"Put yourself out here for one night"

Stay here one night.
Want to know what Dorothy Day is like? "Put yourself out here for one night," said this man waiting outside. "You gotta be here to see it."
MPR Photo/Alan Frechtman

On the sidewalk at 7:30 p.m., people are already waiting around for the doors to open. That's an hour-and-a-half away.

A bearded guy named Greg smokes a cigarette near the door. and says I'm in for a "rude awakening." It's loud, people fight, they sneak in drunk or high even though they're not supposed to.

The waiting game
Before meals and before opening for the night, people gather outside the door of Dorothy Day hours in advance.
MPR Photo/Sanden Totten

Greg's been sleeping here a month, and he hates it. He hates what it's doing to his personality.

"I used to have a really good attitude, good sense of humor, stuff like that," he says. "Since I've been down here, right into the toilet. Somebody says something to me wrong, I just go off on them. Matter of fact, this hand is still broke because of the last one."

Greg's one of the few people I meet who is down on himself. Two younger women seem to be having a better time. Anita and Allison have both stayed here more than a year, off and on.

I ask if they think like Greg -- that this place changes people. "For some it does change them. A lot of them just stay here and just live off the place," they say.

I ask the difference between those people and the two of them.

"A least we volunteer," they say. "We did something for this place. The rest of them just use the system."

Their answer reminds me of something many people have told me -- enough to make it a pattern: That lots of other people around here are just freeloading, they don't want to get out.

Everyone who stays gets an ID card
Everyone who stays or eats at Dorothy Day (including Jeff Horwich in this picture) goes through an intake process where personal information is collected and associated with a Catholic Charities photo ID card.
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

Of course, it never seems to be the person I'm talking to.

I hear from a guy lined up with me named George. He's been here a year, says he's just about to get an apartment.

"I've seen people here the whole year that won't even try to get out. So I'm wondering what's holding them here. You get caught up in the syndrome," he says.

I ask what I need to know about sleeping at the shelter.

"When I go in there, just get my food, get my mat, and go sleep," George says. "Stay close by my mat. Just lay low once you get in."

By 8:30, the sidewalk is crowded. A couple is making out near the front of the line. George teases them with the ironic suggestion to "get a room."

The crowd grows, and the men in line start to sound like men anywhere with time on their hands, talking about sports and the women they see crossing nearby intersections.

The women waiting for the shelter go in first. They sleep separately, in bunk beds upstairs.

Swipe your card to get in
To get into Dorothy Day, people must have their Catholic Charities ID card swiped at the window in the front foyer.
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

Then seniors and people with disabilities.

At 9:15, they open the door for the rest of us. Just inside, you write down your name and pick out a blanket. You get the blanket of your choice, along with a single sheet in a plastic bag. From there you go grab a foam mat from a stack in the back.

In two gymnasium sized rooms, you choose your three foot by six foot patch of home. With a hundred-plus men in here, the mats are inches apart. After all I've been told, I'm feeling like my choice could determine whether I get any rest, or whether I get beat up.

I spot some familiar faces from the days I spent here ahead of time, like Angelo -- a guy who's been reading me his poetry.

"Actually, you know, if you want you can just come over here, this is the best corner, man," he says.

Grab a mat from the mat room
Foam mats are waiting in the mat room, after being cleaned and stacked from the night before. Most mats are between two and four inches thick.
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

Angelo recommends the "detox" corner. You're not supposed to get into Dorothy Day if you're drunk or high, but if you're so screwed up the cops pick you up -- and the police station doesn't have room for you -- they'll bring you here to sleep it off. Angelo says the detox corner is actually one of the quietest places, because everyone is passed out.

I choose a spot a little ways away -- start unpacking my bedding -- and consider the prospect of getting some actual sleep. I'm roughly in the middle of the floor, surrounded by other men, with no pillow.

As I'm rustling around, a huge guy raises his head at the foot of my mat. He glares at me and grumbles some words I couldn't quite decipher. I can pick out a few expletives I can't repeat here. It's not even lights out, and someone already told me to shut the hell up.

At 10:00 p.m., the music on the stereo stops. Lots of guys stare at the ceiling. A few read.

Anybody not ready to sleep yet heads for the courtyard. Angelo is out here, joking and telling stories. A guy named Devin stares out into space. I ask why he doesn't feel like sleeping.

The main room will be covered with mats by evening
During the day, the main gathering room at Dorothy Day is filled with tables, chairs, and people relaxing or accessing services. By night, it is given over completely to sleeping mats, along with the dining room.
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

"I slept pretty much the later part of the afternoon," he says. "Just went over down by the river. Too hot to do anything else." Devin says he won't stay up all night. He has a carpentry job to get up for tomorrow. "I do work. But there's a lot of people who don't even try to find work. They don't want to work."

There's that thing people keep saying, suggesting that everyone else around here is mooching. I want to know if there's something to that, so I ask a guy I recognize who's smoking nearby.

Bill says he has a background as a therapist, and he talks like it. I ask him why so many people are so quick to cast this place in terms of two teams: The people who freeload, and the people like them who are trying to get out. He has a good answer.

"It works the same thing it does for those who are in recovery" from drugs or alcohol, he says. "They say, 'fake it till you make it.' So the more they keep saying that, the more it will drive them to do it. Being a line of crap or not, some day it won't be, I hope."

In other words, Bill says elevating yourself, putting down the people around you -- it's a line of defense. It holds off getting depressed. Bill says the big thing is to never start seeing yourself the way the people do who pass you on the street.

Right now, at 11:00 p.m., the power of positive thinking meets the reality of sleeping in a homeless shelter. I pick my way through the bodies, back to my mat. With the exception of some pretty serious snoring and some people still chattering, it's relatively quiet in the main room. So I pull my blanket over me and try to get some sleep.

They say, 'fake it till you make it.' So the more they keep saying that, the more it will drive them to do it.

That's easier said than done, as the minutes tick by. Fluorescent lights are still on along the walls. At some point someone flips on another bank accidentally. A half-hour in, a latecomer lays a new mat down next to me and puts his rubber-soled feet in my face.

A staff member yells out for whoever left their bike in the foyer to move it. The bike owner gets up to argue. People are still up giggling -- in the detox corner. From the other side of the room, someone yells out something like, "God, it hurts so much."

People walk past your head on the way to the bathroom. There's no pillow. I'm trying to both sleep and guard my stuff. Most of all, there is the snoring -- from all directions, echoing off the walls, like a nasal orchestra. The neighbor who told me to shut up earlier sounds like a Harley Davidson.

Sometime around 1:00 a.m., I fall into a bad kind of sleep.

I drift in and out until about 4:30 in the morning, when the first people start to stuff their sheets and blankets into the plastic bags they've been given for that purpose. Some have early jobs to get to. And when they're up, and the rustling of plastic bags fill the air, you're up too. By 5:00 a.m., the hip-hop music is back on the stereo.

There's no breakfast here, and the staff needs to clean the place. If you slept here, you need to get up, and get out on the street again by 5:30 a.m.

Morning, back on the street at 5:30
By 5:30, anyone who slept at Dorothy Day needs to be out again so the center can be cleaned and prepared for another day of services.
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

In the courtyard, I run into a bleary-eyed guy who was near me in line yesterday. I remember he was talking about how he needed to look for work. He looks anything but ready.

He mumbles that he's been sleeping here since February. "It sucks. That's why I have to look for work, so I can get out of this situation." Is he getting used to sleeping on the mats? "Never."

This is a night's sleep that in no way leaves you ready to face a life this tough.

Another man pulls me aside with something to say. "There is not a good morning in Dorothy Day," he tells me emphatically. "People get up in the morning, they're very angry. It's, 'FU, get out of my way,' not, 'how you doing, how did you sleep?'"

I ask if he feels that way.

"No. When I get up in the morning, it's a blessed day for me. God allowed me to get up to see another day -- to strive to do what I need to do to get out of here."

There it is again: "Everyone else but me…"

This life drags you down. It can swallow your will, make you rude, and dependent on the handouts. But the trick is to cast that on the people around you -- the hopeless, the freeloaders. Screw 'em -- you're getting out.

Even if you've been here for years, you're still just passing through.

As these men and a few women trudge out into the city at dawn, maybe it's that feeling -- "I'm not like the others" -- that allows many of them, after a lousy night's sleep, to keep moving forward.

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