Sometimes the blankets are warm from having been slept on just minutes before. This happens when someone gets up, gathers up his blankets in a bundle, and makes a beeline to the storage room. They seem to be saying, here’s my bed. I’m done with it. Take it. It feels strange receiving still-warm blankets, an action too intimate to occur between strangers but that is what we do.
Other times, the blankets are folded and stacked, cool as if displayed on a counter in a department store. Always the largest blanket is on the bottom and the smaller ones are centered atop, the corners aligned. Nothing haphazard for the people who fold their own blankets. Maybe it’s a message they want to send; we are more careful and thoughtful than we seem here.
Both the gatherers and the folders have spent the night sleeping on the floor of a cavernous gym in an old church, a place formally called a warming room. It is where homeless people can come to keep from freezing outside. The room is only open if the temperature falls below 10 degrees; this has already happened 23 times this winter. It’s been harsh.
There is only a thick blanket between each person’s tired back and the floor where sometimes children in Sunday School might play basketball. There are basketballs appearing now and then so that could be true though I’ve never seen it. I wish the people staying in the warming room could shed all their heavy clothes, their thick rubber-soled boots and layers of hoodies and put on t-shirts and basketball shorts and play pick-up games all night long. They can’t do that though. They need to spend the time they have inside sleeping. I wonder if they even remember having fun.
Along with my storeroom partner, I take the blankets from people’s arms and stack them along one wall of the storeroom. There is a science to this because blankets stacked too casually quickly become a pile and we don’t want that. We want order and symmetry; we want something to be tidy beyond 72 homeless people sleeping on the floor, their blankets all laid, by them, east to west.
Our town has about 1,500 people who are homeless on any given night. The authorities say that about 130 of them are unsheltered, people living on the street or in parks. Yet every morning that I go to the warming room to clean up, I see new people. I see new old people, new young people, new disabled people. Oh, some are the same, but many are new and I wonder where all these new people are coming from. They are all coming from someplace worse than a warming room, that’s for sure.
I don’t tend to them. I tend to the blankets. Other volunteers tend to other things like breakfast or mopping the floor. No one tells anyone else what to do and no one has a solution to why some people end up sleeping on a gym floor. No one is healing or praying except to themselves and that makes the room quieter than one would expect. People, all of us, are simply tending to ourselves the best way we can at the moment. A man carefully folds his blankets; I carefully stack them. And when all is done we lock the door and leave and wait for the temperature to drop again.