The Night Shift: Notes from the Underground Library

Tonight I’m on the Night Shift for another brief time.  Volunteers, three in total, we gather at 8:00 p.m. in a church basement in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.  We are part of a network that literally operates underground and in the middle of the night. Temperatures will drop to 27 to 25 degrees overnight.

Names of individuals (other than myself) are fictionalized, location not named for this post. Family Promise is an actual organization.

Two of us, tonight’s hosts, pour over a binder with information on tonight’s guests.  One has migraines.  Her daughter is sick with a cold.  In an emergency contact her uncle.  There may be civil orders we need to be aware of for a client’s well-being and security.

It’s just one small hospitality station in a vast network of support from individuals giving up a spare night or two each month or even a quarter.  Truth be told, our clients, single parents, experiencing homelessness and many with jobs, are fiercely independent like most Americans.  They will require and often insist on very little interference from the hosts.  We’ll ready the cots, check the freshness of the milk, make coffee in the morning, make sure outer doors stay secure, respond to an emergency, and take the garbage out in the morning. There will be no preaching or prayers from the hosts.  The night, like most, is uneventful. Hosts gather our own bed linens after our own overnight stays in the library.  One of tonight’s co-hosts, let’s call her Hope, will take the laundry as homework since she returns again tomorrow.

It is not lost on us that this is where we are now in our beloved country:  a swing or overnight shift of volunteers filling in the gaps where social services funding has been cut. A time when affordable housing is the myth of the new century and perpetually out of most states’ reaches.  Vast numbers of individuals are underemployed and/or marginally compensated.   Denver, by all marks a progressive community with deep commitments to social justice, is reported by a USC study to be in the top ten least affordable rental markets in the country.  The clients who will be sheltered here are single mothers. Some have cars, which I’m certain may have provided shelter on some nights before they connected to the host organization’s services.

The later won’t be due to a lack of effort by caseworkers from the host organization, Family Promise.  They fulfill a remarkable secular mission to provide interim, transitional shelter when group shelter is not an option or a shelter stay has reached its term before re-entry (usually ninety days).   Their mission is broader, of course, with a commitment to homelessness prevention and delivering families more permanent housing solutions.  Some 6,000 organizations, many places of worship, will provide the physical accommodations and guided volunteers.  If volunteers were staff, they report, they’d be the nation’s 31st largest employer with some 200,000 in the volunteer workforce.

But this week is the core experience for many clients:  short term shelter.  Tonight, and each night this week, a family will have the privacy of a clean room of their own, albeit a classroom by day.  They’ll have fresh linen, reliable heat, a bathroom and shower with no long waits, a kitchen they can retreat to and fix their own lunch or have an apple.  They will also have a comfort they barely ever know:  locks on the doors.  

Let me bust a myth about our homeless populations and shelters:  Why, if there are ample beds, won’t many of our homeless stay there?  The “why’s” are well reported here in Westword and by Denver’s Homeless Out Loud organization:

Many of these justifications are more heartbreaking than you’d ever imagine. 

But one of the most common reasons, beyond personal security, is that a person can’t get out of a shelter in time each morning to make it to their early morning jobs, drop off a child at a day care facility, make it to a medical appointment, or get in line for day labor. 

It’s only my second time as a host.  My co-host has attended scores of times.  But my experience is this: these women will be up before seven without a knock on their door and will skip the coffee I made (mostly for my own morning comfort). They will take a pass on the Cheerios.  They’ll fill a water bottle and pour some juice in the sippy cup and maybe also grab a banana for the toddler.  Each will have a busy morning, too busy to stop for these comforts.  One, let’s call her Michelle, states she will take her one year old to the emergency room because she doesn’t like the direction her cough has taken.  Michelle will take the optional van which a certified volunteer is driving.  Michelle’s gathered her overnight belongings in a collection of PVC shopping bags and a small canvas duffle. She’s bundled the baby and fastened her in the car seat and stands ready long before our driver’s early arrival for her shift.  Michelle, I gather, has had lots of experience preparing each day to mitigate one of the common time management challenges in her life:  finding a good place in a long line.  She doesn’t even ask for help and begins to sling the bags onto her shoulder.  When I do offer, she says:  “Would you mind carrying the baby?”

This is my central take-away:  these people are trying.  They are maintaining as much composure as they can facing the soul sucking daily grind of providing for their families under the most extreme circumstances imaginable–short of living each night in a car, or in a homeless encampment by the ball parks.  They absolutely can’t make it alone, but Michelle will make every effort to keep as much involvement as possible in her and her daughter’s life choices. 

One more parting notion.  This is a secular effort. I am connected to a faith organization with a concept of God some would call unapologetically and even radically inclusive.  Others will just say that inclusive is the very nature of God.  I’ve read thelogian Tillich, humanist/atheist Hitchens and Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh within the same month and don’t find their messages to be contradictory.  I am not a “non-believer.” Core to that belief is that we maintain a secular sanctuary for our government exclusive from limitations of religious dictates of any sort.  But I also am convinced of the power of the Interfaith Alliance movement as perhaps the most innovative development in the recent history of religious practice worldwide.  It gathers effort from faith organizations around the concept of service for humanity, is duty-bound to social justice, and is filling the broad gaps unfortunately left by the insufficiency of our civil safety nets.  Our evening’s host organization, again a secular body, counts on support from the broad array of Presbyterian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, LDS, Lutheran, Unitarian-Univeralist, non-denominational evangelical and other faith organizations.  It is not by providence that our country’s sanctuary for free religious practice makes the very idea of an Interfaith Alliance possible.

I’m not a public relations official or writing on behalf of Family Promise. I’m an unpaid, free will scribe. But if you’d like to get to know them, here’s a link to


NEXT: Afterword, including a visit to Tom’s Diner, with verse to be posted before the weekend.

Published by Vincent Hostak

Vincent Hostak, vmh, is a writer, podcaster and filmmaker. His poetry has appeared in Sonder Midwest, Tejascovido and the Langdon Review of the Arts. Vince is Executive Producer of Crossings-the Refugee Experience in America Podcast.

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