The Santa Barbara Rescue Mission provides a great deal of resources for the indigent population of Santa Barbara. The cost of entry is a photo ID and a card certifying that you do not have tuberculosis. For this simple fee, you are provided with a bed, showers, and a free meal, an ample supply of food to keep anyone who has been without from going hungry.
The doors to the Mission open to women around 5 p.m., and to men at 6:15. The men stop smoking cigarettes, get in line, file through a small narrow gate, and end up in a small courtyard in which a lone tree stands. There is a giant storage room where bags may be kept, and after checking luggage into this room, the men check in to reserve their beds for the night or get in line for the dining hall.
The disheveled mix of facial hair, strange haircuts, and mismatched clothing shuffles through two sets of wide double doors into the dining hall. The line sticks to the walls, as the middle of the room is occupied by three long tables with attached unmovable seats. The line ends at a stack of trays and a giant window from which three men in the transition program dole out salad, chicken or beans, rice, and whatever else may be on the menu. A giant bucket of bread gives the homeless an option, as another man in the transition program picks and places either bagels or slices of bread on the food-laden tray, and then a small dessert tray of destroyed or rejected sweets from bakeries around town provides a sugary snack, unless it gets mobbed and runs out too fast. Every seat has a spork and a glass of water.
Everyone is out by 6:50. They sit in the courtyard smoking and talking about politics and where cigarettes are to be had. Willy, an old man with a rough scratchy voice, calls out, “If you were here last night this is your last chance to check in.”
One at a time, people are allowed into the storage area to retrieve spare luggage and clothes, until everyone is checked in. Some retreat to the chapel and read or take part in whatever service is offered there. Showers start sometime after seven. Men’s showers take place in a giant washing area with doorless toilet stalls. Clothing is placed in green bags, towels are handed out with a single bar of soap. After going to the giant six-person shower and back to the towels, your shoes and green bag of clothing minus whatever you choose to sleep in are turned in. Items beyond a book or wristwatch are not allowed upstairs.
Upstairs is a giant dormitory-style row of bunk beds, and until lights-out, talk consists of conversations about work, complaints, the occasional discussion of evolution, and crazy people mumbling or talking out loud. Some read. The sounds of hoses cleaning the bathroom below can be heard. The people on the bunks have a variety of life histories and work experience, and some nights the talk is about mechanics, and involves a great deal of discussion expounding on repair of a wankle rotary engine versus standard mechanical plans takes place. Some nights it is of the joys of having a hotel room, where you can drink beer, go to the bar, and eat pizza until you fall asleep with the TV on.
Some nights the lights go off and it’s just the schizophrenics mumbling. Dark, silence, and then out of nowhere a concerned voice solemnly announces, “No more hot dogs.”
At least once this writer has gone to sleep with the man in the bunk next to him in a violent rage screaming, “I am not afraid of prison. Not afraid of a felony! I swear I’m gonna kill me a white boy tonight!”
The coming of fall is marked by snoring. All windows are open at all times, but the heat of the men results in snoring. A wild roaring symphony develops around 9 p.m. and reaches a true cacophony at midnight.
People working can come in late, with 11 p.m. the latest you can come in. Coming in late means missing the shower. Sleep comes fast with earplugs.
Some people wake up around 3 a.m. They go to the downstairs bathroom and wait. Then they come back upstairs and wait. Early morning wake-ups start at 4:00 a.m. At this time some of the shelter denizens get up and leave for work. Others go outside the gate to smoke. Nobody is allowed inside the gate and outside the sleeping area until 5:15 a.m., when everyone wakes up. The wake-up comes with lights. The lights flick on, everyone goes downstairs, retrieves his green bag and shoes, brushes teeth, and then smokes, talks about going to Vegas, or reads in the chapel until breakfast, which is a cup of dehydrated milk, oatmeal or a bowl of cold cereal (Cheerios or rice crisps), and a cup of the worst coffee on earth.
Everyone is out the door at 6 a.m.
I worked, saved money, and then out of nowhere a friend I’d known since she was 12 invited me to her wedding. It was hard to get a hold of me so I learned of it at the last minute. I asked a pastor at the Rescue Mission if I should blow my savings to go be with my friend who I’d known since her Bat Mitzvah, and he said, speaking as a married man, that his wife would have cared a great deal for people to be there. He suggested that I might be able to “minister” to people.
I ended up going to the wedding. Everything I own fits in one suitcase, so there weren’t any baggage fees on the flight. My best friend let me borrow a suit. At the wedding was an attorney, and I asked him if, pursuant to going to law school someday, if I could check out his firm and see what they look like. He said “Sure,” and that night texted me to be in his office in a suit and tie for an interview.
The upshot is that I’m employed and do pretty well now.
I would encourage everyone to support the Rescue Mission with the money they would otherwise offer to the street. I do. It goes a long way and can help men like me, and the other men I saw doing the same thing I was, to get off the street. They’re too busy working to bum for change, so please help out.
Can you spare a buck or two?