This winter was rough on everyone at the shelter--staff, residents, and volunteers. Someone cleans out the parking lot, but because the shelter's in an urban area, there was nowhere to put the snow. The staff couldn't park in the lot after several snowfalls so groups were called off three weeks in a row and icy steps and driveway made walking hazardous.
The next two weeks, a long-needed new coat of paint was applied to all main floor and bedroom walls. Old beds were removed and new ones ordered. Nice new wooden floors were put down. The kitchen got some badly needed updates, and everything was given a thorough cleaning.
Unfortunately, this kind of work can happen only when the residents are gone. So everyone living in the shelter at that time had to move to other shelters, in with relatives and friends, or to an apartment.
After no groups for five-weeks, the Children's Program volunteers returned last night to an empty, clean and cheerful shelter. Someone worked the Hotline and a couple staff were still there when we arrived, but we were dismayed to find that all the residents we knew five weeks before had moved out. It was expected that the shelter would be ready for residents the following day and we hoped some of the kids and women would return for groups that night.
And some did. Instead of our usual 15-20 kids (more on holidays), we had nine. Most were "outside" kids, but two former residents arrived for groups that night and another resident mom and one of her kids came into the office to talk for a few minutes.
We were relieved to see that all these kids looked happy and relaxed. Instead of the usually crowded three rooms we use for the children on group night, we needed only two rooms and could spread out. Giving the kids extra space and attention felt as good to us as to them. We had brief discussions about the last five weeks as kids arrived in two's and three's. We played games, talked, watched the teens do their "techie" things, and had an uncharacteristically calm snack time.
Soon, the word will be out and the shelter, deluged with calls this month, will quickly fill up again. Few of the former residents will return, I suspect, and groups will again be big. Privacy and space will be compromised at times, and more structure will be necessary.
But last night was fun and illuminating. How happy the kids were under the less crowded, more relaxed conditions of our small numbers. We saw them at their best, and probably vice versa.
I wouldn't want the shelter to be emptied out on a regular basis, but this was a nice, if temporary, change. I wonder what next week will bring. But I don't worry about it. We're used to being crowded at the shelter. Living, working, and volunteering conditions are not ideal, but they are good. And they do good.
We'll take it.