Wearing blue scrubs at Interfaith Sanctuary means it’s your first night.

But even without the trademark, soft clothes, everyone would have recognized I was a new face.

When I talked with the shelter’s executive director, Jodi Peterson, for my news story on emergency housing and homelessness, she said I could stay the night at Interfaith to see firsthand what living without a roof over your head in the City of Trees looks like for one night. The only catch: I couldn’t interview anyone while I was there or tell anyone I was a journalist. They would also prioritize residents experiencing homelessness over me for a bed.

Or, in other words, I was going to be treated like anyone else who needed help.

I arrived at the shelter late on a Friday afternoon and loitered with a small crowd waiting for the large metal gates to open and let us into the small courtyard behind the building. Some people had been waiting hours with their belongings and had taken up the few shady spots available in the alley, trying to stay out of the baking sun until we could all go inside.

When the gates finally opened, we were sorted into men and women and our names were taken down to be put on the waiting list for a bunk. If someone who had been assigned one the night before didn’t show up before 8 p.m. or call in, their spot would go to someone else on the list. With only 22 beds available for women, it was understood that most of us who didn't have an assigned bunk would be crashing on a mat on the floor.

When I went into the shelter, I was patted down for weapons or drugs and I handed over my driver’s license so staff could do a quick check to see if I was a registered sex offender. 

Then my clothes were taken to be “laundered,” which is a heat treatment to kill bed bugs, scabies and other easily spread conditions that could affect the shelter. In the meantime, I put on a small pair of blue scrubs, sat down to eat a bowl of chili and watched everyone else filter in.

The small cafeteria doubles as a meeting area during the day and overflow sleeping quarters at night. The sapce quickly began to fill up with residents who gathered in small groups. Some watched videos on their phones, others traded stories with their friends and talked with their partners.

Eventually staff put on an ocean documentary on the flat screen on the wall, and the soothing narration and wave sounds drew in several of the residents who watched without a word.

It wasn’t too cold, so I went outside to sit on a bench under a large metal awning. For several minutes, I waited quietly, and no one spoke to me, as small groups of residents socialized nearby and shared what cigarettes they had, but eventually people started to strike up conversations. Several people asked me if it was “my first day.”

I was surprised at how many times other shelter residents asked if I was OK. Over and over again, I was directed to the public library, to the social workers at Interfaith and to check in with CATCH to see if they could help me with finding a place of my own again. One man I talked to for awhile even gave me a lead on a part-time job as a dishwasher, if I needed something to help get me on my feet.

Here’s an incomplete list of conversation topics I had in those few hours before lights-out:

  • The best series of Star Trek (It’s "The Next Generation," duh.)
  • Horror movies
  • Terrible hangovers
  • The best state parks in Texas
  • One woman’s plan to start her own business
  • Comic books
  • What a grave injustice to cinema it is that I have not seen "The Matrix"
  • 1970s music

I didn’t share some elaborate lie with the people I met. Instead I told them I had no family in the area and just needed to stay at the shelter one night.

At the end of the conversation, I was surprised at the mix of emotions I got from the small group I chatted with. On one hand, they were sad they wouldn’t see me again, and on the other hand, they cheered the fact that I wouldn’t have to come back under Interfaith’s roof.

When 8 p.m. rolled around and all the bunks were assigned, it was time to clean up from dinner. Together with several other residents I wiped down tables, mopped the floor and did the dishes. While one of the people I had met earlier washed giant bins that held the chili, I dried and stacked the containers in the small pantry.

Shortly after 9 p.m., the lights went out, and I laid down on my mat on the floor with seven other women in a small room to sleep.

I woke up the next morning, rolled up my sheets and blanket and walked out the door into the morning sun. Technically, I was only “homeless” for 15 hours.

I wasn’t sexually assaulted, like many women experiencing homelessness are, or robbed. The only even slightly bad thing I experienced was a crick in my neck from sleeping on the hard floor. All I got was a brief and comfortable window into what hundreds of Boiseans experience every day.

By every account, being homeless hurts. It’s uncomfortable, dangerous and traumatic.

What I saw at Interfaith Sanctuary was a group of people trying to make it hurt less. This came in the form of someone offering to paint another woman’s nails for her or a man offering a stranger picking through the cigarette butt can a full one to smoke. It came in the form of friendly advice, a funny story from the street or a high-five once the mile-high stack of dishes was done.

There is so much humanity in that small building, tucked up against the highway. It breaks my heart to know all of those people are there, and I hope they can find some stability soon. For now, many of them are doing their best to find their own peace and quiet where they can.

Margaret Carmel covers the city of Boise. Follow her on Twitter @mlcarmel or reach her by phone at 757-705-8066. 

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