Offbeat occupations: Site director lives at Lawrence Community Shelter

Joel Pollock, site director for the Lawrence Community Shelter, 214 W. 10th St., spends more than eight hours a day at work — he lives there.

Joel Pollock is always on the clock. As site director for the Lawrence Community Shelter, he works an unending shift, never clocking out, never leaving.

Pollock lives at work. Tucked in the center of the Lawrence Community Shelter is a small room with a bookshelf stocked with esoteric texts, a bed and a dresser which is sprinkled with hand-crafted jewelry — silver and metal trinkets made by Pollock himself. This tidy space is Pollock’s home.

“My work day doesn’t begin or end,” Pollock says. “I live onsite and run the operations there.”

Pollock lives within the Lawrence Community Shelter. He resides on the wet side — the segment of the shelter that serves people who have been or are habitually known for drinking alcohol. The living arrangement has been ongoing for 27 years. Pollock and another night monitor are responsible for watching the 26 people who sleep on the wet side overnight.

Pollock’s morning starts with the sputter and gurgle of the coffee pot. At 6 a.m., the smell of dark roasted coffee wafts from the shelter kitchen, which is modestly furnished — a fridge, a dishwasher and a cabinet crowded with a pastiche of plastic plates and bowls.

Each morning Pollock pours a cup of coffee, drinks it black and flips on the lights in the community room, where rows of people sleep on thin blue mattresses, their beds for the night. The bright lights signal residents to rouse. Pollock gets everyone alert and moving so they can leave for the day. Inhabitants on the wet side are ousted by 8 a.m.

Upon waking, residents shuffle to the Jubilee Cafe, 946 Vt., for breakfast or the Community Drop-in Center (also known as the dry side) for counseling, mail and phone access.

In the meantime, Pollock services the shelter’s appliances — the dishwasher and the washers and dryers. He checks inventory, changes any light bulbs and fixes any problems. Much of Pollock’s job centers on domestic and maintenance tasks.

“It’s like taking care of a gigantic house that holds 76 people,” Pollock says. “I’ve got to make sure everything runs all the time.”

A chunk of Pollock’s day is free, but by 6 p.m., he’s hustling to get things ready for dinner: he’s setting out towels, soaps and shampoos, stocking water, cups, flatware and napkins, scrubbing the kitchen cabinets and making sure the dishes are clean and ready to go. Shelter inhabitants wander back by dusk. They slump and huddle near picnic tables, smoking cigarettes, chatting and sometimes listening to a battery-powered radio. Around this time, Pollock peeks outside.

“I watch the clients until the monitors get there,” Pollock says. “That’s about the time of evening that if bad things are going to happen, they usually start around 7.”

And sometimes bad things happen: Clients fight over cigarettes, argue, curse or sneak drinks. But Pollock is always ready.

His employment history reflects that: He was an infantry sergeant for 15 years. And he’s spent a stint as a death row prison guard. Watching shelter clients is old hat.

“It’s very much like the day room of a prison,” Pollock says. “It goes in waves, the behavioral problems we have. It builds up stress, and then it tapers off again. Cycles up, cycles down. It’s not a physically demanding … job other than in the long run, it will wear you down.”

But 27 years and counting, Pollock is still at it. Last year he had a heart attack, but in a matter of days he was working again.

“Sometimes I’ve gone as long as two years without a day off,” he says.

Pollock partially credits community volunteers for strengthening his attachment to the job.

“Volunteers really are essential,” Pollock says. “I’ve had volunteers who decided after serving dinner they’d like to actually make it. I have a couple of volunteers who are old townies and … when they have an evening they’ve got nothing to do, they’ll come down to the shelter and stick their head in and see if I need any help. It’s always nice when I see people come by and randomly do nice things for us.”