rubber slippers into the showers. They also advised us to use food stamps to buy manapua and sushi at 7-Eleven when they serve beef curry in the cafeteria. Nobody goes hungry in the shelter, but food quality is precarious as it comes mostly from donations. The most popular nights are when guests are treated to fresh produce and tilapia from the shelter’s rooftop garden and fish farm, where they learn job skills.
It’s 3:45 a.m. I envy the peaceful sleep that my bunkmate, Krystle, settled into after her earlier bedbug paranoia. We had spent the first several hours of the evening coating our mattresses with plastic, dryer sheets and tea-tree oil — all home remedies that someone said would keep away the creepy critters.
Recalling our first day in the shelter, I reflect on the new skills that we have gleaned. Earlier, we had to diffuse someone’s mental breakdown when Krystle unwittingly used a bathroom stall that one of the single women had claimed. With a little help from some of our new shelter friends, we navigate the stack of rules we were handed on entry.
"It took me a few weeks to learn all the rules. But don’t worry if you mess up, they usually don’t suspend you right away," explained 41-year-old Momi Lopes, an eight-month veteran of the shelter’s family section, where she and her husband, Charles, lived with six of their children.
Krystle and I spend the next hour looking for bedbugs, analyzing every itch and giggling at our foolishness. We spot a few shelter guests eying us warily and decide to get with the program. Most of them need to rest so they can work tomorrow. As soon as they are able, the shelter requires that guests pay daily rent of $3 for singles and $4 for families. Guests also are required to open a savings account and save 70 percent of their income so that if IHS caseworkers find them housing they’ll be ready to go.
It’s 4.30 a.m. Krystle rouses me from my first sound sleep since the shelter’s 9:30 p.m. lights out. She’s sitting on her bunk surrounded by camera gear. "I couldn’t sleep. I want to catch everyone getting ready for the day," she said.
"Great," I say as I roll over, determined to catch a few more z’s.
In the heat, my assigned bed-sheet clings to my body. It isn’t long before the shelter mom comes through with a rousing 5:15 a.m. wakeup call. She reminds us that we need to be off our bunks by 6:15 a.m. She warns that at 6:45 a.m. the doors to the dorm will lock. Shelter life constantly cycles between hurry up and wait. I wonder how the seniors navigate the mad rush to the communal bathrooms or the chow line.
As I pause for reflection, I see the sun’s rays coming through the window. Tears well in my eyes. I’m grateful to have survived my first night in a homeless shelter. I’m confident that Krystle and I will get by for another night and day, the duration of our assignment.
Over the years, I’ve interviewed many homeless people who have foregone shelters to live on the streets of Oahu. I know I couldn’t make it a day under the conditions in which they live. I’m relieved that there are other options for me should I fall into homelessness in this state where many are only a few paychecks or a few generous relatives from the streets. Mostly, I’m in awe of the IHS guests, who possess enough courage to stay in the shelter as they try to get back on their feet. They deserve our respect.