Week 5: Shelter for the Night

“Sorry, there’s no room for you tonight.”

What, there’s no room at the shelter, where am I supposed to go?

SDRM women's entrance

At first, I don’t know what to say to the woman handling check-in at the San Diego Rescue Mission’s (“SDRM”) Nueva Vida Haven Emergency Shelter for Women and Children. Then I remember to tell her that I’m expected. You see, I’m not really homeless; my mother-in-law Donna is on the board, and I thought I should stay one night to observe. I was inspired to do this after helping my friend Martin with his Thanksgiving feeding, and after starting to plan for our high school’s Adopt-A-Family program. I thought, hey, it’s the season of giving, and it’s good to give, but do we really know what it’s like to be in the shoes of those who we give to? It makes us feel good to give; we have the luxury to do so, and we should continue to do so. I know that one night is not going to give me a true experience of what homelessness is like, but any insight is helpful, right?


The week of my visit, I thought I should make some sort of preparations. I wanted to look like I fit in. So I ask questions about what I should bring (some bring everything they have, some nothing), what to expect, where do I check-in, where do I park my car (the street). And to show you my own prejudices of my perception of homeless people, I didn’t eat lunch (so I would want to eat whatever was served for dinner), I didn’t shower for two days (I wanted to feel like I really needed a shower), and I hadn’t shaved for a week (with the hairy legs and armpits, you’d think I was on Survivor). I also wore an old worn Erasure Wild! shirt (yes, I still have clothes from the 80s), non-designer jeans (7 for all Mankind would not be appropriate), and I left my reading glasses with its cute pink Kate Spade case at home. I make sure to take off my nail polish, wear no make-up, and hide my iPhone. Like anyone is really paying attention to me – they’re not. My own prejudices were that homeless people are dirty and wear old, torn clothing. Well, whatever I looked like, it worked because coming off the street I seemed to have looked the part and was initially turned away.


I start to think that I shouldn’t have come. I almost chickened out. I was more nervous about staying at the SDRM than I was skydiving last weekend. Why was I so uneasy? Possibly a premonition of what I would later feel.


As I’m shown to the women’s dining hall where most people wait before dinner is served at 7:00, I immediately feel out of place. There’s one table in the back that’s empty, and that’s where I sit, much like the new kid at school.


I feel like an intruder. A fake. Someone is going to find out and they’re going to beat me up.


As I look around, I immediately notice that there are much more elderly women here than I anticipated. Don’t they have family that will take them in? On the other side of the room, there are quite a number of women trying to keep their children in order. Back at the table next to me, I overhear some younger women talk about abusive men in their lives. Another talks about her application for beauty school. One discusses local services available. There’s women and children of all ages, all groups – Caucasian, African-American, Latin, Asian, Mixed.


Eventually, a woman with her dog sits at my table, and a couple other younger women with small children fill in the space around me. I usually feel pretty comfortable around strangers, but here I’m out of my element, what do we have in common? Then I start the conversation as I would with any other person – what a cute baby, how old is he, yes my sons were like that too when teething. What a well-behaved dog, what breed is he, I like your Christmas sweater. The dog lady later asks if I’ve read the newspaper articles about staying with the deceased until the Coroner arrives, because bodies are going missing, possibly a conspiracy – does she mean dead bodies on the street? When people ask if this is my first night, I just say yes and don’t elaborate. It seems to suffice.


Soon dinner is served, some sort of meatloaf thing with rice, a boiled potato, and salad. There were fruit bowls, but not enough for all. I hear a few grumblings about that. We give the dog some of the meatloaf.


Once dinner is over, those who are assigned to clean up stay back while the rest of us gather belongings to go up to the sleeping areas. We’re on a schedule.


I begin to notice some of the other people here. A male teen hides behind his hoodie, obviously not wanting to be around all the other younger kids, or all these women. And like most kids, there’s quite a few playing with their handheld electronic games, not wanting to be bothered by Mom. Most of the women get their mattresses ready so they can lay down and rest. And yes, let’s be real, there are a couple that acted and talked as if they have some mental illness, I decide it best to just avoid those women. Many others suffer from addictions.


As a newbie, and a single, I’m given a spot in the overflow hallway area. About 15 of us singles are out there. The nice former barber lady warns me that they keep the lights on all night. She suggests that I go to CVS the next day and get an eye mask and earplugs (luckily, I did throw in an eye mask into my backpack, one that I bring on planes). Actually, the hallway is much more peaceful than the main sleeping area – one big room with about 20 bunk beds along one wall, about 60 mattresses on the floor for the families, a corner play area for the kids where they are trying to decorate for the holidays, the kids asking to watch a video. The bathrooms (one for families, one for families with sons, and one for singles) and limited storage space are all located in there too. Although I’m in the sanctuary of the hallway, I can feel the chaos spilling out through the doors of the main room.

There will be almost 100 women and children staying the night, sharing the space. I’m a light sleeper, and I can barely sleep when there’s one other person in a room with me, how am I going to sleep tonight?

 SDRM main room

The shower sign-up list is passed around. Five minutes is all you get. Everyone needs to be done by lights out at 9:30. I get the last slot. As I wait for my turn, I think of the mattress as being everyone’s own personal space. A single-sized bedroom. I think of my bedroom at home – queen-sized bed, plenty of blankets and pillows, ensuite master bath with two sinks, lots of storage, a balcony that I never use, guest chairs where I pile on extra clothing, and my own TV. I take out my journal and try to do something. I hate just sitting, but I quickly begin mirroring what the others are doing, laying down and doing nothing – what else is there to do? My mattress is my bedroom for the night. One night.

 SDRM hallway

A list is being put together for Christmas. If the women want to stay with relatives that night, but want to save their spot at the shelter, let the staff know. I hear my neighbor say she will be at the SDRM on Christmas because she has no place else to go. Those words stab at my heart. I try not to get emotional.

 SDRM bunk beds

Another hallway lady starts a conversation about lotto tickets. She found some on the ground and wanted advice on whether it was morally okay for her to keep them, and if she did and won, what should she do with the money? We talk about finding rightful owners if possible, but if not it’s okay for her to keep them. She says she’ll share with us since we gave her advice, and we say she has no obligation to do so, it would be her winnings to do as she pleases. We continue talking about people who win and are even worse off, and what would we do if we won. I say it’s all confusing to me, all the different lottery games, but maybe I should start playing in the first place. It’s a typical conversation amongst most people, don’t you think? We all like to dream about winning the jackpot.


I still feel antsy. I want to go help with some sort of activity or go play with the kids, but that’s kinda creepy if I go in and just start hanging out with the kids. I do notice that all the kids want to play and the moms just want to rest – I’ve been there.


After my quick shower, it’s lights out in the main room. I put on my eye mask, lay down and think that there’s no way I’ll be able to sleep, I’ll be up all night. I begin listening to the snoring pattern of the tired women, from the left, and from the right, then together, repeat, it’s a comforting rhythm. And before I realize it, I am lulled to a deep sleep…


…4:00 am. Music is turned on to get everyone up and start the day. We’re on a schedule I understand, but to be woken up by a blaring tape of a combination of Gospel and Christian Rock music, is a little much don’t you think? I get that the SDRM is faith-based, and prayer was said before meals and bedtime, but 4:00 in the morning, really?


By 5:00 am, everyone is packed up. One young girl is practically picked by others to get her up and to put the bedding away. Those returning store some items in trash bags or in cubbies, some arguing about how much space families are taking. Again I am given helpful advice by others on what to do, I say thanks, but I am only here for one night. They don’t ask why, I don’t tell. I get to know a few other women and their situations. All of them remind me of someone I know. All of them have a story. And anyone reading this can easily be in their situation, including myself. And that is the scary part.


Everyone is back on the streets by 6:30 am. Some take the bus to a local fast food restaurant to hang out and feed their kids a bigger breakfast, others head on over to Rachel’s Center which offers daytime services, while others wander the streets of downtown.


The SDRM’s policy is that families with children take a priority for shelter over singles. And I agree with that. But when you’re told that there’s not going to be room for you tonight to make room for others, I can see how that news is not taken easily. A handful of women were given notice that morning. One begins to rant and rave about the male conspiracy watching the women in shelters through hidden cameras, deciding who they will target for prostitution and sex slavery. She is quickly told not to talk that way in front of the children. Others try to figure out what other shelters may be able to take them in.


Another woman makes a call, telling the person about her situation and that there’s no room at the shelter anymore. She continues to say that she is not going to call “him” and that they are supposed to be helping her. I’m embarrassed listening to her conversation, as I’m intruding on her personal life. There’s no privacy here. I can hear the shrilled desperation in her voice. “What about tonight? Or the next night? Or the next night? Where am I supposed to go?”




I walk up the hill to my car. As I leave, how do I feel? My own emotions spill out and I sit and cry. I feel sadness. And I feel hopelessness. There are so many people that need help, what can one person do? Should I feel grateful for what I have? We have all worked hard to be where we’re at, and we shouldn’t deny ourselves and our families from enjoying the benefits. But my eyes have been opened up and I’m much more aware that the people on the streets all have their own stories. And it’s not just the people you see on street corners. How many of us live from paycheck to paycheck? How many of us have medical bills piling up? How many of us have saved enough for retirement?


I know some argue that this is their choice. But I always think about the kids. They don’t have a choice.


These women I met don’t want to be there. Certain circumstances led them to SDRM, and they are hoping to make it on their own. Maybe if they realize that someone cares about them, it will give them encouragement not to give up.


They are just like us, they are us. Watching their children run and play, making sure they don’t get hurt. And the mommy network gives each other advice, as the more experienced ones have already lived through those same situations. Much like my high school moms who can give others advice about college prep, test taking courses, sports programs. And while kids are at school, they can work or make appointments for services. Those with younger children try to look for daycare. As the newbie, these women freely shared advice with me, and opened up their world to me. We’re all the same. We help each other, we have values and morals.


I was the dishonest one. I finally did tell a young mother why I was there and gave her my info. There was something in her that reminded me of myself. I asked her to send me her resume when she gets a chance and maybe I can help. I needed to do something.


My “observation” night is a luxury. I can go in, watch, and leave. I can go home and do the weekly laundry. I can do my grocery shopping without worrying about how much I spend. I have the luxury of going to volunteer meetings. So in that respect, I have a very luxurious life!


I have the luxury of a strong support system from family and friends. And parents that taught me to help others with what you can. I know I I’m safe from ever having to sleep out on the streets and having to worry about my safety.


But while I thought my idea of observing the women and children at the SDRM was clever, I’m a little embarrassed that I thought it’s okay to do so as if they are animals in a zoo. I intruded into their private lives without asking.


Again this week, I feel like I’m not sure what I was trying to accomplish. I do hope from my limited experience, and through sharing my words, it will do something. Anything. As they say, we may not feel that one person makes a difference, but if we all do something, anything, it all adds up. Maybe it adds up to something great. Another relevant reminder – put yourself in the other person’s shoes and treat them as if it was you. I’m tired of crying now. Action, not words please.


So I spent the night in a homeless shelter. Whoopee, check it off the list. But it doesn’t really mean much, if all it is, is a good story. It’s real life. Do something, anything.




The stories:

  • Mommy B with her 7-month old son, and expecting another. Her husband is in the men’s section. Sometimes they stay with family, or in hotels, or in these shelters. She wants stability. They hope to get accepted into the year-long program and get back on their feet. Her family says they are proud of her for trying to do something.
  • Mommy C with her son who looks too big to be in a stroller. Her boyfriend broke up with her and she had to leave. Sometimes to pass the time she’ll ride the bus all day.
  • Hallway neighbor, who was a barber, has children in Los Angeles and Alaska. She doesn’t want to go back to Alaska.
  • Veteran lady who at a very young age took in her nieces when their mother died from an overdose in front of them. She became a young mother who raised the kids and all graduated from college. They are in San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Maryland. She can choose where to go, but is giving herself 30 days to make it on her own.
  • Beauty school hopeful who brings in her own food.
  • Lady with teen son who’s worried about what’s going to happen to him once he turns 16. At 16, male sons can’t stay at Nueva Vida and she hopes nothing bad happens to him with the older men.
  • Texas lady with four kids, her husband is in the men’s section. They left the state for personal reasons.
  • Mommy Z with two young children, who came from Washington State after her husband got deported to Mexico. They followed him to San Diego so they can cross the border and visit him. She wasn’t going to abandon him while straightening out his paperwork. After ten years of marriage, they lost their business and their savings. She plans to get a job and find her own place soon. She had to endure a school who at first welcomed her to enroll her children, but once realized she was homeless said there was no room. Luckily she found the Monarch School. She didn’t look the part of a homeless mother.
  • Lottery ticket woman who hears our conversation and offers to help Mommy Z file payment deferment papers.


Flowers were donated from Trader Joe’s for the women, but most didn’t take any because they really had no place to put them. I hated seeing something meant to be cheerful, getting thrown away in the dumpster to wilt and die. I hope they all eventually find a place of their own to display bouquets and bring a smile to their face.



San Diego Rescue Mission – Nueva Vida Haven Emergency Shelter for Women and Children

P.O. Box 80427 San Diego, CA 92138 | (619) 687-3720




University City High School Adopt A Family –


During the holiday season it’s easy to think of those less fortunate during this time of giving. We plan feedings and gift giveaways. Let’s not forget them the rest of the year. And it’s not about just giving them a handout; they want to make it on their own, and to be proud of their accomplishments. Help give them all productive lives. It’s not only about Christmas, what about the next night, and the next, and the next – what happens to them?

5 thoughts on “Week 5: Shelter for the Night

  1. I’m sharing your tears, Jemma. Thank you for helping me to soul search, and understand these important issues better.

  2. Jemma, I appreciate your self-searching pilgrimage and have had similar situations and once lived in the DC homeless shelter to see what that’s like and help. I have also seen and lived in countries where homeless shelters would prove a luxury. I commend your willingness to dive out of an airplane one week and dive into a homeless shelter the next. When we worry about getting our holiday shopping lists done, we should better appreciate what we take for granted, and give something back. Touche and bravo!

    1. Thanks Ron for your kind words, and taking the time in your past to do the same thing. Possible class topic: the global politics of homelessness and cultural differences.

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