Guernica Magazine

Writer-in-Residence at a Homeless Shelter

A teacher chronicles his month in a Colorado facility, where charmers and conmen offer advice and trauma is tallied by number. The post Writer-in-Residence at a Homeless Shelter appeared first on Guernica.
Image: Ansellia Kulikku.


n Day Seven of my monthlong stint as a writer in residence at Fort Lyon, I lay sick in my bunk, periodically lurching to a utility closet to retch. I needed drugs and electrolytes, but had no way to get them. I was without a car, stuck in a homeless shelter—a half-empty cluster of barracks an hour west of Kansas.

It was the food that had lain me low, the same food the residents gratefully lined up to raven down. Some of them hadn’t been able to count on a meal in years. Meanwhile, my system was pampered by home cooking. Entrées that couldn’t be easily named—greasy pasta, say, heaped under sugary meat—were new to me. I was learning what the residents already knew: if they serve something you like, get seconds and hoard it because you don’t know what might happen next. Spoon what you can into a mug or fold it into one of the papery bathroom towels for later.

We were forbidden to take food out of the dining hall, but you had to break that rule. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, under whose auspices Fort Lyon dubbed itself a “Supportive Residential Community,” had instituted restrictions. Most websites were inaccessible from its in-house online system, all prescription drugs had to be dispensed by staff, and married couples were forbidden from sharing a room.

“It’s better than the Salvation Army for sure,” one of the residents explained to me. “Salvation Army makes you pray on command and keep your top button buttoned.”

“No, no,” an older resident cut in. “There’s no comparison with stuff like that. This place is paradise. This is paradise.”

I thought about this as I rose from my bunk—about how different his life was from mine—and worked up the strength to get myself to the clinic in the main building. Once I figured there was nothing left in my system to choke up, I put on a hat and some shoes and slowly walked through the sub-basement tunnel that connected all four of the biggest dorms. First I passed a line of empty classrooms, then a long hall to the library. After the library came a dogleg: rows of brass mailboxes that used to connect the ancient fort to the outside world, then empty hospital rooms, a nonworking kitchen, and finally the elevators to Building 5.

Prior to housing a shelter, the place had been a prison. Before that, it was a VA hospital, and before that a mental institution, and before that a cavalry fort, from which the Sand Creek Massacre was launched, in 1864. One hundred and fifty women and children and elderly men of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, were slaughtered in a matter of hours. The stables where their horses had been fed and watered later stood in back of the fort, blocking our view of the Arkansas River, once Mexico’s border, now swimming with the catfish breaded and fried on a hot plate in the kitchen downstairs.

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