The Salvation Army Shelter for Men: El Ejército de Salvación
by Celeste Caton
Since 1957, the local Salvation Army in Tijuana, México, has been serving both the migrant community and the least fortunate citizens of Tijuana. Part of my mission assignment is to work with the Salvation Army Shelter for Men. The Salvation Army has recently opened a shelter for women and children, and I will work there soon too.
The men who come to the existing shelter have many different stories. Some made their way north from parts of Central or South America, hoping to find work. Others left rural Mexican villages with the goal of eventually getting into the United States, where they heard that jobs are plentiful. But, in recent years, many men have been deported to Tijuana after residing in the United States for years. They are now living in a kind of limbo—completely uprooted from the life they have known and not really fitting into this new society where they hardly know anyone. Many men arrive at the shelter with signs of abuse (from travel, assault, or US immigration officials, among other causes).
Celeste Caton serves the evening meal at the Salvation army Shelter in Tijuana, México. Photo: Courtesy Celeste Caton
The shelter functions 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The men pay 15 pesos a day (roughly $1.25) for a bed, a place to bathe with hot water, and two meals. Right now, the shelter is at its maximum capacity, serving about 80 men per day, or 550 per month—a tiny number in comparison to the huge daily need in the city. For the many men at the shelter who do not get beds, even sleeping on the concrete floor of the dining room with a blanket is a safer option than sleeping in the streets.
As of now, Edward White (another Global Mission Fellow) and I work from 4pm to 9pm, Sunday through Friday. The men come into the shelter at 7pm. Twice a week they have a worship service, and every night they are given dinner and then enter the dorms to sleep. When we arrive, we assist about 10 other volunteers with cleaning, cooking, or preparing the worship space. We serve dinner, check the men into the shelter, supervise the kitchen and eating space, and clean everything up before we go home.
Although we are able to talk to the men who come to the shelter, the people I have gotten to know are the men who volunteer their time working there. While there are a couple of Salvation Army employees who oversee the organization, the men who actually work in the kitchen and spend the day cleaning the facility are all volunteers—and all of them are men who have been deported from the United States. Several used to live at the shelter when they were first brought to Tijuana, and a few still do. In exchange for their work, these men do not have to pay to stay at the shelter, and they can eat their meals for free. Several have been able to get back on their feet. They have paying jobs, yet they still come to the shelter daily to volunteer.
These new friends range in age from their mid-20s to their late 60s. Several of them lived in the United States longer than I have been alive. A few had been taken to the USA by a parent or other family member when they were babies. While several were deported because of crimes they had committed, just as many—if not more—had lived completely happy and average lives until they were discovered in an immigration raid or at a checkpoint or were caught living undocumented in the United States because of something as minor as a speeding ticket.
One of my jobs is to manage the front desk as the men arrive and check in. When new men check in, we log in each one’s name, origin, age, and length of time he was in the United States. Each man is assigned a number to speed up the process. When the men return (because most will return for many more nights), each simply tells us his number, pays the 15 pesos, and enters the shelter. Many parts of this process make my heart ache.
The men arrive more weathered and weary than anyone else I’ve ever seen. Without even knowing their specific stories, I can see that they have already been stripped of much of their dignity. They enter a place where they are known by a number. Every night as I listen to men share their basic information. I hear numbers like: “Age, 35…in the US for 33 years,” or “Age, 67…I was in the US for 55 years.” Regardless of your opinion on immigration, most of these men are essentially American—because that is the life that most of them have known.
The reasons why these men—these human beings—end up in such circumstances are much deeper than the stereotypical excuses: “they did drugs, they committed crimes, they did something wrong,” or whatever else is plastered all over the news concerning immigration and deportation. Shelters like the Salvation Army’s for Men exist because of broken systems, long-running historical conflicts, and multiple layers of injustice on both sides of every border. It is past time to address the problems that create a need for such places.
I love my work here very much and I fully believe in the shelter’s mission and purpose—it is crucial, beneficial, and desperately needed. But organizations like this are not the only necessary response.
Welcome the stranger, love your neighbors, and pray for the day when there are no more lines outside of this door—or any doors like it in the world.
Celeste Caton is a Global Mission Fellow serving a two-year mission with the Northwest Conference of Iglesia Metodista de México (Methodist Church of México) in Playas de Tijuana, México. She is originally from Boone, North Carolina. This article was originally published in New World Outlook magazine, May-June 2015 issue. Used by permission.