The only shelter in Amherst houses 28 guests. The Exit sign shines constant in the wide basement of the Baptist Church, fixed like a false, red moon above a door that no one enters. Its light spills across the linoleum, parting the cots on either side, 20 in all, filled with men anchoring to unmoor. Some twisting, some turning from time to time, snoring that is like boat motors, sputtering then falling silent drifting through uneasy sleep. The smell of human exhaust, sweat and exhaustion fill the room.
An unreliable partner in rest, at some point through Night’s long lease each man gets up and shambles, crooked mast, listing and or limping to the bathroom. A man falls asleep in the bathroom. Staff wake him but he falls asleep there again, and again, and again, not leaving the bathroom for more than an hour.
One man snores like a hand saw ripping through wood with each rapid inhale. The pace and volume of his breathing makes me anxious, but no one else seems to be any more than annoyed. Those who have had something to drink seem to sleep better. Anyone who is awake is witness to semi-anonymous farting, sighing, moaning, calling out mid-oblivion in the dark.
A late entry sails in, slim and dark even in the blackness, gliding silently between other sleeping men. He runs a hand over the surface of the cot to clear any debris, then applies both sheets, the pillow and then the blanket making sure each corner is even before turning in. For a time his face is lit cold and blue by phone screen. The lines of his face appear impossibly deep.
With no privacy everyone is fully clothed at all times. Each cot has two sheets, a blanket and a pillow. Meals are provided by the University of Massachusetts and Hampshire College. With one paid overnight staff, three overnight volunteers and one late night volunteer this arrangement is too expensive to keep the shelter open for more than six months every year.