Necessity of Respite

The urban, modern life never pauses to catch its breath. We are pushed along by traffic, by deadlines, by the demands of our relationships. Amongst the stressors of today’s world, it is essential to reserve time for relaxation. When picturing this delicious escape from reality, we may think of lying on a tropical beach with a new book, or falling asleep in an armchair by the fire. But what if letting your awareness drop for only an hour meant the imminent danger of hypothermia or assault? What if you had nowhere to rest?

The Haven is a low-barrier shelter, meaning anyone can walk in the door and access services. In traditional homeless shelters, there are metal detectors at the door and guests must often pass sobriety tests to be seen by service providers. The Haven is an exceptional place where literally anyone in need can walk off the street and find a place of rest.
For many living outside or in precarious homes, waking rested and calm is simply not possible. Existence is marked with anxiety: Where will I sleep tonight? Will I be safe from violence and the elements? How am I going to eat? Where are my children? This hyper-aware state reminds me of taking care of a newborn; there are some many basic needs to attend to that complex issues requiring great energy and resilience, like job-hunting, become secondary.

By opening its doors to anyone and everyone, The Haven offers a safe place for rejuvenation. Inside its walls, it is safe for an unaccompanied woman to fall asleep. With centralized heating and air, the body can relax into a natural temperature and rhythm. Basic safety and comfort provided, guests are able to be still and quiet, awash in relief.

This approach is not without controversy. Low barrier shelters are criticized for their lack of enforced security, or for their indiscriminate application of care. Who decides who is “worthy” of care or help? This is a tricky question–or perhaps it is profoundly simple. The Haven’s philosophy is to meet people where they are, and not dictate what the “next step” should be in regaining stability. It seems that there are more barriers than open doorways to people seeking assistance, whether it be for affordable housing or substance abuse. Those individuals most at risk are often the ones refused by other shelters because of their current inability to adhere to conditional policies (for example, total sobriety or showing up to provider appointments). The Haven’s policy is not to try to skip to the end of the recovery program, but strives to meet every individual where they are in their journey towards stability. Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes this bold equality in his beloved book, Life Together:

Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes. This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the meditation of Christ. Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. It takes the life of the person into its own hands. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men. (36)

I am beginning to understand that individuals in crisis do not deserve more conditions to receive help or treatment; they need a place to come out of the cold (or heat) and rest from the constant fear and anxiety of the street world. When the innkeeper opened his barn to Mary and Joseph, he did not ask to see their housing voucher or proof of identity. The hesitation traditional shelters feel in retiring their security measures or conditional requirements is a fear of being cheated; that somehow they might accidentally give assistance to someone undeserving. We fear that we enable laziness or people looking to “play the system” by applying for unneeded social services. I do not claim to have an answer to this worry, but I agree that the first step in offering help is offering a refuge from fear and a place to rest.

The idea of the Sabbath is as old as Genesis 2:2. Among the chaos and disorientation of our lives, we need time for reflection and contemplation. In purposeful solitude, we give thanks for life and, perhaps more honestly, ask why our life is the way that it is. Time for silence and self-reflection is a time to connect inwardly and rekindle a sense of personal identity. Inside The Haven’s building and out of the never-ending public gaze, guests are free to be absolutely alone. Community is a certainly good thing, but cannot be actualized without the acknowledgement of individual space, for “only as we are within the fellowship can we be alone, and only he that is alone can live in the fellowship” (Bonhoeffer 77). On the main floor, there are spaces to gather and spaces for solitude. The renovated sanctuary (a vestige of The Haven’s history as a community church) is usually empty in the mornings. In this quiet space, guests will sometimes sit in contemplation, or sometimes sleep. The clarifying power of the calm sanctuary reminds me that I do not have to push through life alone, but can rely on essential re-centering periods to cultivate new resolve.
Haven Sanctuary
In a place as demanding and occasionally chaotic as The Haven, its caretakers are also in need of time to rest. The Haven’s staff intentionally reserves time for contemplation and quiet discussion every Thursday afternoon, where we come together for a three-hour lunch and meeting. In the words of my mentor, the staff needs this time to process the week’s highs and lows so as not to become “jaded and drained” from the emotional fluctuation and intensity inextricable from days at The Haven. Ensuring the mental and spiritual health of its employees is a pronounced value at The Haven. As Phileena Heuertz writes in her memoir, Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life, we are all “in need of a calm and grounded center that could withstand the buffeting of a world full of injustice and unrelenting demands” (17). The Haven’s staff advocates strongly for self-care, and believes we must be healthy and sound ourselves to walk with those in crisis.

Earlier this week, I had a bit of an emotional moment after I thought I gave someone in need the wrong advice over the phone. With an affirming conversation, Chris, one of the Haven’s staff members, reassured me that all we try to do is the best we can, and to try not to speculate on the hypothetical results. By setting aside time to work through the emotional and spiritual demands of our roles in this ever-busy community, we strive to cultivate a safe space for every person and voice affected by The Haven’s work.

I confess that I tend to labor under the assumption that the way to find rest for my soul is to finish my grand to-do list, and present it like a book for publishing. In my time here, I am starting to see that it is the quality and health of the journey that matters in seeking restoration within a community. With a good day’s rest, we could all be better seekers.