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COVID-19 fundamentally changed how we work. In our series "At Work," we hear from folks in the Bay Area about how what they do has changed.

A shelter manager strives to work harder after the pandemic

Ryan Murray in front of a "How can we help you find housing?" sign.
Jasmine Ramirez
Ryan Murray in front of a "How can we help you find housing?" sign.

I meet Ryan in front of these humongous metal gates. Security checks me in and we’re off on a tour of the homeless shelter he manages.

Ryan is the big cheese on campus. Which means all big decisions go through him. Big things. Like, making sure case managers are linking clients to the proper resources.

"So this is our main dorm or larger dorm. What's up? No can't I do a microwave down there.  No, I can't do any appliances."

Down to the smaller things. Like deciding if someone can keep a microwave in their dorm. He also teams up with clients and housing navigators to come up with a game plan towards permanent housing. Each plan is unique and individual. To match every client that walks through his doors.

"We are completely full as of yesterday. But we have a pretty consistent flux. At least I try to keep it that way of people that either aren't engaging with us or are not ready to pursue housing. Kind of just keeping a good flux because there are plenty of people out on the street that would love this opportunity."

Ryan has been doing this for over 7 years now. His journey in shelter work actually began as a client himself. He got introduced to this line of work by going through his own experiences with homelessness and drug addiction.

"I remember very vividly sitting in jail. Last time, I was in jail. Seeing both my parents basically in tears, because of my choices, and really taken a hard look at my life and in realizing that, you know, where I was at was a product of my choices this far, and I wasn't happy with it."

It was at that point, that he decided he was going to make every effort to change his life around. That led him to a rehab program with an emergency shelter.

"And, you know, by the grace of God, or what have you, I was able to, you know, get into a rehab program rather than having to do all that time in jail and actually had the opportunity to turn things around."

He spent 13 months there. Relearning the life skills he said he missed the first time around.

"And that was where I got my start working as an intern at one of their shelters there. And really just getting my hands dirty with that, you know, whole mindset of helping people and, you know, being of service."

He was an intern for over a year before he graduated and went on to direct that exact shelter. After that, he was asked to help develop a day center and overnight shelter program for the Watsonville Salvation Army.

Which is where I met him. He was actually my boss.

You see, making radio is a newer passion for me. Social services was my first. And during the time that I worked with Ryan, I never really saw him angry. Stressed? Sure, but always understanding. He makes it a point to really hear people out. He listens to clients and their situations and is big on second chances.

"The best part of this job is seeing people grow, you know, see people come in from the street and really at the lowest point in their lives, some of these people and it's crazy to see them develop and redevelop their life skills and in their motivation and their, their will to live some of them and get them back into permanent housing and seeing that transformation."

The most challenging part of his job he says? Is saying goodbye.

"Exits are difficult because a lot of the time it's not always an exit to permanent housing. You never want to see someone go back to the streets. And a lot of the times, that's what happens, it's out of your hands a lot of the time because the client doesn't either want to go somewhere else or doesn't want the other option. And it's just difficult to have somebody leave your program in any way, shape, or form really."

Or, at least he thought goodbyes were the hardest part of his job.

"Go back to June, July 2020. Getting a phone call. And finding out we had a positive COVID case in our shelter. And the health department was gonna have to come in the next day and test everybody. And just that chaotic, Gosh, 36, 48 hours of just non-stop work."

That was Ryan's first outbreak. The day he realized his job was no longer only to get clients housed, but also to try and keep them safe from a virus. The new stresses he remembers almost got to him.

"COVID, to me, was a very, a very big learning experience in the sense that you never know what you're going to come into that day. And, you know, you could get a news report five hours later that says, the whole world is going to change up and you got to adjust to that. So just being very aware of what's going on and being able to be flexible and resilient. When things are thrown at you that you're not really ready to expect."

Ryan learned a lot because of the pandemic. Not just about his line of work, but about himself too. He noticed the impact he had on people's lives and that - what he does for others matters. Which inspired him to do even more.

"Seeing many different people over the last seven years, and seeing how people treat other people and how that goes on. It's just kind of surprised me that there are so few people in this world that want to help. And I guess that's given me the drive to try to push forward harder."

So in February 2022, Ryan moved to Southern California to manage an even larger program, Making it his goal to help as many people as he possibly can.

"I think a misconception that people have about shelters and this line of work is that it's dirty. And it's difficult every day and it's not enjoyable. But a lot of the time, that's in fact, all the time, that's quite the opposite. You do have difficult days, but the majority of the days is just dealing with your friends getting to hang out with people that you've built relationships with getting to help people and I think that part is lost a lot. And especially just in the issue of homelessness, that the the person that there is a person behind each of these statistics or numbers."

He says housing isn’t just a political issue.

"It's a human rights issue."

KALW News Crosscurrents@WORK