The Coldest Night at the Overflow Shelter

This has been a winter to remember. The text message came about 3 p.m. A man who signed up to work at a nearby church taking in homeless can’t make it. “Can you come in?”

A week ago I signed up as a back-up in case a volunteer had a problem. This was a big problem. It had only warmed up to 10 degrees on this February afternoon.

It snowed all day and stayed so cold I hadn’t bothered to get dressed. Just read and did some writing in my jammies because our apartment warmed up so slowly. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a storm like we had this President’s Day.

“Sure, I’m still good with coming in if I’m needed.”

Only the second time I’ve worked the all-night shift at the Unitarian Church, I was needed. Lots of different people are helping out. Other churches in Springfield have also been taking in people with no place to shelter for the night.

I catch sleep on and off. Mainly I stay awake, as it’s required: one of the two shelter volunteers should be awake all night. Ted watches movies on his laptop. We have 17 men initially.

Near the basement door a table has coffee, hot chocolate and donated snacks. On the large plastic ‘sneeze protector’ of plexiglass someone has taped a photocopied sign: In case no one told you today: You are beautiful…

A volunteer named Jorge serves coffee and snacks for two hours as people settle in. He’s an engineer, he’ll be driving to Texas County to work overseeing a factory manufacturing electric parts. Ninety miles each way four days a week. Today, dangerous highways.

You are loved…

            Two guys are having trouble sleeping. We talk about all kinds of things, but mainly about Herman Melville because I’m auditing a class at Missouri State on Early American Literature. I’m reading Melville’s first book, Typee, about his jumping ship on a South Sea island, the hard life of sailors, and related adventures.

You are needed…

            This other guy tells me he’s ready to work, but is having trouble getting his paperwork together. “They want proof of address for me to get food stamps, but I don’t have an address and my birth certificate isn’t enough for them.”

You are alive for a reason…

Shortly after midnight a guy comes into the shelter with all his stuff in three thin plastic shopping bags. “I just got off from working at Denny’s,” he explains.

You are stronger than you think…

            At 2 a.m. I look up from the book I’m reading. It’s a woman rapping on the window by the door.

“Eden Village said I should could by here,” she explains. She’s wearing a blanket over her head and coat to keep out the cold. I show her to a cot.


You are going to get through this…

            Another guy comes to the snack table in the middle of the night. His neighbor is hassling him. I go over and talk with the neighbor, who has lots of issues, a lot of anger. But he listens. He mainly needs some extra clothes which have been donated to the church for homeless. I bring out different sweat shirts. Finally he agrees one is right for him, nice and heavy.

I’m glad you are alive…

Lots of coughing echoes across the big basement room filled with sleep. Occasional snoring. They put on their COVID 19 masks when they come out for snacks. Mainly they sleep, mostly still in their clothes wrapped in blankets. Ted or I check the room each hour. No one wants to talk in the earliest, coldest time before dawn.

Don’t give up…

            Ted turns on the lights at 6:30 a.m. Most everyone’s up. Some are going outside for a smoke. “It’s -12 degrees out there,” Ted says in amazement.

A big guy comes in, smiling, only a few teeth. “I see you got those big brown shoes in there. I think they might fit me.” They do, he’s happy and says, “Always good to have a little extra room for more socks in cold weather.”

A little after 7 a.m. the bus arrives. In less than ten minutes, everyone’s gone. Ted and I do the initial clean up, spraying a bleach mix on the cots and pillows. It’s all fixed for other volunteers, who sweep and get everything ready for the next evening.

Yes, you are loved by a huge community…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top