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Column: Night at a homeless shelter

It's not easy sleeping in a homeless shelter.

The sounds are strange. Faraway doors slam as residents scurry in from late-night jobs or nocturnal movie-watching marathons in the TV lounge. Children are crying in their rooms.

That night I awake many times after dreams in which the shelter's floor plan morphs into a large airport terminal.

Granted, my lousy sleep might be attributed to the fact I'm staying in a coffee lounge rather than a resident bedroom.

When Forum visual reporter Ann Arbor Miller and I made arrangements to sleep at Fargo's YWCA on Dec. 17, the 33 women and 30 children staying there had filled it to capacity. So the Y staff put us in the only place they had room: a mattress and couch in the residents' coffee lounge. Lights from the hallways beam through the lounge's many windows, even after we clumsily try to block out the glare with sheets tucked into the suspended ceiling panels and strategically propped throw pillows.

But even if the room had been perfectly dark, I wouldn't have slept well.

My head swirls over the stories we'd heard that day from Stephanie, the resident I write about. Pregnant at age 13 after being raped by her addict father. Giving birth to an autistic son. Working several jobs to support her siblings and dad's drug habit. Evictions. Now living at the shelter with her second child, Amber, 19 months.

I thought of the other women I'd met or heard about here. The 18-year-old who has lived in group homes since age 13. The woman who is bipolar and worked 12 years as a prostitute at her husband's insistence. The young, pretty girl who wears Batman pendants and seems almost cavalier about being here with her young child.

I witness one mother nonchalantly decorating Christmas cookies while her infant daughter sits in a stroller 3 feet away, crying and crying and crying. Every fiber of my being aches to pick up that baby, but I'm not supposed to get involved.

Yet there are signs of happiness and hope, too. Stories of women who move into transitional housing, go back to school and get better jobs. Mothers who weep as they watch their children bounce with joy when Santa Claus enters the room during the Y's holiday party. YWCA staffers who are so committed to helping the families that they work marathon days and use their own money to buy things for the shelter.

My thoughts bounce back to Stephanie, who seems so determined to better her life. On our last day together, I said my goodbyes to Steph. But I especially have trouble saying farewell to Amber, looking so tiny and trusting and vulnerable in her PJs. "Please," I pray to no one in particular. "Please let her have a better life than her mother did."

As I drive out of the parking lot, my throat tightens. By the time I merge onto Interstate 94, the tears are pouring down my cheeks.

Over the past two days, I'd wrestled with just about every emotion, from sympathy to anger to joy to guilt for my own comfortable existence.

And that's probably a good thing. Maybe the next time I complain about some petty nuisance, I will think of Amber gazing at me from her highchair and waving. And I will be a bit more grateful.