Guests at the Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage keep the place running. They clean the floors and lay out the mats. They wash the blankets and monitor the doors. They’re supported by a cadre of staff who try to keep the place organized and safe. Beyond the entrance to the shelter sits support staff Amber Grace-Ali who registers guests to make sure they are accounted for. Last month, she finished her shift around midnight and chatted with KSKA’s Anne Hillman about why she took a second job at the shelter.
“As tired as I am, it’s good. It’s good to be here. It’s a humbling experience,” Grace-Ali says, looking surprisingly awake after 16 hours of work. She came to Brother Francis straight from her full-time job.
The instant gratification makes it positive. “You’re actually physically helping people, and they appreciate it right off the bat. And you can see it. You can feel it. Yeah, that’s the best part I think.”
Nine months ago, Grace-Ali was bored and needed a distraction from her personal life, so she asked to volunteer at the shelter. Instead she was hired to work a weekend day shift when only a few people are allowed inside. Brother Francis is an emergency night shelter and only offers limited services during the day. She didn’t have to open the doors to people who made her uncomfortable. Then she started working nights. During the winter.
“The foyer was full right off the bat. Tons of people came in and they were drunk, intoxicated, belligerent, angry, violent. And it was overwhelming, I think, more than anything,” she recalls, saying she had a panic attack.
Grace-Ali says the situation was tense at first in part because she’s only 25 and much younger than most of the guests and the other staff members. And she’s never experienced homelessness before, so she was seen as a complete outsider. But she kept working the night shift and building up trust.
“We treat them like humans, and they respond well, ’cause so many people just yell at them all the time or they get arrested on the side of the street or CSP [now known as the Anchorage Safety Patrol] drags them off. It’s rough. They way that they’re living is rough.”
And she tries to greet everyone with smiles and questions about their day while hiding her own emotions.
“I find when we start our shift and we’re positive up at the front then everything else runs a little smoother. Our community, they know when you’re having a bad day. They can tell. Any little sign of discomfort on your face and they just attack it.”
That doesn’t mean she’s perfected her poker face. Grace-Ali says she still relies on the program manager to help her process some of her emotions and her stress.
“Maybe it’s the constant need” that makes it so stressful, she says. “Someone always needs something. Which, is part of the job, I understand it, but you know, even if it’s not ‘I need a pair of socks’ it’s ‘Hey, can I come talk to you?’ and they pour it out. Pour their whole week out.”
She listens and feels for them and sometimes goes home crying because she wants to help more. But Grace-Ali says the stress is worth it.
“I mean, crazy things happen down here. Things I would never have imagined in my entire life. Just the crime and driving home at night and people falling into the road in front of my car,” she says, words rushing together. “It’s just insanity. I never in my entire life would have imagined I’d do it. And just to make it through it. Several times a week. It’s rewarding. It really is rewarding.”
She says despite the chaos, some of the guests have huge hearts. And it keeps her coming back, week after week.
You can listen to the story of Mike Hindman, a Brother Francis Shelter guest here.