Ladies & Gentlemen: David Watkins (Homeless Shelter Worker)

Ladies & Gentlemen: David Watkins (Homeless Shelter Worker)

At around 7:15 this evening- on whatever day you happen to be reading this post- a knot of roughly half-a-dozen men will begin to form by the heavy oak doors of the former baptist church on Waterloo Street- now the headquarters of Saint John’s only men’s shelter, operated since 2015 by Outflow. As the hour progresses, this little knot will grow into a huddle: men with their shoulders hunched and backs turned against the spiteful wind, stamping their feet, bumming smokes, spitting, muttering curses and trading insults both playful and malicious. Then, at 8:00 sharp, those oak doors will open wide to receive them, welcoming them into a world of light and warmth. The first thing they’ll do, after descending the stairs into the newly renovated church basement, is stop by the front desk and give their names to one of the shelter’s staff. Depending on the night, there’s an excellent chance that the staff member working will be David Watkins.

If you were to simply look at David you wouldn’t guess that he works at a men’s shelter (not that I know what a typical men’s shelter worker is supposed to look like!) Dave has a slim, somewhat lanky frame, making him appear taller than his actual 5’9 height. His shoulder-length hair and thick frame glasses suggest that he’d be most at home skulking around the rear aisles of a dusty vinyl record store or sifting through back issues of The Amazing Spider-man at Hero’s Beacon. Indeed Dave is, like the author of this blog, a bit of a geek. During the quieter moments of my evening shifts as a volunteer at the shelter, I’ve sat around with Dave in the office, listening to him lecture authoritatively on all of the various incarnations of Doctor Who since the series began in the early 1960s. When he smiles (which is easily and often) you catch a glimpse into a heart that is genuinely open to nearly everyone he meets, no matter how damaged.

Dave, being the son of two Salvation Army officers, is a peculiar mixture of army brat and preacher’s kid. While he was still toddling around in preschool, his parents were enrolled in the Salvation Army training college in Saint John’s Newfoundland. A short time later, they were stationed in the town of Spryfield, Nova Scotia- the first of many towns that David and his four other siblings would inhabit before finally settling down (at least for a seven year period) in Woodstock, New Brunswick. Like the typical preacher’s kid, Dave found himself being dragged along to a myriad of church functions and outreach programs, unconsciously acquiring a whole toolkit of interpersonal skills along the way.

“It wasn’t conscious learning,” he is careful to point out. “My parents were very good at teaching without your realizing that you were learning.”

When I pressed him further on this, trying to get a sense of exactly what kind of skills he managed to absorb from them, he responded without hesitation: “Easy interaction with people. My father can walk into a room and talk with anyone. He can have a free and open conversation with somebody who has been homeless and addicted to any three substances and, ten minutes later, a millionaire and be completely comfortable with both conversations. He has a very smooth, simple way with them.”

“I see that ‘very smooth, simple way,’ at work in Dave as he interacts with the men at the shelter- particularly in the way he uses humour. It’s a peculiar mix of humble, self-deprecation and facetiousness, often resulting in an affectionate laugh directed his way.

“The thing about the person whose been homeless for most of his life and the millionaire,” explains David, “Is that they’re people and want to be treated like people. When you’re joking with the guys at the shelter you break down one of the barriers that stands between you and them.”

David, however, isn’t always about the jokes. In fact, there have been a number of occasions when I’ve seen him get tough. One night, for example, I was the sole volunteer working in the kitchen and, consequently, a bit overwhelmed by the orders. When a couple of the men, frustrated with my slowness, began to act rudely, Dave immediately walked into the kitchen, coming to my defence.

“Be respectful, guys,” he said quietly but firmly. “He’s the only volunteer on tonight and he’s doing the best he can.” After some muttered apologies, the complaining stopped. Later on, as the activity died down and most of the men were turning in for the night, I had a chance to ask Dave about the incident and how, in general, he deals with hostility form the guys. He suggested the need to be calm and assertive, even when the tensions are high and it’s looking like a fight is going to break out.

“You’ve gotta be the alpha male,” I recall him saying to me at the end of the conversation. The thing is, I don’t see David as the Alpha male- as one who achieves compliance by means of threat or intimidation. Rather, he achieves compliance by means of respect. David has spent so much time living with these men, serving them, observing them, interacting with them, learning from then that they can’t help but hold him in esteem. It is a respect born, not so much from fear, but from hard-earned trust.

“Like the men of the shelter, I too respect David. Indeed, since Jasmine and I began our ministry in inner-city Saint John, I have come to respect, not only David, but people like him- the ‘front line workers,’ as they’re called, who see urban poverty face-to-face in their day-to-day lives. People like David toil away in the hidden anterooms of our society- the messy little closets of our collective urban home that we know exist but that we dare not look into, deliberately opting for ignorance. They work with addicts for whom no treatment program seems to have worked. They work with the kids of those addicts whose little psyches have been scarred beyond repair by things that no child ought to see. They work with the outcasts who have fallen through one or more of the web of cracks that mar the face our our society. They have seen people cheat the system but, more often, they have seen the system cheat them. Needless to say, the kind of work that people like David do is difficult and, as he himself admits, the burnout rate is high.

So, until we fix urban poverty, we’re going to need people to run homeless shelters and soup kitchens, food pantries and drop-ins. In short, we’re going to need people like David Watkins. If you happen to see him sometime on the streets of our little city (or haunting the isles of a vinyl record store) maybe you can introduce yourself, tell him you read this blog post and take him out for a coffee. I myself plan on doing that very thing sometime soon.

by Terence Chandra