Shortly after moving to Portland I began volunteering at PHFS, Portland Homeless Family Solutions as an overnight host at their Goose Hollow shelter. Having a lot of prior experience in childcare, I originally planned only to take on two hour shifts at the shelter that entailed playing with children while their parents attended skill building workshops nearby. However, during orientation at the shelter it became clear that the shelters real need that was not so eagerly being met. PHFS desperately needed overnight volunteers to fill twelve hour host shifts-- an integral volunteer role that allows for the alleviation of staff members through the night starting at 8:00 pm until guests leave the following morning. Volunteers act as the sole on-site facilitators throughout the night; sleeping in the gymnasium with guests; setting up breakfast; packing up shelter supplies; seeing guests off and locking up the facilities for the day. The overnight host program was crucial for the organization as having volunteers run the shelter at night alleviated the huge financial burden of paying staff members to sleep at the shelter overnight.
Initially the thought of staying overnight at a homeless shelter without staff support absolutely terrified and intimidated me. It was something I never pictured myself doing and was completely out of my zone of comfort. Despite this, it was blaringly clear that this was the true area of need for the shelter.
I knew that if I chose the easy comfortable shift where I just played with children for a couple hours, I wouldn't really be volunteering with the intent of serving the needs of this community, I would be volunteering with the intent of serving my own ego.
There turned out to be nothing scary about serving as an overnight host at PHFS--other than remembering the order in which to turn on the light switches in the morning as to avoid abruptly awakening everyone with beams of giant fluorescent lights first thing in the morning. Volunteering as an overnight host gifted me the opportunity to engage the community at PHFS in a way other volunteers couldn't connect with guests.
The Lesson I Learned at Dinner
As an overnight host I would always show up to my shift an hour early to eat dinner with the guests. I was always shocked by the otherness projected by some of the volunteer groups who brought dinner, just as often as someone would bring in a lovingly prepared homemade meal, there would be buckets of cold spaghetti and wonder bread, a group of sorority sisters, or book club moms proudly beaming at the front of the room, basking in the light of their good deed, never daring to make themselves a plate, or sit down and mingle with the people they claimed to serve, too good to eat the food they donated. Those people taught me that in order to serve a community, you must first respect the community, and know the community.
At PHFS I was given the opportunity to become a community member, I was enriched by the people I spent time with, I was moved by the authenticity of the stories I heard, and the love and compassion the families at the shelter showed one another, compiling their limited resources to help each other out during a time of shared struggle.
I was gifted new insight into the issue of houselessness and gifted a powerful insight into my own biases and weaknesses, that allowed me to better understand the power of community, what it means to serve, and the ugliness of ego that has no place in service.
**PHFS overnight host volunteer training presentation
**All images and videos on this page are property of PHFS, Portland Homeless Family Solutions