A taste of “no place to lay my head”

Author: Fr. Eric Schimmel, C.S.C.

Once, when I was leaving one assignment to go to another, one of my brothers in Holy Cross repeated a quote to me that he had been told: “Three moves equals one fire.” He was referring to how many things you leave behind each move.

New Home

In my blog post last month I spoke about moving, and preparing the new home, where the Holy Cross community at André House now resides, for a group from King’s College that came to join us over their winter break. That group did an excellent job. So did Giancarlo and Rachel, the students from King’s College and Stonehill College who were here interviewing for a position on Core Staff. We are excited to have offered them positions, and that they accepted. We continue to pray for more people to answer the call to join them (some applications are already coming in, hopefully more to come).

In the meantime, Br. Richard and I have set about moving everything from the house we rented to our new home we own. Fortunately, we did not have a lot of work to do on the house; plumbing, electrical, and such things were in good shape. Instead, it has been – and continues to be – a process of moving and resettling. New homes have new shapes and traffic patterns to get used to. New places to put things, including things you forgot you had but can’t part with.

Two projects that required energy included repainting the house and replacing the flooring in my bedroom. The latter has led me to reflect on displacement and on solidarity with our guests.

Waiting for the floor to cure

Replacing the flooring in my bedroom, unfortunately, consisted of more than just ripping out the old carpet and putting in a new one. Instead, the floor needed four days of work. Of course we could not book the workers to start until Jan 31, which also was the last night we could stay in our former, rented, abode. Therefore, for four days I ended up living a bit of a nomadic life, carrying what I needed in a bag. My nights were as follows:

Day 1: Sleep on a mattress on the floor of an empty house (our former house). I woke in the morning and enlisted the help of a Holy Cross novice staying with us this month to walk the mattress down the street to the new house. It felt odd to just casually walk down the sidewalk carrying a mattress. The second trip must have been more of a sight as we carried the last of our belongings from the old house to the new house – a toilet bowl brush and shower curtains.

Day 2: Sleep in my bed, now set up in the garage of the new home, while work continues on the floor of my bedroom. The garage does not have heat, nor does it really have insulation. Yes, this is Phoenix, but the temperature can still dip into the 40s at night.

Day 3: Sleep in André House’s transitional house. I do this one night a week, staying with the guests who live in our transitional houses, and this happened to be my night. A familiar setting, yet still a third place to sleep in 3 days.

Day 4: Back to the garage. Pray that the work will be finished the next day.

Fr Eric Schimmel sitting on a bed in the garage

This experience gave me new awareness and sensitivity to the inner turmoil of not having a consistent place to lay one’s head. Our homeless guests experience this every night. Some have a regular place they sleep – an assigned cot in a shelter, or a regular camp sight somewhere in the city. Most do not. Even in some of the shelters, the mattress they are assigned on the floor changes from night to night. Camp sites can be raided by others or by authorities “sweeping” the area.

Thinking about our guests, I felt blessed that I have a place to store the things I need and to re-evaluate what constitutes “need.” Many of our guests struggle to find a place to store their valuables. Although I felt pushed out of my comfort zone needing to re-pack a bag for the next night, I always had a home base to safely store my belonging and to re-organize. Many of our guests do not have that luxury. They carry the few valuables they have and feel the need to maintain constant vigilance to keep them safe.

I also developed an appreciation for how cold it can get at night in Phoenix sleeping in a garage without insulation. Last year we distributed over 4,000 blankets with the restriction that one can only get one blanket every two weeks. I was a little chilly in the garage, but at least I had a blanket and my grandma’s afghan. Furthermore, I was shielded from any wind.

Thankfully, I have moved into my new bedroom. My nomadic period has ended. But it is not something I will soon forget, perhaps being more compassionate with our guests who come to us tired from the constant moving, constant uncertainty, and necessary vigilance. I think of guests who have been in this situation and somehow found the strength and the energy with all of the upheaval homelessness causes to still find a way out. Several have come by in the last week to drop in to say hi, like Alvin, Judy, Santiago, and Don. May God bless more of our guests, and others experiencing homelessness, with the graces they need as well.

Fr. Eric Schimmel, C.S.C., is the Director of André House of Hospitality in Phoenix, Arizona. He is in his second year as a monthly contributor to the Spes Unica blog. Learn more about the missionary work of Holy Cross priests and brothers to extend the Good News of Jesus Christ across “borders of every sort,” including a new video documenting the work of Holy Cross to carry the Gospel to those in need of its hope.

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