He tells me he wanders from city to city. He hitchhikes. A couple of weeks ago he went to Lexington, Ky., to avoid a snowstorm. Problem was, the snowstorm hit Lexington harder than it hit Cincinnati. He stood outside in the cold until a policeman picked him up and took him to the county homeless shelter. He thinks it was the only homeless shelter in Lexington. “It’s good to be back in Cincinnati,” he says with his toothless grin. “There are lots of places to stay.”
I ask him how the meals are at this shelter. He says sometimes they’re good and sometimes bad. He raves about the lunch he had here today. “We had cherries and donuts,” he says. “I don’t remember what else. But somebody gave me an extra donut, so I came out way ahead. That was one of the best lunches I’ve had in a long time.” He is beaming. I don’t ask him how a toothless man can eat cherries and donuts. After our conversation, I leave him.
I’m sensing something I didn’t notice when I first came in. The longer I sit here, the more noticeable it becomes.
It is the smell.
It’s not overpowering. It’s more of an undertone.
Sometimes I think it’s like vomit, sometimes feces, sometimes both.
The man sitting in front of me offers another theory. “I distinctly smell urine,” he announces to nobody in particular. Staff members are constantly cleaning, but the smell seems somehow intrinsic to this place.
Now I’m sitting next to a blind man with a cane. He reaches into his pocket, dumps the contents into my hand, and asks, “How much money is this? It’s all I have.” I count out nine pennies and some dirt. I add a quarter to it and tell him he has 34 cents. Somehow this act of kindness makes me feel guilty. Because I know that tomorrow night I’ll be sleeping in my own bed, while this man will be back here or on the streets. Giving him the quarter seems almost disingenuous. He takes the 34 cents with a smile and says, “Good, I can buy some wine later.”
A guy who had been spending his nights at this shelter was fatally shot last week, three blocks from here. Police still have no suspects. I look at the faces around me and wonder whether the killer is here. I wonder whether something happened here that led to the killing.
At 6:30, dinner is served. A plate of unintelligible slop. But upon closer inspection I can distinguish several elements: canned spaghetti and spaghettios, peas, tomatoes, carrots, green beans, potatoes, chicken, and ground beef. An everything-that-was-donated-today casserole. I’m hungry and it tastes better than it looks. Thank God there’s meat in it.
Serving dinner is an attractive couple of about 50. After dinner I realize something. They could be spending a romantic evening at a fancy restaurant. Instead, they’re here. Dinner is over, but they’re still standing there, waiting for stragglers. I approach them and say, “Thank you for doing this,” then turn and slink away, not waiting for a response. I hope they know I mean it. Even if they only do this once a year, it does make a difference.
I recognize a few of the men from my volunteer work at the free clinic. But fortunately they just say hi and don’t ask questions. I succeed for the most part in remaining inconspicuous.
But then around 9, a man I recognize approaches me. He says, “Hey, man, what the hell you doin’ here? Man, this ain’t yo’ turf, you in my territory now. What are you, on some kinda mission or somethin’?” I lie to him, just as I lied earlier to the intake worker, and say that I had an argument with my roommate and couldn’t stay at home tonight. I don’t pretend to be homeless—I could never pull it off. The man seems unconvinced, but says, “Well, you watch yo’ ass, and if anybody tries to mess with you, you find me, okay? ’Cause this ain’t yo’ turf, man. It ain’t safe …” With that, he shakes my hand and leaves.
A worker stands up and announces that they need some volunteers for ReHAB tomorrow. ReHAB is a nonprofit organization that buys abandoned buildings and rehabilitates them into housing for the impoverished. I wait for people to volunteer. One … two … that’s all. The frustrated worker says, “Okay, I’m going to read off every fifth name and if your name is called, you will work tomorrow.” At this point I raise my hand and volunteer, though I’m not excited about it.
Later I am assigned a mat. The dorm has 180 mats. There is no space between mats, and they cover almost the entire floor. The only uncovered areas are narrow spaces between the rows, for walking.
My mat is number 101. It’s easy for me to remember since it used to be my street address when I was a kid. The room is a sea of mats and men. Most of the men are using their shoes as pillows.
I notice an older man who only has flat slippers. A younger man gives his shoes to the older man, and accepts the older man’s slippers in return.
As I lie on my mat writing, I hear another man telling one of the workers, “That guy over there … he works at the free clinic, man. I ain’t tryin’ to be smart, man, I’m just letting’ you know.” I don’t turn to look, and I breathe a sigh of relief when the worker does not approach me.
I want to leave. Very badly. Every bone in my body is saying, “All you have to do is get up and leave. You can leave this God-forsaken place and sleep in your own bed tonight.” It’s now 11:00 … 11:01 … 11:02 … the minutes tick by agonizingly slowly. My sleep is restless and uncomfortable.
The next morning we are all woken up at 7 for breakfast. A banana and two sausage biscuits. Not bad. A few minutes later I am given two more sausage biscuits since I’m going to work for ReHAB. My conscience recommends that I give them to somebody else, but I ignore it and devour them quickly.
At 8 the ReHAB workers are rounded up. We walk a few blocks to an abandoned apartment building. Our mission: Remove everything from the apartments.
We enter the apartments and I am immediately nauseous. The floor is covered with trash and dog shit. Mice scurry away as we enter. The stench is overpowering and I don’t know how I can stay in this place all day. At first I try to avoid stepping on the dog shit, but soon realize the futility of that effort.
We get to work—scraping plaster, peeling off layers of linoleum from the floors, removing old rusty appliances and decayed furniture, sweeping up dust and dirt and cobwebs and dog- and mouse-droppings. We kick everything before touching it, and sometimes a mouse or two will scamper away. We carry everything down four flights of rickety steps and deposit it onto the sidewalk for later pickup.
By 11:30 a.m. I am filthy and exhausted. I cannot do the full eight hours; the first three have beaten me. I slip off, unnoticed, a fugitive. My conscience tells me that leaving is wrong. But I ignore it and sneak away.
I ride a bus home. On the bus, the smell of me becomes very obvious, and I notice that passengers near me smell it as well. I see the looks on their faces and see them turn away from me. Some people move to different seats to get away from me. Others politely stay in their seats, but I watch them and I can see that they wish I were not here.
After only one night of being “homeless,” I am already an outcast.
Ranjit Souri (email@example.com) spent a night at a homeless shelter in Cincinnati to write this piece. He now lives in Chicago.