The man at the front desk of Broward Outreach Center stared at me blankly. The walk to the homeless shelter had left the ends of my jeans soaked from puddles left by the latest rainstorm, and the hair on my arms clung to my skin. Wet streaks of black mascara outlined my eyes and my hair was disheveled.
“Please,” I begged. I just broke up with my cheating boyfriend and couldn’t stand it anymore; I had left in a hurry, bringing nothing with me.
I didn’t think I’d get in; the sign outside had said: “Full House. No beds.” With the center being a government-owned property, I thought they’d take one look at me and turn me away.
After what seemed like two minutes of silence, he sighed and shook his head. Then he jerked his head to the left and quietly told me to sit, his manner wary and tired. I, too shocked to respond, sat down. I started crying after he left, and in the moment, I dropped my act. Everything was real, I thought.
The man came back later and I thought he was going to turn me away. Full House. No beds. But then, he reached for a paper, eyes down, and asked, “ID?”
And for one night, I was no longer a college journalist, living in a bubble and reporting through emails and phone conversations. I was a heartbroken, homeless girl who was given a place to sleep for one night.
Aubrey, a resident at the shelter, came into the lobby. He nodded nonchalantly to the man, asking, “Need any help?” I learned later on that he’d lead me to the sleeping quarters.
I hugged my arms to my chest and tried not to look at Aubrey, who was a tall African American man wearing basketball shorts and an over-sized t-shirt. He had his IPod earphones stuck in his ears.
I felt his eyes sweep over my face, taking in the redness and dry tears.
“Are you okay?” he asked. I jumped slightly when I heard his voice. I didn’t expect him to actually talk to me, but I looked over and he had his earphones dangling. It was odd to tell him my cover story, when the front desk didn’t even bother to ask. I adopted an angry tone when talking about my boyfriend of one and a half years. Aubrey was nothing but sympathetic.
“It’s going to get better, really. Just get some sleep, and you’ll wake up fine.”
It sounded like practiced advice—like a parent consoling his or her child over a bad grade—and it might have been that. Who knows how many residents have trickled in with familial and love relationship problems? I just didn’t expect Aubrey to care.
I didn’t answer him; I only shook his hand.
Aubrey brought me to another room where I met Connie, one of the shelter’s staff members. When she saw me walk in, her mouth fell agape. But like the man at the front desk, she didn’t ask me any questions, except for my name. On a bulletin board hanging on the green walls of the lobby, she wrote my name under the heading ‘overnight.’ Next to another name on the board, it looked like the person had written a thank you note to the shelter.
Every part of me ached, heavy with fatigue. I wanted a shower, because the sheets smelled like cigarettes, and it didn’t make me feel clean. My hair itched. Goosebumps lined my arms and I ran my hands up and down just to try to make them go away. Yet my mind came alive during this time.
The exit sign was too distracting. Even as I closed my eyes I felt the bright red light streaming through my lids. The air-conditioning was cranked too high and every cold particle hit my skin, causing shivers to run through my body. I traced the cracks and chips of the floor with my eyes. I counted the seconds the fire alarm light would blink—every three seconds—and I kept on waiting for the next cycle.
The homeless residents at the shelter lay in white cocoons, their thin sheets wrapped tightly around them. I tossed and turned, tucking my sheets in too, trying to save heat, but the cold ate at my feet and shoulders. It’s the type of cold that never leaves you.
Phlegm-racked coughs sounded in echoes as the time on my cell phone turned 2 a.m. In the packed corridor where thick mats littered the floor like places in a war shelter, a man cursed about the cold in his sleep. The woman who lay behind me moaned, as if in pain. Connie still sat at front of the shelter, but she was snoring.
At one time, I felt her near me, but I pretended to be asleep. What did she want? Did she know? I froze, just waiting for a pair of hands to grab my arms and pull me up. In the back of my mind, I would have wanted to go outside just for the heat. At least I’d be warm.
I wanted to go home. I wanted a home. Because here, in a place where people minded their own business and slept in their cocoons, I didn’t have a home. I found myself thinking of the person I created that night, the girl who had no friends or family to help her when she had suffered heartbreak. She needed a shelter, not a home, and this was where she had ended up going to.
When I got out at 3:15 a.m., I snuck past the front desk, leaving without a word. In the parking lot, Michele Boyet, program coordinator of Will Write for Food, greeted me with a hug and I fell into her, the weight of what I had just done pushing me. And even after I left her arms, even after I felt the humidity of Florida on my skin, I was still shivering.