It's been two nights since Mary Rose Shay froze to death in the park. A park just a few hundred yards away from an open door and a warm bed.
Shay's death left the Bridge Emergency Shelter stunned and saddened. But not necessarily surprised.
It was a difficult night for 51-year-old shelter manager Donna Boyd.
“People were upset. One of our clients found her and it was really hard on him,” she says.
Then she pauses and her jaw tightens.
“There is frustration because it's preventable,” she says about the tragedy. “That's why we are here. That's our main mission, to prevent people from freezing to death in the park. That's why we are here.”
She pauses again and her eyes drop. She understands and has seen firsthand the power that alcohol and substance abuse has over many of the clients.
Shay, 47, may have only been a few hundred yards away, but Boyd knows that sometimes that's just too far away — even if it's freezing.
She's seen intoxicated people who were barely able to walk.
And the shelter staff has done more to save lives than just open the door.
“I've personally gone out and rolled them in with a wheelchair. I've seen it several times when staff has gone out with a wheelchair to find them and bring them in,” Boyd says.
The phone rings. The male voice on the other end is loud.
Boyd is know as “Momma Donna” to some clients. Her caring and compassionate nature is the reason for the nickname.
“As a staff we have to keep healthy boundaries,” Boyd says. Then she gives a surrendering nod.
“But I have trouble with boundaries sometimes,” she confesses with an uneasy grin.
The night after Shay died, Boyd came in on her night off. She knew it would be a rough night for both staff and clients.
“One of the woman clients came in and was really upset. I just sat with her and held her for 30 minutes while she cried,” Boyd says.
The voice on the phone belongs to the man who found Shay. They were good friends. He won't be coming to the shelter tonight and he knew that “Momma Donna” would be worried, so he called.
Boyd was worried. She knew he would cope with the tragedy with alcohol. The pain of losing a friend, the torment of finding a friend who froze to death in the park. Alcohol — maybe the only coping mechanism the man knows.
The man has secured lodging at a local motel for a few nights.
Boyd is relieved and thanks him for the call and wishes him luck.
He will return to the shelter in a few nights.
Boyd smiles as she hangs up the phone.
“I wish I was better at keeping those boundaries in check sometimes,” she says.
But she cares. She's compassionate. She has the traits necessary to be part of the shelter, to help people.
COMPASSION PART OF THE JOB
Bridge Emergency Shelter Executive Director Sara Wakefield says compassion is part of the job.
“You can't get away from it, it's a personal string,” she says. “It's a heartstring and we want compassionate people to work here. It's not just a job. There will be heartstrings that will be pulled.”
Cole McKinney takes quick steps as he zips from one room to the other in the shelter. After sloshing chili from a crockpot into a paper bowl, he delivers it to a client in the Alcohol Recovery Unit, or ARU.
This season, the shelter has been divided into two sections. The dry side is for sober clients. The ARU is for intoxicated clients.
Staff administers a quick breath test with a hand-held device to determine if a client is intoxicated or not. Clients are checked for possible weapons and their belongings are kept in a storage room.
Drunk clients are restricted to the ARU rooms, so the dining room and TV room are off limits to them. Dinner is delivered to the ARU rooms.
McKinney is a social worker in his first season at the shelter. Taking a rare break, he drops into a chair in the office, a tad bit of fatigue on his face.
“This is the first job that I've had that doesn't feel like a job,” he says. “In some ways it's very therapeutic and relaxing.”
He too uses the word “frustrating” when talking about Shay's death.
“It's frustrating because we're here and everyone knows we're here,” he says, nearly replicating Boyd's words.
But he knows the reality.
“It doesn't completely hit until it happens,” he admits. “This place brings in a lot of very intoxicated people.”
McKinney, 40, says the clients who use or abuse alcohol keep tabs on each other around town.
They try to keep friends and acquaintances from freezing to death in the park, like Shay and Michael “Tag” Garner, who died in January 2011.
“They look out for each other,” McKinney says. “Someone will come in, tell us where they last saw someone.”
They tell shelter staff about someone last seen near the library or the recreation center, or someone passed out in the park as night approaches and the freezing temperatures are coming.
If a regular client isn't in by 7 or 7:30 p.m., staff will alert the police to look for them.
“It's a tight-knit community,” Donna says. “We'll give (clients) a few hours, then we'll call dispatch and police will send a car around to check on them. The police are great.”
Police Chief Roy Lane, who is also on the shelter's board of directors, says it's just part of their job.
“When we find them out and at night, we will pick them up and take them to the shelter,” he says. “It's not an issue, we don't mind at all.”
The red flag that didn't go up with Shay was because she wasn't a regular client. She had a place to stay in town, so she hadn't used the shelter very often this season.
REALITY IS UNDERSTOOD
Everyone affiliated with the shelter completely understands the situation. But compassion and hope rarely fade.
The reality comes in the form of life choices, alcohol and substance abuse, mental illness, poverty and other circumstances.
“We have to realize a person's condition or life choices are their own, and we can't make those choices for them,” Wakefield says.
The shelter has seen some encouraging success stories but even within those heartwarming tales comes disappointment.
“Sometimes we see people who are making strides to get better and it looks like they are heading to a better life,” Wakefield says. “Then they make a choice that puts them right back.”
Boyd, who started at the shelter last February, is passionately committed to its cause. She chooses to focus on the success and mission of the shelter, instead of allowing the tragedies to consume her thoughts.
“Even though I don't expect to save everyone,” she says, giving her words careful consideration. “If we can get one person in who would have died, then that is wonderful. If we can make a choice to get a person on a better path in life, then we're doing something successful.”
With that the doorbell rings and McKinney darts down the hallway to let another client in from the freezing night.
It's a regular client and McKinney welcomes him with a friendly chat.
Boyd greets the man with her usual welcoming smile.
It's not necessarily home to these men and women seeking shelter from the harsh winter nights.
But for most, it's as close to home as they will find, due to their circumstances or life choices.
It's been two nights since Mary Rose Shay froze to death in the park, however, the mission of the shelter lives on.