• Erica Smith

What’s it like being a woman working in a men's homeless shelter?

For the past eight years I’ve worked at Helping Hands. I am a shelter manager, which means I work the shelter, meet with clients one-on-one to help them, and coordinate the meals 365 evenings a year – that’s around 14,600 suppers for hungry men.

The HH is a men's homeless shelter that houses 45-50 guys a night. Most of the guys who come through our shelter are dealing with mental illness, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, emotional trauma, hard times or bad choices they may have made in life. Each guy is different, and some are more stable than others. I believe these guys deserve a second chance, and that's what I strive to do every day.

My day starts with prayer. I am a woman of Faith and I MUST have God's protection because I never know what I’ll be facing that day.

The moment I pull up to the front of the HH there is always someone who comes up to my car and the questions start; usually "Could I talk to you for a second?” or “Why did I get a write up?”, I may hear "I love you, Ms. Yolanda!" or maybe someone’s having a bad day and gives me the “mean mug”.... And I say to myself "Never take it personal."

One thing I have learned is that some men do not like authority…especially authority from a woman of color. But this doesn’t bother me at all. It’s then that I know I may have to become “Sergeant Skirt” (which is what the guys call me). There are times I do have to put on my combat boots and my street face and let the guys know I'm NOT afraid. I keep the place in order so everyone is safe, and most of the guys know that about me.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I am a night case worker to whomever needs help. No telling who may knock on my office door. Some of the guys want advice or to vent or just want me to listen. On Thursdays and Fridays, I work in the shelter and it’s never a dull moment in the HH.

It all starts at 5 p.m. when the HH closes to the public, and most of the time it’s just me and the other staff worker. From this point on until 12:30 a.m. it is Rock N Roll as I like to call it, working with the 45-50 guys. Most women may say at this point “I couldn’t do this job!”.

I handle it by being observant and prepared. I look around and watch what’s going on and who is in our shelter. We’re here to keep everyone safe and I know I have to pay attention. We have people who may be altered, not stable or just having a bad day. If we don’t have enough beds or mats, we may have to draw a lottery. One of the hardest things I have had to do is turn guys away. We do everything we can so we don’t have to do that, so when the weather is bad I can expect a full house.

Once we get everyone checked in for the night, here begins the questions. “Mrs. Yolanda could I have [towels, soap, shampoo, socks, underwear, clothes, a toothbrush, toothpaste]?”. “Do I have any mail?”. “What’s for dinner?”. “What’s the movie for tonight?”.

Sometimes it’s like having 50 husbands.

We do have people who act out, and I have to know how to handle situations so they don’t get out of control. I can usually get people to cool down because I have learned how to stay cool. You have a lot of guys in one place, and many of them are struggling with their own issues. I have had guys ball their fist up and give me a mean look. During times like this, I’m glad that we have the SPD (Springfield Police Department) to come help us out.

Around 6 p.m. the guys are served a hot meal. I think the food is the main attraction of the evening! As the guys are eating I now can have a moment to EXHALE. I sit at the desk and look around. I see 45-50 guys with a story to tell -- 45-50 different personalities and I think about how these guys are all somebody's son, brother, father, and friend.

Once dinner is completed we start chores…which means more questions. I find myself going over chores again and again, but I laugh to myself and say, “What do you expect? They’re men and some have had no training.”.

As the evening goes on a lot of guys go to bed, and the ones up are watching a movie, playing cards, playing dominoes, reading, eating and drinking coffee. This is the time to watch people more closely. There are guys that want to come up to the desk to vent, and if there are those that have mental issues I may see them talking to themselves, pacing or staring at others. Or there are times when it may get a little loud or sometimes there are arguments. Then I have to say, “Lord give me strength!”, as I de-escalate the situation.

I do the walk through in the bunk area before I shut the lights out, I wish the men good-night and say a prayer for them and for me. I think, “Someone has to do this job. So Lord, if this is the job you blessed me with, so be it.” and of course I say, “Thank you, Jesus.”.

If I could live my life all over again, I would still choose to be doing what I do. There are people who think what I do is crazy, but no matter how many times I get frustrated with the guys….or the many, many, many, many questions they ask over and over and over and over again….I can genuinely say I love each and every one of them.

It’s a blessing to be re-building, encouraging, motivating and telling them, “You’re going to make it.”. This brings joy to my heart. I want to leave a LASTING IMPRESSION in the guys’ lives.

To ALL Be Blessed

Yolanda (AKA Sergeant Skirt)

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