Armory by Day, Homeless Shelter by Night

Article by Specialist Danica Cho

December 11, 2006


(Sunnyvale, CA) –   “Oooooh senorita, I love your dress,” coos a comfortably plump woman from her wheelchair, a knit scarf and hat framing her round face.  I flash her a quick smile, amused that she views my drab, utilitarian Army Combat Uniform (ACU) as something so traditionally feminine.

Frost clings in the night air while the homeless gather inside the 870th Military Police Detachment armory in Sunnyvale, California.  From November 27th until March, as a state-sponsored initiative, the armory transforms into a homeless shelter every night, from 1700 to 0600 the following day.  California Army National Guard soldiers can work night shifts as security guards, procuring State Active Duty (SAD) pay under the California Military Department.  The job entails ensuring the safety of the armory and its property.  Local community volunteers and staff members, including the homeless themselves, all work together to provide free food, hot showers, supplies and a warm, safe place to sleep at night.

Upon entering the armory, homeless individuals, or “clients,” are registered into a computer database and subjected to a bag search by a civilian security guard.  They are checked with a metal detector wand for contraband, such as weapons, drugs and alcohol.  They are then issued a clean bath towel, a bedsheet and a thin, vinyl sleeping mat.  If available, a blanket and a few toiletries are provided, such as mini shampoo bottles, soap bars and toothpaste.  Clients carefully park their bicycles like cherished Rolls Royces.  The din echoes beneath pale-green, fluorescent lights.

On a typical night, the armory easily fills to over a hundred people, averaging 20 women and at least 80 to 100 men.  On a few occasions, children have accompanied their parents here.  Clients store their personal belongings in luggage, backpacks, shopping bags and garbage bags, using them to build “forts” as territorial markers around their sleeping mats.  A stack of cardboard boxes filled with TA-50 becomes a makeshift dinner table.  A cardboard sign, hastily taped to an emergency side exit door, reads “handicapped area only” in scribbled pen.  Some engage in animated talk during smoke breaks outside by the motor pool. Others relay the day’s events to each other over cups of hot coffee at the foldout dining tables.  A few prefer the calm solitude of a quiet corner.  A group of deaf clients “talk” to each other in sign language, their hands and fingers gracefully punctuating the air as they silently mouth each intended word.  A group huddles around a large-screen television, crouched on knee-high wooden benches, immersed in an action-packed DVD movie.  Some approach me to introduce themselves, shake my hand, inquire about my new ACUs and ask if I’ve been to Iraq (I haven’t, yet).  A few even ask how they can enlist into the Army, their eyes wide with wonder.

By 1845 hours, a long line forms while volunteers prepare to serve dinner on foldout tables.  They stand in front of aluminum trays filled with hot food, spooning out servings onto Styrofoam plates.  Today, members from an Asian church have brought Chinese food.

I study the faces of the homeless as they eat.  Many of them are carved with deep trenches, revealing traces of struggle and worry.  Skin leathered hard from hot, glaring sun and bitter, unforgiving cold.  Bags weigh heavily beneath their tired, sunken eyes.  Many are missing teeth.  Some have wiry, frayed beards.  Others appear so well groomed that if you’d been sitting next to them on a bus or train, you’d never guess in a million years that they were homeless.

“Hello nice lady-eeee!” squeaks a small Hispanic woman, who I’ve nicknamed “Rosa” in my head.  A crown of silver hair frames her smiling baby-face and big, brown innocent eyes.  Her child-like mannerisms remind me of a cute Pokemon doll.

Then there is the “Admiral,” a thin, wiry man with hunched shoulders, delicate skin and a stark, white beard.  His piercing blue eyes hide beneath his cap.  Yet his frailty disappears whenever he straightens his posture and proudly declares, “I was in the Navy!”  As it turns out, many of the clients, staff members and volunteers are veterans.

Tonight, the Admiral and Rosa ask me if I can guard their cell phones while they recharge in an electrical outlet near my foldout chair.  Their simple request makes me smile – – there is no greater feeling than knowing you have won a person’s trust.

As the “dinner station” closes thirty minutes later, a staff member yells out across the armory, “Hey everyone, let’s show our appreciation by giving a hand to these nice folks!”  The crowd cheers with a burst of applause and whistles.  The Asian volunteers respond with shy smiles and traditional bows.  Another line forms in front of more foldout tables, stacked with free clothes, shoes and eyeglasses.  Jeans seem to be a popular commodity.

“Look at this wonderful coat for my little girl!”  A woman rushes up to me, beaming from ear to ear, showing off a small, velvet, fur-collared coat, perfectly fit for a small child.

“Wow, that is really nice,” I admire, touching the soft, purple fur.

“I found it just now.  I’m going to give it to my little girl when I pick her up from school.  She’s going to love it – – purple is her favorite color!”

A man shuffles up to the tables and tries on eyeglasses, awkwardly fumbling with his slow, thick fingers.  None seem to suit him and he looks around as though he’s lost, not quite knowing what to do next.

“Hey, I have a few extra pairs at home,” Will chimes in.  “If you come back next time, I’ll bring them for ya, and you can try ‘em on.”  A tall, lean African-American man with wise, silver hair, Will is a natural-born leader.  Always the first to jump on his feet to offer help, he has been a staff member of this homeless shelter program for the past six years.  Will is like a guiding light, making order out of chaos, reciprocating trust and respect.

Another favorite staff member is Tommy.  You can always find him wearing his trademark hat and trenchcoat.  Clear, plastic eyeglasses sit on his broad nose and he maintains a bandana wrapped around his head.  Watching him bark orders is a sport all its own: “Young man!  Make sure you clean up your area after you’re done eating!…Young lady!  Make sure you keep that latrine door closed behind you when you come out!”  Then he yells across the armory to no one in particular, “If you already have a sleeping bag, don’t take a blanket!  We’re short on blankets tonight….Be thankful that you’re not in Iraq, like our younger brothers and sisters!  If all we have to give you to eat is ravioli, then be thankful for the ravioli!  This place is like a hotel!  Y’all got it easy an’ you don’t even know.  Shoot, when I was growin’ up, we didn’t have none of this stuff….we had to struggle.”

One man does struggle into the armory, but clearly from having had way too much to drink.  He is unkempt, sluggish, incoherent and barely able to stand on his own two feet.  Policy dictates that clients who have clearly abused drugs or alcohol are not allowed into the armory.  However, this particular night is extremely bitter cold so the program director has made an exception.  Seeing the struggling man, other sympathetic clients soon gather to help set up his sleeping mat and blanket.  His new friends engage him in small-talk, trying their best to make him feel at home.  Such a simple gesture strikes a chord in me.  It reminds me of one of the great things about being in the Army: helping out your “buddy” becomes ingrained into your nature.  Even in such dire circumstances – having little or no food, money or shelter – these humble people exemplify selfless service.

At 2200 hours, the television is turned off before lights go out.  As I walk through the armory to conduct a headcount, almost everyone is balled up in their own cocoons, fast asleep beneath their blankets.  They completely cover themselves from head to toe, as if to protect themselves from the outside world.  Heavy snores, hacking coughs and the cranky, antiquated heater fills the background.  Staff members sit by the front doors where a few overhead lights remain lit, to welcome late-night stragglers with kitchen left-overs, a bedsheet, a sleeping mat and a friendly “hello.”

Having lived in San Francisco for the past three years, a city that constantly struggles to meet the needs of its multitudes of homeless people, I became used to seeing them sleep in storefront doorways at night.  It was as if they were nameless aliens from another planet, devoid of personal identities.  I could make them disappear simply by looking away.  Over time, I had unknowingly grown a hard, invisible shell.

Working in this program has helped me to regain a sense of humanity.  They are people with histories, and they’ve taught me to appreciate what I do have, rather than pining after things that I don’t have.  The Army National Guard provides a safe haven for the homeless during cold winter nights, and in return, the homeless remind us that we are not just human beings having a spiritual experience – – we are “spiritual beings having a human experience.”