I work at a shelter for the homeless. I have volunteered doing street outreach and working at shelters for the past twenty years. Due to my own experiences growing up, I often hear myself say, “I feel at home with our homeless”. I understand how easily someone’s life can turn and it is often one decision, one choice or one circumstance that differentiates someone from experiencing health and a more manageable road in life versus someone who experiences addiction and mental illness.
At the shelter where I work, many of our guests are not welcome at other local shelters due to their aggressive nature and addictions. And, at the same time, we have families, couples and individuals come who simply do not have enough money to put food on their table; however, they do have a place to sleep. It is a mix of ages, genders, backgrounds and needs. Due to the variety of guests, it can be a difficult environment to manage.
From time to time, tension mounts at the shelter and we know ahead of time there is going to be trouble. This is what happened on a Saturday evening, when we were short on volunteers. When we get opposing groups at the shelter, we know things can go from bad to worse very quickly. Typically, the groups stay at opposite ends of the dining hall and keep separate but on Saturday night tensions grew. On Friday at the local soup kitchen, there was a stabbing which involved members of these two groups. Our coordinator came to me and she asked who, from my team, would be willing to leave the kitchen if she was in need of help. I told her that I would be willing to assist, as well as one other member of my team who has past experience working at a men’s shelter. As I was uneasy, I shared some options and ideas with her to ensure safety.
Just when everything felt calm and I was doing a walk-through in the dining hall and clearing up some tables, something drew my attention. I found myself between two opposing members who were posturing at one another. There wasn’t a lot of time to move except to dodge a lunged punch, that was not meant for me, and then to move out of the way of a flying chair, again, not meant for me. Then, my voice just happened. In a few seconds, everything was calm again but so much happened in those few seconds. I yelled “stop”, “no fighting”, “no fighting” and kept repeating myself holding my arms up. I did not scream...I was yelling and kept repeating the same thing. My energy grew and my energy and words accomplished two things: first of all, the two stopped fighting and trying to get to one another and were backing up, as though my energy was pushing them and, secondly, it created space between them, but, also space away from me. The more I kept repeating, the more space was created. Within seconds, the coordinator and my friend from the kitchen joined me between them and secured the space. Then, I was able to calmly talk them down and split them up between two other workers to take it from there.
What was different this time, from other times over the past twenty years, is the confidence, belief and energy that was within me – particularly the energy! This wasn’t a new situation, but each time in the past I felt the adrenaline rush and it would take time to come down from the adrenalized state. But, this was different; my energy was big, I was bigger than before, I was more resourceful and I had the energy of my entire class circle with me which, I believe, acted in a way to create space. All of the women’s energy and the energy of Rob and Ben (suited instructors) was with me along with my own. No weapons were drawn, groups were separated and people were escorted to different locations. Our coordinator shook her head and smiled, as she said it surprised her how someone with a gentle presence could be so powerful.
The newest part of this experience for me is, while I had all of your energy with me and the energy of my circle after things were defused, I realized I went from zero to 60 and from 60 to zero, but didn’t have the same intense adrenaline response I would have had to work through before. My body felt natural for the first time, while responding in that state, and then in returning to visiting with guests. That was new for me. That night when I went to bed, I worked through all of the emotions that come with a situation like that, all the thoughts and “what if’s”, but, worked through them more quickly than in the past, reassuring myself and creating strong feelings of safety. The process of creating my safety happened in moments as I was falling into a restful sleep which, in the past, would have taken me some time...even days.
Patricia, 2012, IMPACT Core Program graduate