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'Getting Your Own Keys:' Thoughts on Thanksgiving Dinner in a Homeless Shelter

There's nothing worse than having Thanksgiving in a homeless shelter, except having Thanksgiving in prison. Thanksgiving is just the right occasion for the CEO to rub elbows with funders and community partners.
Thanksgiving in a Homeless Shelter

City tanks Brooklyn armory's revivalThere's nothing worse than having Thanksgiving in a homeless shelter, except having Thanksgiving in prison.  Thanksgiving is just the right occasion for the CEO to rub elbows with funders and community partners.  It's also one of the few times the shelter residents eat what they call "real food".

Time flies even when you're not having fun.  Joy can thank Helen for learning a productive trick.  Within Joy's second week at the shelter, the number of cold shoulders that have whizzed by her has her go the Helen, the ever diligent Shift Supervisor.  Joy asks her why are people being so distant to her.

Helen says, "There's a tendency for folks to use the word "people" when they really mean "you'. Are you telling me that I'm being so distant?"

"No, I mean different staff members are not responding to my questions or not looking at me when we walk past each other in the hallway.  It's as if I've done something against them."

Helen looks calmly at Joy when she says firmly, "Focus on your work."  There is a pause between each word.  Helen has to leave the office to open a dormitory so a client can get dressed for an interview.  Joy locks that simple phrase in her mind and mentally replays it when some minor or major affront occurs.  The source of most affronts are from Ms. Davis.  Focusing on her work makes Joy extremely productive. 

That exchange occurred four months ago.  It's now late November and the day the CEO invites  the Department of Homeless Services Commissioner, Directors, collaborating nonprofit partners, the board of directors, and the shelter clients to Thanksgiving dinner.  The rec area/cafeteria is filled with large round dinner tables and folding chairs.  Each table is covered with an orange or green table covering and has a centerpiece.  The rectangle tables on which the clients usually place their tin food trays are used to place beverage bowls, salad trays, and dessert.  The clients make a long line to get their food, while the guests are served at their tables.

The Main Entree But Doesn't Know It
The Main Entree But Doesn't Know It

Joy's job is to tend to the invited guests.  She's fine with the job because she likes being "Ms. Congeniality".  Joy goes from table to table greeting each person and assures them that food will be served shortly.  While the clients patiently wait on line to get what they call "real food", Joy and another co-worker are busily placing filled dinner plates on three tiered rolling carts.  Then off to the tables to serve the waiting guests.  This is followed by dessert and drink refills.  This is the usual company goodwill event.  There are speeches and short films to encourage the clients to return to independent living and cautions to prevent HIV/AIDS transmission. There is a prayer to open the dinner and another to close the dinner.

Some clients are watching  Joy buzzing around the "VIP tables".  They want the same treatment which she gives to the guests by asking for more dessert and punch. She cheerfully brings it to them.  One of the men is someone who tries to get Joy's attention since she started  working there.  He's a man in his 30s.  He associates with the man who's been flirting unsuccessfully with Helen and a much younger man.  The much younger man, RaeShawn turned 20 in August.  It is eye-opening to learn someone so young could be placed in an adult shelter.  Yes, 18 is the legal age in the US but aren't there shelters that serve the late adolescent population?

With the closing prayer pronounced, the Thanksgiving dinner is over.  It's time for the guests, main office employees, and CEO to return to their offices.  After shelter staff clear off the tables, the custodial staff move into action to fold chairs and tables; then cart the tables to the storage area in the drill floor area. The custodians ask some clients to help them with taking down the tables.  Joy stands to catch her breath.  Beside her is RaeShawn.  RaeShawn is a handsome young man--very African modelesque.  Earlier that month, he asked her for traveling directions so that he could visit his mother who he hasn't seen in 12 years.

"RaeShawn, there's your friend over there rolling a table to a cart."

"Yeah, I see him."

"He's so into the job."


Joy turns to face RaeShawn to see he has a serious look on his face as he watches his friend. His friend--the man who tries to get Joy's attention--has a taste for Angel Dust which is becoming obvious.  Joy doesn't press RaeShawn to talk further.  She's got to go back to work.

Turkey Day at the Shelter
Turkey Day at the Shelter
 What's the goal of providing temporary emergency shelter?  Getting your own keys.
Getting Your Own Keys chronicles the professional odyssey of Joy Duggins, a resourceful and encouraging service provider in a Central Brooklyn men's homeless shelter.  It gives a peek into NYC homeless services procedures and much workplace drama.