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'The world decided to pause': New college grad finds work in COVID-19 homeless shelter

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6/3/2020 Christine Stephenson, USA TODAY
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Lane Wolf pulls into the motel at 7 a.m. His eyes are usually bloodshot – he’s not used to sleeping around 12-hour shifts. Sometimes, while he’s driving to work, he confuses the sunrise with the sunset.

The motel is a temporary isolation shelter in Bloomington, Indiana, for people who are homeless and have been exposed to or are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. Wolf first checks with each client over the phone. How are you feeling? Are your symptoms better or worse today? Then he brings them breakfast – oatmeal, fruit, breakfast bars. He sets the plate down in front of the door, knocks and then steps back at least 6 feet.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Lane Wolf graduated in May from Indiana University-Bloomington with a bachelor's in media. He planned to move to Los Angeles, but now works in a homeless shelter for people exposed to COVID-19. © Courtesy photo Lane Wolf graduated in May from Indiana University-Bloomington with a bachelor's in media. He planned to move to Los Angeles, but now works in a homeless shelter for people exposed to COVID-19.

Whenever he tags along to pick up a new client from the hospital, he’s decked out in the gown, the gloves, the mask and the face shield that have become symbols of the coronavirus fight. But he rebuffs any suggestion he’s working on the front lines – he cleans more than anything else, he says.

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Working at the shelter was never in Wolf’s plan. But like other newly minted college graduates across the country, the pandemic upended the life he’d spent years building for himself. 

Just a few weeks ago, hiring freezes and rescinded job offers and furloughs weren’t a concern. A few weeks ago, 33 million people hadn’t filed for unemployment. A few weeks ago, the world didn’t seem at a standstill.

Before Wolf graduated from Indiana University-Bloomington, he’d planned to move to Los Angeles. He didn’t have a job lined up. Maybe he’d use his degree in media. Or maybe he’d just work at a coffee shop, earning enough to scrape by.

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He searched Craigslist for a roommate with a cheap couch to sleep on. He was preparing to essentially be homeless himself. He was 22 and following a dream. Money didn’t matter.

But money did matter, at least a little. After everything shut down, he lost his restaurant job. No job meant he could no longer save up through the summer. And moving across the country in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t safe, anyway.

“I realized the world needs to be more stable for me to be so unstable,” he said.

Moving to a big, booming city like Los Angeles was something Wolf only dreamed of before college. A first-generation college student, he grew up on a small farm in the tiny town of Larwill, Indiana, with a population of fewer than 300.

I need to get out, he thought to himself, or I feel like I’m going to disintegrate.

Throughout college, Wolf’s friends worried about security – feeling safe with their jobs, their finances, their living situations. Those things didn’t worry someone accustomed to an apartment where the roof leaks every time it rains and the mold grows in the bathroom every time he showers.

But to get out of Indiana, he knew he needed to make money. So when he saw on Facebook that the shelter was hiring, he jumped at the opportunity. 

The application asked how many years of experience in social services he had. None, he answered.

It doesn’t matter, he thought. If I want something, I can get it.

Now Wolf considers himself lucky to be making $15 an hour. He has a place to sleep and a fulfilling job. But he knows this stability won’t last. Eventually, when the pandemic passes and the rest of the world can breathe a sigh of relief, he’ll be thrown back out into what might be the worst job market since the Great Depression.

But he’s not afraid.

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He talks with his co-worker who graduated into the Great Recession about how everything will be OK. He uses his free time to build his portfolio and learn to enjoy what he’s doing. 

He still hopes to move to Los Angeles someday, but he knows the economy might not allow it for a while. And that’s OK. He’s grateful for the time he’s getting to grow as a person.

When not at work, Wolf is researching homelessness in Bloomington and learning more about it than he did his past four years living there. He’s working on his public relations and advertising skills – recently, he did a brand mock-up just for fun. He takes time to cook actual meals and do other simple things he rarely experienced in college.

“A lot of times, when you finish college, you’re thrown into the world and everyone’s just like, ‘OK, go,” he said. “But this time, the world just decided to pause for a bit.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The world decided to pause': New college grad finds work in COVID-19 homeless shelter

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