Cleaning Up to Be with His Kid — Stories from Brother Francis Shelter

The dorm room at Brother Francis Shelter. (Photo courtesy of Catholic Social Services.)
The dorm room at Brother Francis Shelter. (Photo courtesy of Catholic Social Services.)

The morning at Brother Francis Shelter starts with a sleepy bustle. Guests wake up at 5 am, start gathering their belongings, drink some coffee and help clean the shelter. One morning in late July, in the back dormitory shelter guest William Teal wiped down the plastic sleeping mats with cleaning solution.

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50-year-old Teal chats a little about his life at the shelter – his job is to disinfect the mats, but he also volunteers to help unplug the toilets and pick up trash. He’s been at Brother Francis for about four months this time—he arrived with nothing but a change of clothes and $14. He’s been in and out of the shelter for decades.

“I used to be one of the guys out here, drinking, drugging, living out in the campsites. In the same clothes days on end,” he says. “Now, I shower every day, change my clothes everyday, I shave. It’s the small things… when you don’t got that for a long time and now you got that everyday, it makes me feel good.”

He says he’s rediscovered God and is working hard to stay sober. It takes him less than three minutes to turn the conversation to his favorite topic – his three-year-old son. Teal launches into stories about the mischievous boy’s antics: how he protects his lunch from marauding geese, darts through library bookshelves to elude his father, and battles the puppet embodiment of the Big Bad Wolf.

“Well, he smacks the puppet with his fist, and it comes off the lady’s hand and drops,” he recalls the library story time incident. “He steps back and field kicks it across the room. Thrity kids in there, ages probably 3 to 8, all turn around with their arms up in the air screaming ‘Yeah!’ He turns around and looks at me and says ‘Bad doggy!’ Because it looked like a little dog, and it scared him.”

Teal is trying hard to regain custody of the boy from the Office of Children’s Services. He’s working part-time, putting away money, securing housing, and taking fatherhood classes from Cook Inlet Tribal Council.

“I’m doing whatever I can to keep me with my son. That’s my foundation and my rock right now.”

He tries to stay occupied from the moment he wakes up, leaving the shelter as soon as he’s done with his sanitation jobs.

“I hate to say it, but it’s the truth. If sit down here all the time and with all these people, I start feeling depressed. I start listening to their stories, you start feeling sad. And it makes you want to drink or do something or be lazy. So I get up and go. If I don’t have anything else to do, I try to make good with my time or I go to the library.”

He reads, goes to church twice a week, works on his resume and meets with case workers who he says are helping him out, despite their massive case loads.

“They can’t take the time everyday to sit down and say hi and be cordial or nice. But when they do take the time” and you make an appointment, it goes well. “It has to be our effort. We have to be ones to be willing to take the effort to do it.”

He says his son gives him the motivation to get his life back on track. “This is my last chance,” he says of the son he didn’t plan to have. He has older children as well. “So now I’m actually going to watch this kid grow up. I don’t know how much time God’s got left for me in this world, but my plan is to be with him and help raise him.”

And Teal says thanks to the skills he’s learning, that may happen very soon.

After being told innumerable times that maybe she asked too many questions, Anne Hillman decided to pursue a career in journalism. She's reported from around Alaska since 2007 and briefly worked as a community radio journalism trainer in rural South Sudan.
ahillman (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8447  |  About Anne

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