Life in a Box

I work in an emergency shelter for chronically homeless men in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Upon admission to the shelter, each guest receives one 23-gallon bin to store all of his belongings. Due to space and budget constraints, we can only provide one bin to each guest. Regardless of personal status, length of stay in the program, or attitude, “one bin” really does mean one bin. In order to minimize opportunities for theft, clutter, and infestations, any belongings outside the bins are discarded. A few of the men have friends or relatives to hold some of their belongings. A few manage to pay or bargain for a small storage unit. One or two simply hide things in the alleyways. Most, however, are in the position of editing their lives down to fit into a single bin: life in a box, with the lid shut.

My position at the shelter was my first full-time, paid job. It came immediately after a year of living simply and intentionally as part of Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS). I was stably housed; I also had the ability to accumulate goods—behold my ever-expanding box, with its lid that never has to shut! Consumer culture gave me permission to believe that. But I began to wonder: If I were confronted with the same circumstances as our shelter guests, could I make life fit into a single box? What meaning is there in the discrepancy between the one-bin policy inside our shelter and the mass-consumption orgy outside? In considering these and other queries, I decided to pose myself a “one-bin challenge.”

Simplicity, possession, and class—they all touched a nerve because they all speak to what it means to have power in the world, power in your own world.

As I settled into my intention to take the challenge, I thought back to the many hours my QVS cohort spent inquiring into the testimony of simplicity. The complexity and privilege involved made it by far the thorniest subject for us. We discussed how simplicity differs from austerity, and whether the testimony applies only to material goods or to experiences as well. We debated whether an abundant, diversely stocked pantry could be in alignment with simplicity. We questioned the ethics of following a simple diet, which because of its simplicity verged on being unhealthy. We asked ourselves whether simplicity lost value if the act of downsizing also involved creating waste. We struggled with the dynamic between simplicity and class, noting that for many in our communities “simplicity” is involuntary poverty. Some embraced a year of living simply as a chance for creative frugality; others were deeply offended by the expectation of minimizing their consumption; others were hurt by the notion of “playing poor” for a year.

Simplicity, possession, and class—they all touched a nerve because they all speak to what it means to have power in the world, power in your own world. These same factors unite in the experience of homelessness, perhaps one of the most humiliating and disempowering experiences in our society. A one-bin challenge could not give me the ability to comprehend what our shelter guests experience. But it could help me get closer to it and to them. I wanted to try holding myself to the same standard as our guests, to see whether the one-bin policy still seemed fair after experiencing it myself. Beyond whether it was fair, I also wanted to know whether or not it was decent to hold someone to that standard. I wanted to better understand what the process of fitting life into a 23-gallon bin entails psychologically. Materially, I wanted to review all of my current possessions and keep only those that were the most vital. I wanted to see how much stuff I had lying around, cluttering my space and my mind, simply out of habit or an unexamined belief that I needed it (or would “someday”).

I began to think about all the things that cannot fit into a bin—a bed, a desk, a college education—and also the most crucial things we need in order to thrive…

As I completed my one-bin challenge over the course of two months during the winter of 2018, here is what I learned:

Yes, it is possible to fit the most essential possessions of daily life into a single 23-gallon bin, but it takes effort and creativity as well as disposable income or access to high-quality donations. I took direction from the other shelter guests here. During the course of my challenge, I spoke with them and asked about their bins. I saw that some had fit life into the bin quite practically, without sacrificing basic needs. Their bins contained (for example): multipurpose, adaptable clothing that can be layered and worn in all seasons; one pair of sneakers and shower sandals; a compressible sleeping bag; travel-size toiletries; and a thumb-drive for personal documents scanned at the library. Every item was necessary, purposefully chosen, and cared for. I followed these guests’ thoughtfulness and practicality in reviewing my own possessions. Items that were unnecessary, duplicates, or which only had sentimental value were donated or discarded.

I also determined that yes, it is fair and decent to have a standard of one bin per person for all belongings, at least in an emergency situation such as the one a homeless shelter responds to. During the course of my personal one-bin challenge, many of the shelter guests slowly and imperceptibly accumulated items outside their bins, leading first to the appearance of mice, then to an outbreak of bed bugs. Both situations were uncomfortable, expensive, and stressful. Guests and staff agreed that for the sake of public health and peace of mind, restrictions on personal possessions were appropriate.

I also concluded that for someone who is stably housed, a one-bin challenge is a lighthearted project in simpler living. For some, it can be a chance to make more room for that of God in our lives. For someone living in emergency shelter, though, it is a stressful and at times traumatic project in emergency living. It can be hard to notice that of God when “simplicity” is accompanied by not having control over your next meal, shower, chance to launder, and not knowing when (or whether) you’ll exit the shelter system. When you have a home, a bin is just a bin: plastic, replaceable, unremarkable. When you have no home, a bin may be the container for all that remains of you.

The closer I arrived at being able to fit my belongings into the dimensions of a single bin, the more clearly I saw this context. I also realized that, to some extent, the bin itself was a distraction from a deeper truth.

I began to think about all the things that cannot fit into a bin—a bed, a desk, a college education—and also the most crucial things we need in order to thrive and self-actualize: clean, stable, dignified housing; a secure supply of nutritious food and water; community and loving connection; God, Light, or Spirit. When we focus on the bin, we forget these things.

I then started to reflect on why our one-bin policy exists. It exists in response to space constraints, budget limitations, and public health concerns. But it’s important to recognize that these constraints, limitations, and concerns are situated in an emergency shelter. This shelter exists because there is a homelessness crisis, one that is critical enough that there are people who are chronically homeless. The homelessness crisis exists because of social, legal, and economic policies that have created a housing crisis. Those who can afford housing have it; those who can’t, simply don’t. These policies exist because of a certain cultural perception of what housing is and who deserves it. Those who can afford housing deserve it; those who can’t, simply don’t. Beneath this perception is the belief that in the United States, God’s will is for only some of us to be housed. As for the rest, there’s the shelter downtown and a 23-gallon bin.

It’s not about what’s inside the bin. It’s about everything outside it.

It’s about who we are in the space outside it: how we discern God’s will and how we live into that will as a society.

God’s will is not that all the guests inside our shelter accomplish the task of editing their lives down to fit into a single bin. God’s will is that we on the outside resolve the housing crisis so that there is no need for such a thing as a one-bin challenge.

Now that, Friends, is a challenge worth accepting.

Andrew Huff

Andrew Huff served with Quaker Voluntary Service in 2015–16 in Boston, Mass. He attends Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting.

4 thoughts on “Life in a Box

  1. Excellent article. Makes me think more about the experience of being homeless and of how to end homelessness. The richest country in the world should be able to provide housing for everyone. Keep on working on this.

  2. I’m not a nutritional scientist but here’s my take on simple diets:

    Every animal on earth aside from humans and domesicated pets eats a simple diet, usually one or two staple foods. Studies show that when people eat the same foods over and over on a plant based regimen their bodies compensate by producing more of the nutrients that they’re lacking. I’ve eaten mostly potatoes and green and yellow vegetables for about two years and all my bloodwork is great, I’m lean but not too skinny and I feel better than I did when I was 18 and I was eating a well balanced diet. My experience has been that as long as you pick plant foods that are high in nutritional quality you can do well on a simple diet, and nothing beats the low cost and ease of eating simply.

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