November 21, 2013

Shelter Network—Teaching Time Management While Learning So Much More

by Kristin Fabos Livingston 

Tonight was my first experience leading a Shelter Network life skills workshop. I lead three 20-minute, small group trainings on Time Management.  I was unsure of what to expect. Would they be engaged? How would they react to me?

My first group of seven women were highly engaged and conversant.  I quickly learned that, in the shelter, there was no such thing as “time to yourself.” One of the residents asked: "What do you call it when you are so very tired, but you lay in bed and cannot get to sleep?" "Overtired." I replied. "Yes,” she said. “That happens to me a lot. That is the only time I have to myself." At the shelter, some residents are required to have paid jobs or to be searching for work daily, and in addition, are placed on a schedule of "mandatory" chores at the Shelter that have to be completed each day. Often, they must use public transit to get to and from work. This is in addition to getting their kids off to school and then back to the shelter by a hard deadline of 6 p.m. for dinner, followed by mandatory attendance at training sessions. In the evenings, there are nightly bed checks at 10 p.m. and 12 p.m.

Their lives make my life, with the occasional 5:30 a.m. wake up for an extra early meeting (that I drive myself to, in a heated car, with built-in time for a Starbucks stop) seem like absolute heaven. One woman said "I get up every morning at 5:30 to get the kids ready for school and all of us fed, them on the bus, and me off to work." At the end of the day, she leaves work on the bus, gets the kids from school, returns to the shelter, does her chores at the shelter, eats dinner and feeds the kids and arranges for a babysitter (another shelter roommate) while she attends classes. She must do all of this in order to be able to stay at the shelter for at least the first three weeks.

We shared time management tools in common. Many of them have calendars, some electronic and some hardcopy. We talked about how good it feels to make “To-Do” lists with boxes and to systematically put X's in the boxes at the completion of each task. We laughed at the sheer joy that comes with checking off an ENTIRE list! The common time wasters? There aren't many, as they didn’t have much time to waste, but the biggest issues were the time it takes to use public transportation and the occasional requests by family members and friends for help. One woman mentioned Facebook, until her aunt disconnected her data plan, which she saw as a blessing in disguise! Several of the residents commented that being in the shelter, they are protected from the outside distractions, which brings some relief.  I couldn't help but wonder, how did these smart and capable women become homeless?

I reminded myself that there are several unfortunate life events could knock a family into homelessness. In some cases it might be a sudden and unexpected departure or split from a spouse or a partner—many are caring for kids on their own. It could be an incarceration of a partner, a struggle with an addiction, a loss of work, an illness in the family.  In one case, it was an illness of a child. I was touched by one particularly tough and outspoken resident in tonight's session. She seemed grateful for the shelter, yet resentful of her circumstances. "[Pointing to the handout] It says here that 'Effective Time Management helps improve one's self esteem,' but here [in the Shelter] we don't have self esteem, because we're in this situation. If my time were my own and I didn't have all these mandatory things to do, I'd have more of it to manage."

At the conclusion of our session, I handed the participants a small parting gift for their participation—a radio alarm clock, with battery backup. "So you never have to worry about the power going out and accidentally oversleeping," I pointed out. There were squeals of delight. "I have wanted one of these!" exclaimed one resident.  I was taken aback as one resident’s eyes filled with tears when she realized that the alarm clock had a radio. "Oh my gosh—It has a radio—and music," she said. "This way I can stay in touch with the outside world." The residents were very kind and grateful for the training, thanking us multiple times for coming and leading the workshops, asking us about our jobs, and thanking us for the gifts. "You're very welcome, and I hope to see you in a couple months when we come back..." No sooner did those words cross my lips, when I realized that I didn’t want to see them in a couple months, because as much as I would like to know about the next chapters in each of their stories, I hope that by then each of them has moved on and found permanent housing, and the freedom to manage time that is their own.

InnVision Shelter Network (IVSN) is dedicated to helping homeless families and individuals across Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Peninsula return to self-sufficiency and permanent housing. For more information visit

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