Fuck work. Fuck my job. Fuck all jobs, but fuck mine in particular. I work at a low- barrier women’s shelter. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the jargon of non-profits, low-barrier just means that it’s easy to get in: no screening, no drug tests, no nothing, really. You sign a release of information form so that the bosses can tell the city that you stayed there (and get funding based on the number of people who stay) and an incredibly brief liability form and you’re in. It doesn’t matter if you’re high, drunk, coming down or sobering up: you’re welcome if there’s room.
Given the context of the global cesspool we call capitalism, I’m actually glad such places exist, in theory. Sometimes, my coworkers get annoyed when a participant (the name we use for the women who access services through us when we refer to them in the abstract) comes in hella loaded, but honestly, I prefer that these super vulnerable women get super fucked up inside of the shelter where they’re relatively safe than out and about in downtown Portland or, maybe worse, out working on 82nd Ave (home of a lot of Portland’s lower-end sex-trafficking) in a stupor. That’s one way people get hurt. So they’re here instead, with us.
That being said, if any of the participants are found using in the shelter or carrying any sort of paraphernalia (even alcohol and marijuana which are both legal for use by adults in Oregon) we are supposed to exclude them from the shelter for 30 to 90 days, which obviously sucks. This also means that we can’t a) run a needle exchange or b) help participants safely dispose of used needles. We do have some of those bright red sharps containers to put needles in, but because of the punitive nature of our drug use policies, participants have to just sort of leave their needles around for others to find them (which, yes, is potentially very dangerous) in order to actually use these boxes, particularly because, rather than being mounted, are kept behind locked doors presumably because the management has all but abandoned the shelter and has yet to mount them, because they fear that mounting sharps disposal containers around the shelter will send the wrong message and encourage drug use within the shelter, or because a lot of the participants are in recovery and seeing the refuse of hard drug usage might damage their recovery process. The most likely reason for this, actually, is that there aren’t many needle- exchange programs in the city, meaning that some places with sharps containers find themselves having to replace them regularly because people will rip them off the walls and try to crack them open like walnuts to get new (as in “used by some stranger who possibly has a blood-borne illness”) needles to use. Obviously, that’s not a great situation for anyone involved.
In any case, about 75-80 women come in nightly to find a safer place to be than outside. Usually it’s the same cast of characters every night. Some of them are incredibly obnoxious: particularly the ones who love to snitch on everyone else. They think that they’re incurring favor with staff members by doing this, but in reality we often come to resent them, not only because their chosen targets are disproportionately black women, transwomen, or women with mental illnesses or some combination of those things, or because we’re usually already aware of the things people are getting ratted on for and don’t like the way these snitches are assuming we have our heads up our asses, but because we actually don’t like snitches. Why would we like anyone who is trying to get other women thrown out onto the street over some trivial shit, especially if they’re increasing our workload in the process? No, It’s not that critical. Go back to bed. Some pass through the place like little ghosts. They hardly say a word. They’re here to sleep and eat a cup of noodles or two and then get up and jet in the morning. A lot of the time, this is the working crowd. They have shit to do and they don’t want to stay here long: they’re not making friends, they’re just passing through. Aaaaaaand some really endear themselves to you. I work the graveyard shift (which I mentioned should be renamed after staff found one lady dead in the morning a couple months ago) which creates an interesting dynamic where the participants I get to know best are usually the the addicts who stay up all night or the more general trouble-makers who I find myself talking to a lot just to prevent them from waking everyone else up. Almost none of the above are morning people.
The shelter itself is basically just one big room (Gucci Gucci) with a bunch of newly-acquired beds in it. Before the beds, there were just old, disgusting, urine-soaked mats of a much lower quality than you would expect to find in a jailhouse. We actually still have these as well, and we use them every night for “overflow.” Overflow is all of the women who haven’t gotten beds or show up late, so they get stuck wherever there’s room on the floor. This really sucks for them because it’s usually somewhere close to a walkway where they get to have women thunder past on the way to the bathroom or out to smoke break, eye-balling them to see if they have any valuables. On the nights that my job is the most stressful, when people are rowdy, sick or whatever, this huge room with rows of beds stocked with miserable people kind of resembles an old Civil War hospital, a comparison that becomes only more accurate when I (with positively no medical training) am asked to fix paper towels to a participant’s literally rotting flesh with masking tape because no one saw fit to make sure that we stayed well-stocked with even basic medical supplies, or when a participant is writhing in agony and moaning because of withdrawals or because they have chronic arthritic pain for which they can’t get medicine because of “drug- seeking behavior.”
Attached to this main room, “the milieu,” is the staff office, which in some significant ways resembles a fish tank, “the awake room” which is basically a boring little coffin of a room with the kind of dirty standalone plastic sink you’d expect to find in a mechanic’s shop, a perpetually-breaking microwave and a couple uncomfortable chairs, and a bathroom that looks very much like it might be attached to the locker room of a jr. high wrestling team and is always becoming covered with human feces by one process or another which I (and it is usually me, the post-farmboy) get to clean up with only the most minimal cleaning supplies. Ever clean human shit off the wall with a diaper and windex? I have. The building itself actually seems to be coming apart at the seams. It was rented out to our agency by another nonprofit. The floors are dingy beyond any scrubbing’s capability to shine, it leaks when it rains (despite having a floor above it???), one of the load- bearing beams has a one and-a-half inch lightning bolt crack slowly splitting it in half, and, oh yeah, it’s in a building with two different programs that house male sex offenders. Don’t even ask me who let that happen.
When I first got this job, I was actually really stoked. It was far and away the most I’d ever made per hour and, although it was overnights, I only had to work 3 nights a week which meant that ya girl had four-day weekends every week. That was rad. When I first started working here, our program was only supposed to be a temporary shelter for the winter months. This meant that, as a temporary employee, I wasn’t making benefits, but at least I had that sweet, sweet Obamacare which obviously isn’t great but was working out pretty well by comparison because I’m a dipshit anyway and have no idea how to use the health care that I have now. As our program was coming to a close, however, the city decided to include us in their budget for year-round funding which is pretty great for the participants who didn’t want to get turned out to the streets once spring came, but was a bit more complicated for the staff.
Firstly, there was a regime change. My boss had only signed on or the original six months the program was supposed to run and couldn’t stay when we went year-round. I would feel obligated to complain about her, but she was great and honestly we’re really good friends now. In addition to that, we got benefits but had to take a two dollar/hr pay cut Also, we were already grossly understaffed. At the time I remember it seeming totally crazy that one coworker of mine, whose only downfall was really giving a shit about his job, had to work five overnights a week for like a month. I guess I assumed that this was because our program was ending soon, and it didn’t make sense to hire new people to work for such a short span. Times change however, and what seemed totally insane and unhealthy back then rapidly became the norm. The length of shifts dropped from ten hours to eight and all of us were expected to work five nights a week, meaning that we had to work substantially more for really about the same amount of pay. Originally, the new boss asked us what we wanted our schedules to be like. I told her that I’d prefer to work three, maybe four days a week, and cheerfully restated this every week for the next month and a half of five-day workweeks before finally resigning myself to my new little hell. This major drop in working conditions was accompanied by our admission into the union which, as a cynical former leftist, I found sort of grimly amusing.
If you’ve ever worked night shift before, you probably understand why five of them a week is so awful but if you haven’t, allow me to explain. When you get home from work at about 8:15, you have to sleep until at least 4:15 to live anything resembling a healthy life. Attach to this the fact that you often don’t get off on time/ can’t get to sleep right away, or that daytime sleeping is quite simply not as energy-efficient as nighttime sleeping, and you have yourself a recipe for chronic fatigue. Chronic fatigue means that on a day-to-day basis, I’m not operating at anywhere near my full mental, emotional or physical capacity. In addition, the work that I do all night involves a lot of emotional work and regulation for myself and others (both participants and coworkers) as we experience and process some really fucked up shit together. This means that I’m basically doubling-down on my emotional depletion which is not only directly damaging to me personally, but it also makes me next-to-useless for the people in my life that I wanna have any sort of relationship with. This makes me feel pretty bad. Going through a bout of depression like this makes it harder to sleep or go out and spend time with the people I want to spend time with. Which makes maintaining my energy levels more difficult which makes me more depressed and so on ad literal nauseum.
I’m twenty-four years old and in general a very social creature. It is important to me to have a social life. Moreover, much of said social life takes place well into the late night, when I have the energy for it at all. A friend might text me “hey. were getting drinks at barbar. wanna come?” and when I ask what time we’re all meeting up it’s probably around eleven or twelve but they’ll let me know. Only, I have to be at work at 11:30. Luckily, I work Sun-Thurs so I more or less have the weekends off. Yeehaw. However, every Friday morning, I’m faced with a dilemma. Do I get home and go to sleep, thereby wasting most of my first day off and foreclosing any possibility of going to do any sort of errands, or do I try to make it without sleep at all, dragging myself from place to place by sheer force of will trying to achieve whatever can’t be done during the workweek, just so that my body can shit out on me about the time that everyone wants to go out and do something cool? Wanna go to a dance party tonight? Of course I do! You can catch me slumped in the corner of the bar/weird dirty basement totally sober, drinking coffee at 1 in the morning and trying not to cry while I watch everyone dance to Beyoncé and ponder the mystery of why I try to remember the books of the New Testament in order whenever I should be having fun with my friends. Let’s say hypothetically that a total babe moves over next to me and we start making flirty conversation. They ask what I do, and I tell them. “Wow, that’s really great that you do that.” Actually no. I hate my job and I’m starting to hate myself for being willing to do it.
I hate work. One of my coworkers makes a habit of assuring me at least once a week that we have it really good. “You’re not gonna find another job like this one, dude.” He has a point. I make more than minimum wage and spend a healthy part of my shift watching T.V. On the other hand, it hardly surprises me that the coworker telling me how good I have it is the same one that a lot of the ladies dislike and complain about. The reason, I realize, is that he’s actually the one doing the least real work. Don’t get me wrong, he’s totally eager to pop up and run over to get people towels, blankets and cups of noodles from the storeroom, but in terms of actually social work, he’s not the one connecting with participants and sitting with their problems. It is precisely the sociality of this work however, that makes it challenging. When we run out of essential supplies like toilet paper, he’s right to get mad that the management isn’t giving us the tools to do our job. But that’s where it stops for him. For those of us who have built up what feel like real, genuine relationships with these people, it starts looking a lot more like people we know, care about, or even love are being deprived of vital resources for survival, or beaten up by their boyfriends and husbands, or being arrested, or being stolen from, or having their kids taken away, or dying out on the street with no next of kin, or…
Am I being overly-dramatic? Yeah, probably, but in my defense, that shouldn’t be a reason to dismiss what I’m saying. If anything, it’s evidence of what this job is doing to me. It drives me crazy when people suggest that it’s good, at least, that my work helps people. Excuse you. I don’t do my job because it helps people and I’m really nice and care about people. That’s just why I’m good at it and honestly, I am really good at it. You know what though? I’ve always cared about people, but you never caught me volunteering my time in this shelter before they started paying me. Sometimes I feel like a contestant on a reality game show: “I didn’t come here to make friends. I came here to make money.” This job sucks. I’m here because I have to go to work in order to feed and house myself, which is a whole bigger cauldron of stewing dogshit to complain about. For the love of g-d, if you catch me in the street and we start talking about work, please don’t imply that what I do purely for money makes me a good person because it only underscores the strictly self-serving reasons that I undertake the business of helping people. As defined by my job, my relationship to being a good person is analogous to the mercenary’s relationship to being a soldier. There is no cause but food in the belly.
This bears restating. I am obliged to care, however grudgingly, and not out of some misplaced notion of goodness or some stupid idea about making the world better place or anything, but because five nights a week, I am here, in a room with somebody and because I relate to them in some real way. Some people I’ve known talk about the homeless with this weird tinge of true prole authenticity, which is just a weird and gross application of identity politics that reduces a real person into some kind of political object. Of course, some people have to make something political before they can force themselves to give a fuck about it. Honestly, I just like a lot of these people. They’re funny, or maybe sweet. Maybe they come from some place near where I’m from. Maybe they remind me of someone. I care about them because I’m in the room with them. The reason I’m in this room though, is the money. That’s it.
I get paid to show up. That’s really all I have to do. I’ve had coworkers prove beyond question that as long as you show up, you don’t have to give a fuck to get paid. Still, I find myself giving a fuck whether I really want to or not, whether it’s my turn to or not.
Sometimes I’ll be in the middle of a movie. Let’s say maybe it’s in Cantonese and I won’t be able to follow what the hell is going on if I don’t pay attention to the subtitles flashing at the bottom of the screen. Suddenly, a participant sticks their head in the office door. I sigh as I pause my movie. “I need a towel,” she says. Stupidly, childishly, my heart sinks. The towels are across the building behind a locked door. It’s really not that far at all but I was just about to watch this dude, whose humility of spirit is said to embody the Chinese ethic, pummel like ten Japanese fascist agents at once and I’m tryna see some dudes get kicked in the head.
I didn’t used to be like this.
Because “helping people” is the form of labor I am compelled to squeeze out of myself for money, I sometimes resent myself if I ever go out of my way for anyone: for working for free. I already don’t get paid enough for the work that I do. Why do I keep doing more? For fucking free? Naw. Fuck that. Being a professional “good person” is literally making me a bad person. If there’s any merit to categories like those in the first place, they’ve utterly inverted themselves through the imposition of labor in my life.
One of my former coworkers was telling me about how working here made it impossible for her to actually listen to people who were talking to her. She said that she found herself tuning out in her daily life when her friends and partners or whoever would want to talk about their lives or work. I can relate. I listen to people’s stories all the time at work, whether I’m interested or not. They can be trivial, banal, wandering, sprawling, spurting, funny, boring, incredibly offensive, heart-wrenching, infuriating, annoying or just plain pointless. If I were a smarter person, I could write an essay on the many forms of narrative structure. Listening to so many stories or complaints–oh my god, so many complaints–sort of wears down my mental faculties. Eventually, all I hear is a higher-pitched, tweaked-out version of the teacher from Charlie Brown. Listening to these complaints is like listening to a three-hour harsh noise album in one sitting and then realizing you’ve only had your laptop open for three minutes. *bong rip* Eventually you get so tired of listening to people that you start tuning out in your actual life. Like I said, why work for free? Of course, it’s actually really important to listen to the people you care about. When my partner starts telling me about their day, I really want to be able to listen. After all, the reason I started dating them in the first place is because I think that they’re really interesting, right? This is of course a problem that working people have faced as long as work has existed. How do I maintain my job as a source of income that I can use to keep my beleaguered body moving and still have the energy necessary to experience life in a way that doesn’t make me wanna die anyway? The fact that this is such an age-old question doesn’t make the need to answer it in the here and now feel any less visceral.
When I started writing all my feelings down about this, I meant it as sort of a worker’s inquiry (despite never having read an actual worker’s inquiry in my life) but instead found myself realizing that I’m actually just mad. Like, super mad. Not only does my job suck so hard that I legitimately contemplate throwing myself down the stairs on my way to the staff bathroom so I can claim some workman’s comp, but also because we’re here staring at the ugly mug of the end of the world. Like, bruh, I read the news. I don’t wanna be just another dick on the internet making apocryphal claims re: the apocalypse, but California is drying up. Oregon and Washington (and California, again) are fucking on fire. The ice caps are melting, bees are disappearing (???) and the world is generally becoming more and more strange as we realize how indifferent it is to our survival, which would be cool if the planet was, idk, an absentee parent or a long-lost romantic interest: the sort of thing whose indifference we’ve already learned how to cope with, but I spent a good part of my life really thinking that mankind’s big problem was gonna be the sun exploding in five billion years and then I grow up just to learn that shit’s gonna get super hairy in my lifetime? And I have to spend my time before then sitting around at work handing out cups of noodles and listening to so many stories about gendered violence that they start sounding like madlibs where only the names, dates and places have been changed? That’s some shit, man. I mean, work would still suck even if one day I was gonna get to retire to some beautiful grassy meadow somewhere that looked like The Shire but where everyone was really cute and had a crush on me and life was free of troubles, but if all I get to look forward to is an increasingly depressing, dystopian cyberpunk future interspersed with exponentially-worsening deadly acts of g-d (which are actually byproducts of our shitty cyberpunk society that doesn’t even have the sweet aesthetic I was promised by 1980’s sci-fi movies), then this sucks, and I’m not having it.
Anyway, fuck work. Fuck my job. Fuck all jobs, but fuck mine in particular. Y’know?
— Harper Ferry