GIMME SHELTER: A JC volunteer’s view

It wasn’t fun and games when people huddled at high school in storm

At the emergency shelter, a young man in a do-rag, obviously drunk, walked to the bathroom with his pants down – all the way down. An extended family of about 12 huddled on cots in a corner sharing Chef Boyardee ravioli. A cop dozed by the door. A thin, pregnant woman stepped out to smoke. These images were snapshots of New Jersey’s second-largest city during Hurricane Irene.
Like most of the Northeast, Jersey City prudently over-prepared for the terrifyingly touted maelstrom. But it had deteriorated to a tropical storm by the time it hit New York Harbor.
City officials, in their zeal, ordered mandatory evacuations of low-lying areas. Shelters were set up and widespread flooding and downed power lines were expected. The actual effect, while marked, was a lot less serious.
Though the first real wind and rain from Irene were more than 12 hours away, people began to arrive by 10 a.m. Saturday at the annex of William Dickinson High School, built in 1933 adjacent to the iconic main building that sits atop Bergen Hill. Fire Department recruits had spent much of Friday setting up Army-style cots in gymnasiums at four public schools. Dickinson had room for about 150.
Among the first to show up were curious neighbors not ready to abandon home, but wanting a look at their options. Two extended families of about a dozen each – grandmothers, mothers and fathers, children and children’s children – set up camp before noon. And camp it was. They brought bins of food, extra blankets, books, and games.

A temporary home

By midday, word of the shelter was out to the city’s homeless community. Though it sounds like a contradiction, the homeless are indeed a community. They know each other. They befriend each other. And when word gets out about a new shelter – especially one serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner – they tell each other.
People with no regular access to baths or food or clean clothes stand out. Yes, some of them smell bad. Others look emaciated or old beyond their ages. They are easy to spot. “I’m homeless,” they would answer when asked for their address at the registration table.
Other guests were affluent by contrast. They parked their Hondas in the school lot. A stranded flight attendant brought teabags and books. A well-groomed Puerto Rican man asked about Wi-Fi access. Remarkably, no one complained about their temporary neighbors – at least at first.
Friday passed quickly. Stores on nearby Newark Avenue stayed open through the evening and people were able to walk for Chinese food or cigarettes. A 22-year-old girl, pregnant and thin, frequently came out on the massive front stoop to share a smoke with the man she introduced as her “baby daddy.” Since cigarettes top $8 a pack these days, they rolled their own.
Not everybody was peaceful. A man with a pony tail and a scruffy beard said he had been sent by Jesus. Two men, one who had forgotten to bring his teeth, argued over a cot while more than 100 others went unclaimed. Though the dingy gym was brightly lit, a grandmother begged shelter operators not to dim the lights for sleep. “I’m scared,” she said simply.
The city had provided each shelter with a police officer, and the Board of Education assigned two school security guards.
A young man and a few companions arrived in the early evening. Dressed in low-hanging shorts, athletic t-shirts, and do-rags they looked like gangbangers, but seemed harmless enough.
“No liquor. No illegal drugs and no weapons,” the shelter workers told every arrival and required them to sign a statement to that effect.

Drunk, hungry, tired

But one young man ignored his pledge and took off later in search of booze. He came back obviously inebriated. After a while, he showed up in the hall asking for the bathroom. He was naked from his waist to his knees.
Despite a warning from school officers, he continued to act out. Finally, a Jersey City policeman said, “If you keep this up, you’re gonna be out of here.”
“Why you picking on me?” the man asked.
“Because you’re f—ked up,” the cop said.
An hour later, the same guy told the officer that he was vomiting and had severe stomach pain. The officer radioed for an ambulance and the man was taken away.

No food

The city’s plans to feed the evacuees went awry. A stick-thin woman of indeterminate age asked around 6 p.m., “Are we gonna get food?” “We’re working on it,” she was told, but the shelter staff didn’t know any more than she did. Around 8 p.m., the same woman asked the same thing and got the same answer. Just before 10 p.m., the city’s Recreation Department showed up with subs for dinner, accompanied by milk and juice from the school cafeteria.
By midnight on Sunday, despite the glaring lights and driving rain, the 50 or so overnighters settled in while Irene had her way.
By three a.m. even one of Jersey City’s finest had his eyelids shut. About 6 a.m., they were rudely awakened by the shrill school fire alarm, apparently shorted by a leak. A significant amount of rain had leaked into the cafeteria one floor below the gym. Residents had to endure the deafening noise on and off for a half hour, until the custodian finally shut it down.
Seeing little chance of more sleep, shelter officials rustled up breakfast of juice and milk and donuts and corn muffins.
By 10 a.m. Sunday, the rain and wind began to abate. Those with places to go began to leave. The Recreation Department brought a mid-morning snack of buttered rolls. But by noon, only the homeless remained, hoping at least for lunch. It never came, and word eventually came down from the city’s Office of Emergency Management that the shelter would close by 2 p.m.
The pregnant girl announced, “I’m cold. I’m keeping the blanket.” Several others did the same thing, but no one in authority stopped them. One man asked if he could take a cot. He was told “No.”
About 1:45, the city sent a van to take the three final evacuees – a young girl, a young man, and an old man on a cane – to the only remaining open shelter in town. Everyone else had gone home or to find something to eat.

Bob McHugh volunteered as a shelter manager at Dickinson High School.

© 2000, Newspaper Media Group