A couple days late, but here we are!

Toward the beginning of March, I volunteered with a small group from the Orange County Bar Association (“OCBA”) at the Fullerton Armory, where Mercy House provides emergency shelter for homeless people during the fall and winter months. This year they received some extra funding, so they were able to provide emergency shelter through the month of March. (You can learn all about Mercy House here.)
I volunteered at the Fullerton Armory in law school through Public Law Center, but in a different capacity. Instead of staying towards the back and handling legal intakes, this time I helped with the actual set up of the armory, and helped check people in as they arrived.
Mercy House provides up to 400 “beds” every night for homeless people at Armory locations in Fullerton and Santa Ana. My first job when I arrived was to sanitize and set up the mats for everyone that would be staying there that night. First you lay out all the mats, side by side, row by row. Then you grab a mop and have to wipe down each mat individually. Thankfully I was given some important tips on how to do this quickly and efficiently…otherwise who knows how long it would’ve taken me! After I mopped them, someone else was walking by spraying them down with lysol.
It’s crazy to think of how much people probably appreciate those mats. To you and me, the idea of sleeping on a mat that’s been slept on by countless strangers, that needs to be mopped down and sprayed with lysol, is probably less than appealing. But to many in our own neighborhoods, it’s a safe haven, and probably way more comfortable than places where they usually sleep.
After setting up and cleaning the mats, I was assigned the task of registering people as they came in. I was really surprised by the organization that Mercy House has put in place. Every individual has an identification card, provided by Mercy House, with the person’s name, picture, and date of birth. My job was to verify the ID, write down their name and date of birth on the registration form for that night, and have them sign it. After they signed in, they were given a paper cup and a meal ticket. Some people carried their ID cards with care, others with reckless abandon. But each person had it. No matter how much or how little they carried, they made sure to conserve this one piece of paper that allowed them to seek shelter from the cold.
While working the registration table I found out that there are certain meeting points throughout various surrounding cities. People are picked up from those sites, and bussed to the armory clinics. I also noted an important difference from my last volunteer experience to now: children and families do not stay at the armory, but are instead checked in to a hotel where the whole family can stay together. Years ago, children slept in the armory along with everyone else, but it was (and still is) divided by sex: males sleep on one side, females on the other. This meant that not only were children sleeping along hundreds of strangers, they were also probably separated from either their father or their mother.
I thought this was a great improvement for the program: taking action and finding solutions. I was also struck by the variety of people who were seeking shelter at the armory. People of all races and backgrounds. There were kids who didn’t even look like they were 21 yet, a middle aged man in a business suit, older war veterans, people with obvious mental health issues, people who look just like you and me. It makes me wonder what brought each of these people to be homeless, and what keeps them there: are they just staying for a couple nights while they get enough to put a deposit on an apartment, or do they come here every winter? I guess there are some things I’ll never know.
What I do know is that I felt like my time spent there was very much appreciated by the people I was checking in: they greeted my smile with a smile, and I was surprised at how much they enjoyed and embraced a friendly face. Then I remembered how many times I’ve avoided making eye contact with homeless people on the street for fear that the’ll ask me for something, and I realized they probably don’t see friendly, smiling faces too often.
I think the armory emergency shelter is closed for the Spring and Summer, but if you feel like giving away some free smiles in the future, I highly recommend signing up for some volunteer shifts starting again in the fall (they need volunteers seven days a week, and they have an a.m. and p.m. shift). You can also check out other volunteer opportunities with Mercy House here.