Written by Heather Pollock, UGM Women’s Recovery alumna and Crisis Shelter employee.
Stories. Everyone has one. My story with Union Gospel Mission begins seven years ago, when I was broken, lost, alone and desperate. I had just checked out of a mental health facility and had nowhere to go.
I had nothing but a resource list and a car, so I drove to the first option I found for a homeless woman, the UGM Crisis Shelter. I was so ashamed when I pulled into the parking area. How could I be here? How did this happen? Not even a year before, I was a fully functioning young adult. I had a job, a place to live, and was working full time. But then drugs came into my life, and the rest was history.
So here I was, like so many others, checking myself into a homeless shelter, and for me it felt like checking myself into a lifetime of shame and embarrassment.
Shame is a killer—perhaps even more than drugs and alcohol because shame causes us to hide. It caused me to hide seven years ago, and it causes the women coming through the doors of the Crisis Shelter today to hide. A hoodie pulled far over one’s eyes. A defensive, angry, “fight me” demeanor. Tears and needle marks. They are all means of covering shame. I am stupid. I am worthless. Why else would I be in a homeless shelter?
I am sure that the Resident Assistant (RA) who greeted me could see the despair in my eyes, but all I saw in her eyes was love. There was no judgment nor condemnation, just acceptance and grace. This experience, plus countless others with the staff, volunteers and other guests at the Shelter, soon showed me that coming to the Shelter was not something to be ashamed of, but it was actually a blessing in disguise.
“...coming to the Shelter was not something to be ashamed of, but it was actually a blessing in disguise.”
A blessing in disguise? I probably wouldn’t use those words with a resident entering the Crisis Shelter today, but honestly, this place offers women the opportunity to start over. When do we get that opportunity in life to just stop, re-evaluate, wipe the slate clean and start over?
The Lord has done so much work in my life since that day I checked in at UGM, and He is still working. I now have the honor of being on the other side of things, and I work at the same shelter where I first found hope. I am a full-time RA, and it has been the most rewarding and heart satisfying job I have ever had.
By far, my favorite part of this work is to see what God is doing here. He relentlessly pursues each and every woman and child who walks through these doors. Their stories are powerful and life changing. I have the honor of hearing them and even being a part of them every day.
Mostly I listen. You cannot imagine what a valuable gift that is to our residents. Someone who takes the time. I get paid to take the time. When someone is heard, they feel seen, they feel validated.
I have seen stories of relapse and recovery. Despair and hope. Loss and love. Withering and growth. Death and life.
I HAVE HELD A MOTHER who just lost her baby to SIDS in my arms as she wailed in grief.
Nothing. Nothing can take away the pain of losing a child, but also, no one should have to do that alone. One of the biggest gifts we give to women and children here is community. You are not alone. You do not ever have to be alone.
And I have seen the joy of mothers reunited with their children who had been in foster care.
Do not misunderstand me. Children get removed from their moms for a reason and the majority of the children at the Crisis Shelter have been through trauma. Sometimes, horrific trauma. The first gift we can give these mommas, who are often overwhelmed even as they are overjoyed, is community. Again, you are not alone. No one was ever meant to do parenting alone.
“The first gift we can give these mommas, who are often overwhelmed even as they are overjoyed, is community.”
Much of what I do here is mundane. I hand out shampoo, soap, diapers and Band-Aids (plus anything else you can think of.) When women are not getting along, I play referee. Due to the season we are in, I deliver meals to isolation rooms. I answer phones all day and relay the messages. Most days are nothing to write home about, but the Lord reminds me these in-the-middle moments are just as important as the highs and lows.
And some of what happens here is not pretty.
ONE WOMAN WHO WAS HOPING TO CHECK INTO the shelter almost made it to our guest services door, but she collapsed on our front lawn. My coworker called 911. I went to talk to her, and she told me that the hospital told her she has 6 months to live, and her time was up there, so she needed to leave. She took the bus to us but was too weak to stay. I felt the Lord saying, “Pray for her, pray for her” over and over again. So I asked her if I could pray for her. I will never forget the sigh of relief she had when she said, “Yes, please.” As I was praying, I opened my eyes to her just staring at me, completely hopeless. The paramedics took her, and I have no idea what happened after that day. All too often, we are left with only the unknown and unanswered questions.
Part of the reason I love to tell my story is that there are so many more stories that we will never know. I made it out. Not everyone does, but I know this: everyone who enters our doors was loved for a moment, an hour, days, weeks…
Every woman who enters through these doors is in their own personal crisis, whether that crisis is fleeing domestic violence, coming off of meth or heroin, or coming out of being sex trafficked. Often these same women leave here with a complete life change due to the love they have received. From here they walk out and are no longer in crisis, rather they are truly living for the first time.
“From here they walk out and are no longer in crisis, rather they are truly living for the first time.”
I have watched women and children come to Jesus, be baptized in the Holy Spirit, and have their entire lives turned upside down.
ONE OF MY FAVORITE STORIES is about a young woman who came to the shelter. Her life was full of trauma and turmoil so, understandably, to numb her pain she had turned to drugs. She came here and had no idea who Christ was. It was all new to her, but she was open. Like me, she began to experience the Lord's love, and she soon gave her life to Christ. She was filled with joy for the first time in her life. I wish I could say that this story ended here, but sadly it doesn’t. She passed away not long ago. It was heartbreaking, but also joyful. If she hadn’t come to this shelter, she would not be in heaven, face to face with Christ for eternity.
This shelter is a safe haven for women. It is a first home for many. A place for them to come in, sit down, take off their mask and be real. It gives them a chance to rest for the first time in a long time, and to process their stories. They receive their basic needs like food and clothing, and their eternal need: Jesus Christ. Hope truly does start here, I have experienced it firsthand.
“This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”
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