The outside was nondescript, looking for all the world like an abandoned office building in any low income neighborhood in the US. Perhaps that was the intention, so that no undue attention was brought to its doors – though more often than not that was the case.
The narrow corridor that led to the front door reeked of 30 years worth of piss that had been baked into the cement by countless summer suns. It steamed off the sidewalk rising in hot waves and marinating me in its musky, testosterone laden stench which caused me to silently choke as I walked into the oldest homeless shelter in the city.
The place was a hovel – no better than the abandoned buildings and alleyways the city’s worst addicts squatted in and it certainly smelled the same. Piss was merely a lone thread in the foulness than blanketed the place; ammonia, sour body odor, festering infection and the unmistakable burnt plastic smell of crack all mixed together to make a putrid stew.
Packed into the narrow room were countless dilapidated couches that served as beds, each infested with lice and bedbugs which caused those brave enough to spend the night to slap and scratch themselves wildly throughout their slumber. The permanent fixtures of the place had acquired an immunity to the parasites, and out of the sheer terror of their bed being stolen opted to never leave their perch, instead sending trusted friends to the store for them and sneaking a smoke whenever the caretaker wasn’t looking.
Needles of natural light filtered through three greasy windows which caused the paint on the walls to peel like rotting flesh adding to the general neglect of the building. Yet, looming ominously in a darkened corner was another wall that drew your attention like a mosquito bite on tender flesh.
“All of those are people who lived here, on and off, since the place opened in 1985,” the caretaker explained when she saw me staring at the wall.
Tacked to the wall with cheap plastic pushpins were funeral programs – thousands of them – spanning floor to ceiling, corner to corner. Photos of thousands of people stared back at me; black, brown, white, old and young alike – a veritable wall of death.
I felt a chill creep over me as I prepared to depart and when I stepped into the sunshine I inhaled deeply in an attempt to shake off dark thoughts of suffering, addiction and death. Once again I choked on the smell of the piss soaked sidewalk – the only indisputable material evidence that those thousands had lived, loved and were remembered.