Monday, December 19, 2005

Description of My Surroundings Part 2: The Center

This is perhaps one of the more selfish blogs I have written. For purposes of my own documentation—I want to remember all the gory details of the place I worked—I am undertaking a fairly detailed and structured description of the facility.

I recently paced off the center. The place where I work is roughly 55 paces deep and 25 paces wide, about 12,000 square feet. In this square space we have arguably 13 different “zones.” I say “zones,” like they are official and labeled and documented in our mission statement when, in fact, this is the first time anybody has ever called them that. They are listed as follows:
Sign in Desk
Coffee Bar
Stage
Lounge
Pop a Shot (yes we have a pop-a-shot)
Helpdesk
Hygiene room
Computer Lab
Doctor’s Office
Pharmacy
Bathroom 1
Bathroom 2
Cube Space

Where, pray tell, are the washing machines where 15-20 of our 80-100 daily guests wash their clothes? The answer gives you an idea of the amount of space violation going on at the center: they are in between zones, 4, 5, and 6 as well as between zones 7 and 11.

The zones are listed in the order in which one would view them if I were giving a tour, the last three being spots I would not take guests. They are in this order for no other reason than the facility’s natural footpath. I am trying, as it were, to paint a picture for the reader from the perspective of a guest. Besides the hygiene room, the pharamacy, the doctor’s office, the cube space, and the bathrooms, no space is enclosed and zone lines are rightly blurred. The computer lab, for example, is somewhat of a dubious name as it is nothing more than three wooden desks strung together on the way between the sign-in desk and the cube space.

The front door is in the corner of the building and immediately upon entering I pass the sign-in desk. Here guests sign their names to record a presence for fundraising purposes and sign membership agreements if it is their first time for liability purposes. Behind this waist-high counter, we store all guests’ personal belongings—a natural part of the center’s daily business that initially surprised me. There would be, I now assume, too much opportunity for theft otherwise. I used to wonder, “how can we extend them trust if we’re not extending them trust?” Recall that, on the other hand, we are the “world’s first sports bar for the homeless,” and probably the only one without booze; on our walls we have more than $15,000 in autographed memorabilia from famous professional athletes. In the business we call bag storage “refusing to set people up for failure.”

So we don’t have to put bags to faces, each man is given a playing card ripped in half: one piece appended to the bag, the other given to the guest. Also behind the counter and in this sign-in zone, lies the mailroom. The men constructed wooden cubbies so that our guests can receive mail—imagine filling out a job application without one. The sign-in desk has a metal storage cabinet, and a computer that does not operate, the latter representing our vision for the “electronification” of the sign-in process.

The coffee bar is immediately next to the sign-in desk along the wall facing the street. Here we charge $.25 for a small cup of coffee and under the counter are all the necessities: spare Styrofoam cups, extra sugar and cream, plastic silverware, and a few mugs.

The coffee bar juts up against a raised platform, a stage about four inches off the ground occupying the facility’s second corner. The stage is for speakers and performances, but most of the time it joins the lounge area: with two leather couches and a coffee table it is a popular vantage point for the movies which play next door in the facilities largest zone.

In the lounge area are four square tables placed end-to-end, two additional couches, three or four large reclining chairs, a dozen stackable chairs, and two televisions mounted high on support beams. Here men enjoy a respite from the street while drinking coffee and waiting for their clothes to dry or the shower to open up. The movies—very much in earshot of our cube space—are a daily part of the center experience.

Between the lounge area and the back door, which is cattycorner the front, is the famous pop a shot machine—a fully operational fair toy where players shoot small rubber basketballs under time constraints.. Donated by the Golden State Warriors this popular toy brings the noise level to new heights. The volume of both the movie and the voices move in direct proportion to the number of games played at the Pop a Shot.

After the pop a shot, as I move to face rear of the center, is the desk of the Helpdesk Coordinator. The Coordinator manages the day-to-day operations of the center and is a guest, turned volunteer, turned Champion Workforce employee. This is our key position—representing our “cream of the crop” client and the epitome of our therapeutic model. He has nearly complete autonomy to accept or refuse services to any guest for any reasonable reason. His decisions are the transitional training ground for his reintegration into the workforce.

The Coordinator’s desk is the center of the day’s activities. From this post the Coordinator issues bus passes and clothing vouchers, or official looking slips of paper authorizing the Society’s thrift store to release clothing at the expense of our center’s budget. Here the Coordinator usually stands and enforces the center’s rules, authorizes shift changes, and field’s special requests including tours and donations. He is the first line of defense for grumpy guests.

Behind the Coordinator’s desk are the two bathrooms I won’t describe other than to say that one of them contains the only shower in which 15-20 out of 80 or 100 visitors each day enjoy a shower.

Along the fourth and final side of the facility we have the hygiene room, the computer lab, doctor’s office, pharmacy, and my cube space. The hygiene room stores more than 10,000 items: everything from basic toiletries such as soap and shampoo to all kinds of men’s clothing including belts and extra shoe laces. Here the person in charge of the hygiene room records every item given out on specially designed tracking sheets. At the end of each day he records the inventory loss in excel. At about 25 square feet it is, needless to say, packed. Inside are two ceiling-to-floor bookshelves worth of clothing, a mobile unit for hanging clothes, a computer, a counter under which we store cleaning supplies, a ceiling-to-floor cabinet for hygiene items, and a storage closet of its own.

The doctor’s office, built entirely by the founding members of the center, is a storage closet that transforms every second and fourth Friday into a fully operational exam room with two-patient capacity. On those days the sign-in desk becomes a receptionist area, the computer lab a waiting room, and the lounge area a nurse’s station. Complete with two exam tables, a desk for each doctor, and a small supply of over the counter meds, about a dozen or so men and women receive free, individualized medical care out of our doctor’s office—unheard of in the homeless community. At its best, medical care means a couple of pain pills and a slap on the ass from the Highland Hospital. Next door to it is a pharmacy of donated prescription medicine—filled to the brim.

Invading in the doctor’s office zone is where I work: the cube space no more than 18 square feet. Behind the little green cube wall which separates my boss and I from the rest of the crew are two desks with computers, a copy machine, one inkjet printer, three filing cabinets, a large bookshelf with my boss’ mementos, one small garbage can, a dorm refrigerator, and finally a massive support beam from ceiling to floor around which I must dodge to get to my desk. It is in this area that all administrative tasks are performed. During the day it also acts as the final arbitration station: men from all over wait for the chance to see the short white man behind the green cube wall. They wait because he takes you in no matter what—he gives you money, he finds you shelter—in short—he solves your problems. He is social worker, case manager, counselor, confessor, lawyer, sponsor, mentor, financial supporter, and standup comedian for countless homeless men in the one of the nation’s most poverty-stricken cities.

It is, just on the other side of this man, where I work.

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