Notes from Utah's Place

By Joanna Robinson


One Bag/One Bin

July 14, 2017

The rule at Utah’s Place is, you get one red bag and one plastic bin to store all your stuff. The bag is 2 feet by 3 feet; the bin, 6 inches deep, 2 feet wide, 3 ½ feet long. It’s not much, but it’s more than you get at most shelters, which is nothing. You must place the bag and the bin on your bunk when you leave in the morning, so the caretaker can sweep under your bed.

Another rule is, when you’re gone from the shelter for longer than one day, belongings you leave behind will be placed in large plastic bags that will be dated and stored for 5 days; if you don’t come back to claim your things within that time, important papers and other valuables will be removed and saved, but whatever remains in the bags will be discarded.

These rules got a little lost last winter when our guest population significantly increased.

To get more folks out of the rain and cold, the City of Grass Valley altered Hospitality House’s use permit to allow us to accept 15 more people than we usually shelter. We have 54 beds, and with 69 people everyone felt the strain. At night the dining room became a dormitory where people slept on mats they’d have to quickly fold up and stow before early morning breakfast the next day. The 15 weren’t always the same people; folks came and went. Each person had belongings that were placed in 30-gallon black plastic bags and stored on shelves in the upstairs lounge.

Our 54 guests also came and went, and when they weren’t there their things, too, were added to the pile. One day I went upstairs and saw scores of bags lining the hallway and stuffed into the lounge, which is supposed to be a peaceful, orderly common room where guests can relax in the evening.

It took me and two strong men all of one afternoon to go through these bags, figure out whose were whose, label the keepers, and discard the abandoned. One woman, a fashion aficionada with a good eye who could identify specific designer brands from across a parking lot, had 19 bags filled with thrift store finds. She was given 7 days to get a storage unit and move her wardrobe into it. No one else had as much as she did, but many had suitcases, cardboard boxes, giant heavy-duty plastic crates, and God knows, plastic bags of every conceivable description.

After 7 days, when we had that stuff under control, I turned to a much harder task: asking folks to remove everything from their beds that didn’t fit into one medium-sized red bag and one plastic bin of very modest proportions. I began in the men’s dorm with a bunk belonging to a young student at Sierra College whom I’d often observed on the street, lumbering along under a stupendous backpack. His bed contained a vast omnium-gatherum: two large suitcases, three huge cardboard boxes full of books, multiple brown paper bags full of clothes, several clear plastic bags full of clothes, many shoes, paper and plastic bags of packaged food, jackets and coats, and a broken umbrella.

The clothes I saw were rumpled and ragged-looking, and most of the shoes were down at heel. The books had come from one of three places: school, church, or the library. He was obviously supplementing his college curriculum with a well-rounded selection of books from the fields of history, philosophy, psychology, science, and literature. There were some fabulous oversize art books, too, and a smattering of fantasy thrown in for fun.

We took our time figuring out what among his possessions to keep and where the excess could go. My young scholar listened to me thoughtfully and accepted my systematic pawing through his belongings with dignity. He explained what everything was and why he needed it, while I explained why he couldn’t have most of it there in an emergency shelter shared by 53 (let alone 68) other people. In the end, with bowed head, he declared his willingness to ask his brother to come pick up everything that wouldn’t fit into the bag and bin.

Much of the time, as I proceeded with the other 53 beds, I felt like an authoritarian jerk. I cross-examined myself constantly to make sure I believed my own story about the necessity to have everything neat, clean, and the same. I made exceptions for four things: Bibles, addiction recovery books, stuffed animals, and one man’s framed picture of his lovely little boy.

At a homeless shelter, power is wielded in one-up, one-down relationships in which staff members, volunteers, and board members have power over guests. The shelter has 40 rules enumerated in a formal document guests must read and sign. These rules, developed and revised over the years, provide a blueprint for behavior that keeps everyone safe. Any guest who thinks a rule has been enforced unfairly may make a formal appeal to the director—several have done so successfully.

Some years ago when I was a monitor seeing to people’s needs and enforcing these rules, my most common dispute with our guests was about movies. We had to outlaw those that depicted violence, but they would inevitably turn up, and every time they did I had to shut them off and deal with the consequent cries of indignation. “We’re adults!” someone would yell. “You treat us like children!” They were right, and all I could offer was the usual institutional justification: we had to consider the good of the group as a whole. Someone could be triggered by the sounds and sights of violence, especially someone among the war veterans and domestic violence victims whom we try to keep safe from experiences that ignite memories of their explosive pasts. I understood that, but I also felt like an ass every time I had to shut a movie down.

With people’s possessions, it was a hundred times worse. “Homeless people don’t have very much, and you’re making them get rid of what little they have,” people would say—not only guests, but others I spoke to about the problem. “At least we’re giving them time to find an alternative place to put their things,” I would answer. “Some of them have no alternative!” “We’ll work to figure that out,” I would counter. But it was true: sometimes—though, I must say, surprisingly rarely—there truly was no alternative.

One middle-aged man had bags and bags of old clothes and what I considered trash loaded on his bed and even stuffed under his mattress. Coats and jackets and pants and shirts and scarves and old magazines and torn papers and toothpicks and little plastic figures with no heads. “Really I’m an artist,” he said. “I need these things for a project I’m going to do.” In the afternoon he would sit at the dining room table with a pile of torn-out magazine pages, magic markers, and little indescribable pieces of miscellany, drawing or just moving things around. Often a circle of plastic bottles and half-empty paper cups surrounded these things like a high-walled fortress.

His was the most difficult bed of all to clear off. I spent a long time with him, standing there like his mother, watching him while he picked up each item and decided if he could bear to part with it. He had a way of looking down at the floor while casting soulful eyes up at me, kind of shyly, kind of shame-facedly, and maybe kind of manipulatively—I never really understood what that look meant. I may have gotten a clue once, though, when he asked me not to stand over him as he was sorting through his stuff. When I moved away a little, he gave me the look and said, “Thank you, ma’am.” I urged him to call me by my name, but he shot back, “I’ll call you ‘boss,’ because you can tell me what to do.” That hit hard: boss is a bad word in my family (double s.o.b. spelled backwards, Utah used to say). But he was right: I could tell him what to do.

He was right about another thing too. He was an artist. He wasn’t creating much art just then, but he obviously had his visions. In another set of circumstances, in a kinder, most just culture, he may have flourished.

When we first opened Hospitality House in 2005, all I wanted was to help some homeless folks have a place to be at night. I didn’t think about the power dynamic that would pin me toward the top of a hierarchical structure, compelled to tell a group of adults when to wake up, what movies to watch, and where to put their belongings. I wanted power, all right, but only for the good parts: the bed, the showers, and the nourishing food.

One question I commonly heard was, “What would you do if you had to put all your possessions in a bag and a bin?” And the old standby I’ve heard so often over the years, “Utah would turn over in his grave if he knew what was going on.”

I asked myself, What would I do if I lost my home, had no money for a storage unit, and had to go to a shelter—even one as benign as Hospitality House? I’d be devastated. Whatever I was able to keep, I’d cling to. If it wore out, I’d get a replacement and cling to that. The thought reminded me of Utah’s backpack, stored in the basement and still loaded with gear decades after he’d stopped riding the freight trains. Smaller than the shelter’s red bags, it was made of beat-up, stained, light-colored leather and loaded with little compartments and strings to secure belongings like a sleeping bag and an old enameled tin cup. He’d removed whatever clothes he’d had inside, but the things that had kept him going remained: the cup, a tiny cylindrical stove, some rope, a knife, waterproof matches, a chipped enamel plate, and a knife and fork that were attached to each other, hobo-style.

One evening a guest and I had carried our bag debate from the women’s dorm downstairs to the front hall. She was a quiet, self-contained young woman living with some cognitive challenges. She had a job in a fast-food restaurant and was doing everything she could to save money to get herself a place to live. I admired her and was feeling more like an ass than ever, but she had two red bags on her bed, not one. We’d been tussling over that for days, and this evening neither one of us could let it go. She felt that I was being unfair and expressed her sense of injustice with a quiet dignity that tore me up. Earlier, someone had once again mentioned Utah in his grave, and as I stood in the hallway I looked over at his portrait hanging on the wall nearby.

What would he have done about this sweet, strong woman with the extra red bag? Probably he’d have reached for his guitar and sung her a song, or made her laugh with a joke—cut through the tedium of it all with words that were kind and actually funny. The thought brought me into my heart, and from that truer place I apologized to her for any offense I may have committed and recalled the good relationship we’d had before getting mired in all this stuff about bags and bins. Her response was only a nod and a shy smile, but the next day the extra bag was gone. And a week later she herself was gone, having finally achieved her goal of moving into a place of her own. Every time I contemplate the often painful necessity of keeping things safe at the shelter, I have to remember that it was Hospitality House that helped her do that.


September 15, 2016

One of my colleagues at Hospitality House once called our guest Sue the “most authentic person” he’d ever met. When I shared his words with her recently, she smiled doubtfully and murmured something about “all my flaws.” By that time we’d been acquainted for years, but only distantly. She first came to the shelter in 2011, when I was a monitor covering the busy afternoon shift at our Welcome Center in downtown Grass Valley. Her customary outfit of white blouse and gray pants, along with her short gray hair and gray eyes, camouflaged her well in the Center’s gray-walled rooms. She was as quiet and unnoticeable as a fallen leaf on a forest floor. She rarely looked up from her lap, and never met my eyes. For several months the only thing about her that caught my attention was that no matter how tightly we packed into that postage stamp of a welcome center, she always had the air of being completely alone.

Sue has come and gone from the shelter many times since then. When she isn’t staying with us, she lives in an old car that she drives around as long as she has money for gas. At nightfall she pulls into out-of-the-way corners where she hopes the police won’t find her, though they sometimes do.dark-road-with-moon

Our staff has identified several housing opportunities for her, but she hasn’t been interested, except once when she tried sharing a house with three other women. The experiment lasted a week. “I just can’t live with other people.”

On the day I told her about my colleague’s high opinion we were sitting on the front porch at Utah’s Place, squinting into the afternoon sun. It was brutally hot, but we were too wrapped up in conversation to care. This was the first time we’d ever spoken together about anything at all important, and she was being the most authentic person I’d ever met too. Sometimes people will blurt out their life stories whether you ask them to or not. This time I had asked, though with some trepidation, as by then I’d learned a couple of raw facts about Sue that I wasn’t sure she’d want to share. But she did share—eagerly—taking me into her life story with a dignity and depth of sincerity that went straight to my heart.

Twenty-seven years ago Sue got out of prison, having served a total of 12½ years for two separate offenses. She spent seven and a half of those years in solitary confinement, by her own choice. Her first offense was a bank robbery in Seattle, for which she served three and a half years; the second offense was assault, for which she served nine years. She committed the bank robbery in her early twenties; three weeks after she got out on parole, she assaulted her mother and went back in for nine long years.


Sue described her mother, now deceased, as a “very good person with hellish mood swings she couldn’t control.” That seemed a charitable assessment, considering what Sue told me about the ongoing, violent, even life-threatening abuse she suffered. It was typical in middle-class America in the 1950s that her mother, though severely mentally ill, received no diagnosis or treatment. On the contrary, her illness remained a closely kept family secret. One reason for this silence was that Sue’s father, who considered psychiatry complete charlatanism, dreaded the impact on his wife of fearsome therapies like frontal lobotomy and the primitive shock treatment of the time. Not knowing what else to do, Sue said, he hid out in a locked room listening to his short wave radio.

Sue also suffered from another situation considered unmentionable at that time. “I always felt I was in the wrong body. I should have been male. I was raised with the idea that you were supposed to grow up and get married, but that wasn’t me. I wanted adventure. I was engaged once at the end of high school to a very nice boy, but I couldn’t go through with it.”

Instead, she got in a car, by herself, and headed west. “I was scared that first night out,” she said, “so I asked for help. As soon as I did that I felt a blanket of protection fall over me, and I went into a deep sleep from which I awoke completely refreshed. In all the years since, I’ve never felt that fear again and I’ve never been lonely. It’s not possible to be alone.” The experience was the beginning of what she described as the “mildly mystical” sensibility that enables her to perceive benign presences surrounding her at all times. Her description struck me not at all as a suggestion of mental imbalance, but as precisely what she called it: a spiritual awakening.

In Seattle, with no money, she fell in with the wrong crowd and got involved with hard drugs. Her addiction led her to participate in a mad plot to rob a bank, for which she was immediately caught and sent to prison. Paroled three and a half years later, she went back east to her parents’ house, where repressed memories of her violent childhood suddenly came back. “The mind is geared for survival,” she said. “I had blotted out what I couldn’t process. When I had those memories, it was like I was going through a long tunnel.” Her mother’s indifferent denial that anything ever happened triggered Sue’s violent assault. “After I hit her, I called an ambulance, the police, and my parole officer.”

“My past embarrasses me,” Sue said. “I find that because of it I can’t get close to people. I’ve had a life I can’t talk about. Basically I stay by myself. I can’t function—I spent too many years in solitary. I keep secret the fact that I’m homeless, too, because homeless people don’t get treated very well.”

Sue has been homeless for 27 years, minus the one week she made an attempt to live with others. I asked her how she managed to stay in the shelter with 54 others when she couldn’t bear to live with only three. “Sometimes I have no choice,” she admitted. “Either I run out of money for gas or the car breaks down. And besides, I’m getting older and I don’t always feel that well.” Sue is 69. For a long time she has received SSI (Supplemental Security Income), a small benefit for low-income people 65 or older, blind, or disabled. It’s part of the ever-shrinking safety net established to help people in serious need. She hopes someday to settle into subsidized senior housing in Grass Valley, where she can live by herself— though hope isn’t a word that fits her well. “I don’t know what I’m doing here. I don’t see myself living long. It’s okay. I’m ready to get out of this life.”

For a few minutes we sat in silence, finally broken by my fumbling words about places where she could find spiritual support, including at Hospitality House. But mostly I tried to say that many people would consider her company a valuable gift, would find her scrupulous honesty a teaching and her valiant willingness to express her own vulnerability a healing. She turned to me and I saw that she had tears in her eyes, as I did too.statue-with-tear

Sue stays in touch with our social worker at the shelter, and someday, when her name reaches the top of the long, long waiting list, she’ll probably get into a small subsidized apartment. She may choose to spend the rest of her days there alone, but I hope not. I’d like to spend more time with her and be her friend.

Heart on a String

August 16, 2016

This is the conclusion of the story of Hannah and her son Joseph that began in my first post. We left off with Hospitality House staff, in partnership with other county agencies, learning that Hannah, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, did indeed once have a baby named Joseph.

hand on glassBut now he was grown up, a young man in his early thirties living in Nevada County. Mental health staff working for the county arranged a meeting between him and his mother.

A Hollywood ending to this story might have Joseph taking his mother in his arms and dispelling her delusion of the past many years. But as it was, after they were introduced to each other there was little to say. He was polite; she was confused. Hannah could in no way understand that the grown man standing before her had once been the infant she’d been seeking. Joseph had been warned and wasn’t surprised. The meeting was short; they never met again.

Hannah was fragile and gentle and lovely in so many ways, but at the center of her delusion was an unimaginable longing that even Joseph himself couldn’t fulfill. We at Hospitality House wanted to help her, and did help her in many important ways, but it was clear that we could do nothing to resolve the problem that haunted her life. Food, shelter, medical care, psychotherapy, transportation, even a place to live—yes. But ultimate resolution—no. It goes that way sometimes with people who come to the shelter, as it does with everyone one else on the planet. No one can create the path that others must walk, and who even knows to what degree we create it for ourselves? The commitment at the House is to be there reliably for people with what they need when they’re ready and able to receive it.

By the time she met Joseph, Hannah had left the shelter and gone to live at Odyssey House, a small residential care facility in Nevada City . She came back to us several times, though, still looking for her baby. Sometimes, under the impression that he was staying at the shelter, she brought little infant clothes for him to wear. These she would tenderly fold and unfold, running her fingers over them, lingering on the feel of the soft white cotton. When we told her he wasn’t there, she would leave the things anyway, just in case. After a while, we stopped saying he wasn’t there and just took the clothes, seeing how much comfort the acceptance gave her. When I spoke to her in those days, she never mentioned having cancer, as though the illness she’d been treated for—unsuccessfully—had little to do with her. In time she moved out of residential care into her own apartment, where she received help from visiting nurses and mental health case managers. The cancer was advancing and she was in decline. Almost a year after the meeting with Joseph, she passed away.

I think of her at least once a week, usually in the same troubling vision: Hannah taxiing around Grass Valley, her sweet face pressed to the window, her heart, suspended in time, held out on a slowly breaking string.

heart in hand


Hannah and Joseph

July 18, 2016

Hannah arrived by taxi at Utah’s Place seeking her lost infant. She was an older woman, quite short and rather squat, as though she had been stunted in childhood by a heavy load placed on top of her head. Although she kept her eyes focused meekly on the floor and seemed excruciatingly vulnerable, something in her manner commanded attention.
“Is Joseph here?” she whispered. “Have you seen my baby?”
Under no circumstances would Denise, our staff monitor who had greeted Hannah at the door, violate Hospitality House policy by divulging information about a guest in the shelter without his or her permission. In the case of children, anyone under 18 staying at the shelter must be there with an adult, whose permission would be required. Denise began politely to explain this policy, but Hannah interrupted her.
“He’s my baby.”
Denise paused to consider. Hannah, who appeared to be in her late fifties or early sixties, was too old to have an infant. Perhaps she was tired and confused, orIntake Office frightened, as so many people are when they first come to a homeless shelter. Denise ushered her into the small office where interviews with new guests are conducted and offered her a seat.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “Would you like some coffee and a sandwich?”
In her swivel chair, Hannah’s feet barely touched the floor. Denise took a seat facing her, where she could see Hannah’s face. It was a pretty face, softened with large, liquid brown eyes.
“No thank you, I’m not hungry. I’m looking for Joseph.”
“Tell me about him.”
Hannah told her story. She had lived in Grass Valley previously, but for the past three years had been residing, by her own choice, in a psychiatric hospital in the Bay Area. The day before, without a goodbye, she had packed a small bag and made her way to the bus station, stopping only to collect the money in her savings account, which amounted to almost $400. When she arrived in Grass Valley hours later, she found a cab and took a $350 ride around town, eyes glued to the window in search of baby Joseph. Finally, having run through her money, she asked the taxi driver to take her to a homeless shelter.
With Hannah’s permission, Denise called the Bay Area hospital to let the staff there know where Hannah was and to find out a little more about her background. She learned that Hannah was withdrawn but cooperative, and delusional concerning the existence of a baby named Joseph. No amount of treatment had ever been able to shake her belief in him or diminish the urgency of her desire to find him. In addition, she had diminished mental capacities that, combined with her delusional disorder, severely hampered her ability to function “normally” in society.
Hannah remained for several months at Utah’s Place, where she did surprisingly well. She had a special sweetness about her that endeared her to everyone, and though she continued to seek Joseph, she lost the air of desperation she’d had when she first arrived. The structure of the daily and nightly routine anchoredDoor knob her, and she relished performing simple chores around the shelter like sweeping, dusting, and wiping doorknobs with a disinfectant cloth.
During the morning when the shelter was closed, she walked slowly through town, looking for her baby.

 A Tragedy on Top of a Tragedy 

Western Sierra Medical Clinic is a local medical center that provides extensive on-site medical care for our guests. Hannah visited the clinic mobile medical van when she complained of pain in her breast, and was subsequently sent to the hospital for a mammogram. The news was bad: she had breast cancer and would have to undergo treatment immediately.

Several people have undergone chemotherapy while staying at the shelter: a tragedy on top of a tragedy. Our social worker Jodi Benson, working with the county Behavioral Health Department, was able to get Hannah into a small local recovery home for people suffering from mental challenges.


As various agencies collaborated to look more deeply into Hannah’s history, they made a discovery. Thirty years ago she had indeed had a baby, and his name was Joseph. Joseph still lived in Nevada County. When they got hold of him, he agreed to meet his mother, whom he hadn’t seen for many year

Please catch my next post to learn what happened when they met. You can do that by signing up in the right-hand column.

These Stories Describe Us

June 23, 2016

“You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.”
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

The suffering of the poor isn’t subtle; I first encountered it as a very young child. I grew up in Glencoe, Illinois, an affluent suburb north of Chicago on Lake Michigan. My family lived near the depot of the commuter train that ran up from Chicago to Milwaukee. Trains rumbled past our house morning and night, their engines lurching to a restless stop and revving back up again as they departed the station. Most passengers on that line in the 1950s were businessmen going to and from their offices in downtown Chicago, but also, going in opposite directions, were many African-American women coming to work domestic jobs in the suburbs and returning home at night to the city’s South Side.
The sight of those women walking wearily back to the station at the end of the day haunted me. One of them, Ruby, a large, openhearted woman, came to our house once a week. I watched her hoist heavy pails of dirty water around the house, crouch on her knees to scrub the kitchen floor, and wrestle the unwieldy vacuum cleaner step by step up our narrow carpeted stairs. As the day went by, it wasn’t lost on me that her morning smile went down with the waning sun. At nightfall, she trudged to the train with the other women, each on her way home to make her family dinner and care for her own children.
I always wondered why their lives were manifestly so much harder than those of the white women around me. It seemed so unfair. A lifetime of contemplating the reasons for poverty has provided many complex answers to that question, but it hasn’t changed my feelings one whit. My involvement at Hospitality House, a shelter in a rural county in the Sierra Nevada foothills northeast of Sacramento, California, has been a response.
In 2005 I co-founded Hospitality House along with several other people, including my late husband Utah Phillips.
Utah pic

Utah had been homeless himself for two years after a devastating stint in the Korean War. [link to Utah] He passed away in 2008, never knowing about the permanent shelter building we acquired through a grant from the Housing and Urban Development Department in 2010. We named it in his honor: Utah’s Place. Some people think I became involved with the shelter because of Utah, but that isn’t true. During my time as a volunteer, I got close, and remain close, to many of the homeless guests at Hospitality House.
At the House, I’ve witnessed many people’s struggles; each one, whether won or lost, has been a meaningful story, often raw, about what we humans do and are. My purpose in this blog is to share those stories as respectfully and accurately as I can. I’ll change people’s names and may change genders and specific details to protect confidentiality. My motivation is to honor suffering and redemption, and to hold up a mirror, for however unusual their content may seem, these stories not only touch us, they describe us.
HH House picMy first story, which happened a few years ago, is about Hannah, an older woman who arrived by taxi at Utah’s Place, seeking her lost infant. She was short and squat, as though stunted in childhood by a heavy load placed on top of her head. Although she kept her eyes focused meekly on the floor and seemed excruciatingly vulnerable, something in her manner commanded attention.
“Is Joseph here?” she whispered. “Have you seen my baby?”
I hope you’ll join me next week for the rest of this story. You can receive future posts in your inbox by clicking on the subscribe button on the right.

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