The Clubhouse

In some towns people who are experiencing homelessness have to wander around during the day until they are allowed back into a homeless shelter to get their bed to sleep for the night. In other places, so-called day centers for homeless exist to provide services and to be simply a place to go during what are often long days of waiting. People in situations of homelessness frequently consider it a huge blessing to have a daytime shelter or “clubhouse”. But interestingly enough, not only the presently homeless spend time in these. Others—including the formerly homeless—may also come.

Cities which have these daytime clubhouses are very lucky indeed to provide for their less fortunate and not force them to be purposeless and hungry daytime nomads. In fact, everyone comes out winning. Other cities which don’t have a clubhouse may find that problems occur in public squares and malls where people might hang around, loiter, and seemingly linger needlessly during the daytime hours. These cities might very well discover that they really needed a clubhouse, after all, for everyone’s safety and comfort. However, many cities are too financially hard pressed to establish or subsidize clubhouses. Other locations may morally object to them, based on a distaste for or underlying fear of potentially encouraging laziness and complacency. Of course, the enlightened citizen would understand that the problem of homelessness is much more complicated than saying “get a job” and pushing people into “normal” lives again.

When a person spends a significant period of time being homeless, especially in a community with other homeless people, and then obtains permanent housing, sometimes a puzzling thing happens. This person doesn’t break his ties with the homeless community despite now being in possession of his own apartment, home, and new life. This is a phenomenon worth exploring, understanding, and taking to heart, for it shows much about the close society built by the homeless.

It’s been written that very few if any “outside” people realize how very tight-knit the sense of community within a homeless population can be. For an example, read Lee Stringer’s 1998 award winning book “Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Street”. The homeless experience is like that of any other group of struggling people whose mutual concern is required for daily survival. One doesn’t find this in more affluent communities since this pervasive experience of needing to survive on a basic level is not activated.

There is a camaraderie in the homeless community that one rarely sees elsewhere. People share food, exchange new donated clothes, borrow sundry items, but most importantly care for one another. So if someone isn’t seen for a few days, the word gets out, and if no one has seen him, then they start calling hospitals to see if he’s okay.

Exiting this community to live in an apartment house might be difficult. For many, there is no outside substitute since they might be afraid, emotionally distressed, estranged from former friends and family, or alienated by their new surroundings. It could be hard for them to adapt and make friends easily. Maybe they can’t afford that expensive cup of coffee in the local mega-corporate franchised cafe. A lot of new expenses crop up after someone gets his apartment, expenses they haven’t experienced in years.

So where do they go? They return to the safe place, the place where they know they can say they belong—the clubhouse. Maybe just for a few hours a day, maybe for just the morning, maybe just to have breakfast or lunch (which is free at the clubhouse), to be part of a support group, paint in the art room, make phone calls, or use a computer (which they can’t afford at home), play dominoes or cards, or just sit and talk.

Most subsidized housing requires thirty to forty percent of a person’s income as their share of the monthly rent. The rest is paid by the government or municipality. That leaves the person with the other seventy percent of his income. So what’s the problem? Well, for one thing, someone might not have very much absolute income at all. So seventy percent of little is littler. Providing for meals may be a challenge even with the food stamps. However, if they can eat at the clubhouse, they can get a good meal for free.

So housed, formerly homeless people return to the clubhouse for a variety of reasons, including not having much money. But most will say they want to check in with their old friends. They simply don’t want to feel isolated in their new apartment.

The proclivity to go back to the clubhouse can be a double-edged sword. It might inhibit the recently housed from finding and making new friends in the new communities where they now live. The practice might bring back bad habits, if negative influences are present.

Transition periods are never easy. For a while, the newly housed may have to keep one foot in the clubhouse and one foot in their new abode until things settle. This goes hand-in-hand with another factor, namely, the fear of losing one’s new apartment. So someone who’s been housed in their one place for over two years may still feel a bit homeless in their soul and have inner fears that don’t easily disappear. The only way to cope with this restless anxiety is to visit the clubhouse.

With proper support, people can manage the transition from homelessness or temporary housing to permanent housing successfully. Few can travel this challenging journey alone and navigate it well.

The daytime shelter, or clubhouse, is an important place for many people. For many, it represents their real home until they get settled in a new permanent housing situation. Even after making this transition, the clubhouse can remain a place of solac
e, security and belonging for the indeterminable time it takes to switch internal emotional gears from being homelessness to being housed. Shaking off the traumatic experience of having been homeless may take a long time.

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