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A slice of life and a little blue pill at Joy Junction

By Jeremy Reynalds
web posted April 22, 2002

It's 3.20 p.m. on a relatively calm Sunday afternoon in the main building of Joy Junction.
A pregnant guest holding a baby is distraught about the recent abandonment of five children at Joy Junction. (The kids ended up being placed in foster care). She says, "I just want to go out and find that woman. But my husband says 'Maybe she was suicidal so perhaps the kids are in a better place.'" I ponder briefly their vastly different reaction to the abandonment.

A man with physical and mental problems staggers into the office and says, "I hate channel four," (the NBC affiliate). Someone asks him why and the man replies, "Because they always cut out."

Just as the channel four hater is staggering out of the office, a Joy Junction staffer comes in. He's casually dressed in a plaid shirt with a blue undershirt and blue jeans, with hair sticking up. He asks the shelter pastor, "That girl you had at the movies. Was she 18?"

"No, she was in her mid 50's," responds the counselor.

"Okay, just trying to scare you," says the parking lot attendant. That's typical humor at Joy Junction. I've heard that humor like this is a coping mechanism that often shows up in environments like ours.

A few minutes later I hear a snippet from a sad conversation drifting out of a neighboring office. "He drinks too much and he's already hit her."

It's now 4.30 p.m., and dinner is well under way. Most people are sitting down eating their evening meal but about a dozen or so are still standing in the serving line. There's not much audible conversation going on from my fairly unobtrusive listening post a few feet away–just a few laughs here and there.

I can only see one person not eating. She's an elderly black woman with greying hair sitting quietly on a couch. Her vacant staring into mid-air personifies the stereotypical image that many people have of the homeless.

The overall atmosphere resembles a busy, well-ordered and well-structured beehive. While it appears (to me, anyway) to be a comforting, reassuring environment, I wonder how many of the scores of people I can see eating dinner are as comfortable with it as I am. Maybe my comfort is due at least in part to me being the director and because I've been here so long.

By 5.10 p.m. supper is over and all the tables have been stacked to one side to make way for the upcoming church service. As a faith-based ministry, church services and Bible studies form a core part of what Joy Junction is all about.

I hear another snatch of conversation coming out of an office. Someone says, "All you had to do was answer the question." Another person answers, "Tough it out."

The first individual responds, "I'm tired."

A couple of minutes later, two tall men begin their after- dinner chores of methodically sweeping and mopping the floor prior to the chairs being put back down for church. Daily chores are required as a condition for staying at the shelter. Continued refusal to do chores will eventually result in being asked to leave the shelter. It's all about trying to help our guests be responsible and transition back into the real world

The black woman is still sitting in the same place. The only difference is that she now has a soft covered Bible balanced on her lap. There are about a dozen people sitting on the couches which line the perimeter of the building. Nobody is reading. They're all just looking.

A couple of minutes later, a kitchen worker drops off some meals for the workers on an upcoming shift. He's a troubled but affable young man who needs some positive male role models in his life. I ask him if he's behaving. He says, "Yeh, I was just dropping off lunches. See, I've stacked them nice and neat." He knows who I am and he's anxious to please.

The kitchen worker disappears from sight but then a man comes by and stops at the office right in front of my listening post. I ask him how he's doing. He says, "Not so good."

I ask him why and he replies that because he's broken up with his spouse, his stay at Joy Junction has now reverted to overnight status. He's disappointed and says, "I had a lot of plans. I had a lot I could do for this place. See these three couches? That's what I used to do for my business-fix them."

I utter condolences, saying "Yeh, that's what happens." I don't know if he knew my position at Joy Junction.

He responds, "Rules are rules," and walks off. This is the man who's been accused by his wife of hitting her. Even though I've worked with the homeless for almost 20 years and think there's nothing left to surprise me, some things still do. This man is apparently more concerned about his inability to fix the shelter's couches than he is about his relationship with his (now previous) wife.

People continue to sit.

At 5.35 p.m. with the chores being completed, chairs are being put back on the floor for the 6 p.m. church service and the sound system is in the final stages of set up.

At 5.40 p.m. the band's practicing. A handful of people are sitting in the brightly colored orange and yellow chairs waiting for the service to begin. A smiling African-American woman waves to me and points proudly to the baby she has cradled in her lap. The pastor's making some last minute adjustments to the sound system. A number of people are sitting around on couches.

It's now 6 p.m. and guests are singing, "Sing a joyful song unto the Lord, praise the Lord with gladness because He alone is God."

There's a small amount of slow clapping going on. 17 people are standing up, about 15 percent of the entire crowd. I'm reminded that while most of those singing don't have a home, some of them still want to sing and worship the Lord. It's spiritual hope in the midst of physical despair. I realize that a similar scene is duplicated in hundreds of gospel rescue missions across the country.

While the singing's under way, a man at the back of the building who's not singing stands looking on. He's supported by a walker. Just behind him in the building entrance is a shopping cart piled high with clean bed linens ready to be put away. What a contrast! A "normal" church service occurring at the front of the building with a "normal" homeless scene at the back.

At 7. 55 a.m. I'm back at my vantage point in the office of Joy Junction's main building. It's very quiet, with just a couple of people sitting around on chairs.

A woman approaches and says to me, "(I don't know if she knows who I am) "I was in bed for 30 days with the flu. My doctor years ago in Arkansas gave me a little blue pill which had no side effects. I had to take it every day. It was just an allergy tablet. It's allergies. I was just born with that retraction. Some of the people here really don't care. Their brains still race. I just wanna get rid of these sinus sniffles. It's been an infection."

She stops for a moment and I look across the building where a man is doing his morning chores; slowly and methodically mopping the floor. Chores are always on the agenda at a shelter the size of ours.

The woman continues talking and says, "Spanish people, they talk so fast, amigo, amigo. Four years of it-I beg their pardon. You think they talk slow. They don't."

She suddenly switches gears and blurts out, "You ever been down to "La Jumbo Fish, crawfish pie? Why is it so important to remember the names of songs these days?"

The woman wanders off momentarily but returns quickly with a purposeful walk and says, "Did they ever cure whiplash? I was in a vehicle accident in East Texas. I was a passenger and impacted by an 18 wheeler. What do you have to do to get a neck brace? Go in the ER?" She puts her hand on the back of her neck and wanders off again.

I realize that while she's apparently pretty seriously mentally ill I've nonetheless heard much worse during the almost 20 years I've worked with New Mexico's homeless.

At 9. 40 a.m. it's still very quiet. A couple of boys are walking around aimlessly. One of them is swinging a couple of socks. Four people are sitting at the table talking. A lady is sitting at a couch apparently engrossed in something, although it may be nothing.
I hear snippets of conversation from a neighboring office. A voice says, "Michael is going to be upset when he gets home."

Someone responds, "I seem to have no eyesight when I first wake up. I just can't find it." I love Joy Junction humor. My staff say a lot of it is my fault!

I'm startled out of my brief reverie when an unknown guest appears in front of me and says, "Hi Jeremy. I didn't know you were Jeremy." She walks off without saying anything else.

There are now six people in the multi. A woman is sitting on the couch with her suitcase in front of her.

At 1 p.m. the suitcase lady is still sitting on the couch. An elderly looking woman who I suspect is much younger than she looks comes to the office door and looks at me, but talks to herself. She then puts her hand on her stomach and moves away.

At 3.35 p.m. it's quiet. I can see five people.

At 4. 15 p.m. a woman calls and asks if she and her three children can come to the shelter. She and her husband had stayed with us some years ago, had committed their lives to the Lord and we thought they were doing well.

However, I learn that her husband has quit his job against the advice of his pastor and wife and instead of looking for another job has been reading the Bible and delving into Bible prophecy.

The wife says the situation has become too much for her to handle and when she told her husband to get a job, he ended up hitting her. Not surprisingly, she left.

As the woman is checking in to the shelter I hear her gratefully exclaim, "Thank God that at least we've got a place to stay!"

"Where?" asks the youngest of her three children.

"Right here," says mom, pointing to a couch before it was decided that they would be given a room.

"Weird," says the little girl while she is clutching a donated stuffed animal. "Very weird." Out of the mouth of babes!

It's 5.07 p.m. and supper is being held up briefly as volunteers are coming in to serve supper and they're not all here yet. There are about 25 people sitting around – some at tables and some sitting on couches.

At 5. 22 p.m. everyone is quietly seated at tables waiting to be served by the volunteers who have all now arrived. The exception to the "quiet" is a crying baby in its mother's arms.

It's 8.10 p.m. The building is full of people getting ready to go to bed. People are lying on mattresses and couches all around the building.

At 8. 20 p.m. a young child is running around. From my vantage point just inside the door of the main office I hear someone asking for a toothbrush. The driver comes in clutching a donation of eight dozen maple donuts- a staple for shelters. He asks for a key to the kitchen.

A couple of minutes later a former guest who's here again says hello and thanks me for helping her out again. She's in Albuquerque for the night. She has come to bail out her husband who is in jail (it sounds like) for public drunkenness.

She says "I miss this place; that's why I'm volunteering tonight." She doesn't tell me just exactly what it is she's volunteering at.

At 8.55 p.m. a woman comes into the office to talk to the women's counselor who is doing double duty answering the telephones.

The woman has been written up for being "disruptive" during the previous night's church service and is very annoyed. She says that she wasn't at all disruptive but had been laughing at a funny comment made by the pastor.

At 8.58 p.m. a child is crying loudly. The amount of noise has increased from a quiet busy hum to a plain loud.

At 9.01 p.m. the lights should be out but things are running a little late. Most people are now lying on their beds talking or reading. I see one man sitting on his mattress fiddling with a roll of toilet paper and a woman sitting on her mattress drearily combing out her hair.

At 9.04 p.m. the lights are turned out in the multi. (Lights are turned out in common areas at 9 p.m. and at 10 p.m. in private rooms). It's almost the end of another day at Joy Junction.

Jeremy Reynalds is a freelance writer and the founder and director of Joy Junction, New Mexico's largest emergency homeless shelter. He has a master's degree in communication from the University of New Mexico and is pursuing his PhD in intercultural education at Biola University in Los Angeles. He is married with five children and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work can be viewed here and weekly at www.americasvoices.org. He may be contacted by e-mail at reynalds@joyjunction.org.

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