Trouble in Paradise / Utopia's professional social-service providers bring back the Death Penalty / Donald Duck's first draft letter
"Surely this must be the Paradise of America."
-- Jenny Lind ("the Swedish Nightingale")
Pollyanno didn't want to mention this unpleasant business over a wonderful dinner, but ... dinner [at the winter homeless shelter] was considerably delayed. Staff was requiring every guest to submit to this new policy of drug-testing. Things got rather tense and edgy, but there was no actual acting out. One familiar old guest was fuming loudly over a food matter, and I suspect it was displaced anger from this new wrinkle. I don't know if any Guest refused to submit to the test. The test was their new ticket to warmth and hot food.
This is a rough draft, and I confess may be full of factual inaccuracies. (Hair samples are now in vogue rather than urine; they may instead be demanding hair samples.)
But I would be grateful, very, if you would read this and share your thoughts with me.
***** [another volunteer], I suspect from our whispered conversation, grudgingly sees a necessity for this new policy and cited safety concerns. She has previously expressed her perception that our Guests are growing rougher and tougher, more aggressive and competitive. I haven't perceived that, but nor is it worth disagreeing with that perception.
I suspect the new policy is a condition handcuffed to state or federal grant funding, and does not reflect any authentic or documented increase in safety issues at the Shelter. If it is a government requirement, I still do not feel we should roll over and accept it without great scrutiny and much discussion. I wonder, for example, if it would pass the [religious leaders and congregations] test for appropriate civic behavior.
Your most valued gift to me over the years has been your occasional blunt candor about these kinds of things, a very necessary cold shower to bring my naive Utopian self down from Cloudcuckooland.
One way of reading this is that the only thing that's at stake is Bob's personal, private, primadonna Donald Duck sense of disgust and anger.
Another perspective is that a lot of damage and insult is being done to these my troubled neighbors, for very questionable reasons.
Please let me know your thoughts. You can retire ... but there is no escape from me and my kvetching.
Your fellow Aquarius,
I ask your pardon in advance for writing you, and understand that you may feel my letter is irregular and unwanted. I'm Bob Merkin, I live in Northampton, and I've volunteered, initially as the manager of the Hampshire County Interfaith Winter Homeless Shelter site in First Churches UCC & ABC, and now on the Monday night team sponsored by Northampton Friends Meeting. I cook and serve supper and assist in tasks we hope help our Guests on our team's assigned evenings.
But I feel a strong need to reach out to my fellow volunteers, my neighbors, and the spiritual community of the Shelter about a troubling and important development at the Shelter. I take full responsibility for this letter, and though I hope it will find understanding and support, I recognize its potential to be received with disapproval and disagreement.
The new regulation
In late January, S*********, the administrative agency which manages the Interfaith Shelter, began requiring every woman and man seeking food and overnight shelter to first submit to a urine test for drugs and alcohol. Future admission to the Shelter will depend on passing this test. Refusing to submit to the test immediately bars the Guest from the Shelter, and a positive result bars the Guest from subsequent admission to the Shelter.
From its founding by a coalition of churches in 1997, as an emergency response to a sudden increase of homeless women and men, the Shelter has had a clear policy forbidding the presence of alcohol and illegal drugs on site, and refusing admission to or expelling -- by police if deemed necessary -- any Guest who is substance-impaired and not fully sober. Arguably the new suspicionless mandatory admission test is a logical extension intended to reinforce this long-standing and necessary policy.
Until this moment, sobriety -- and any condition, like an episode of mental illness -- which renders a Guest a safety problem has been evaluated and dealt with by a system of respectful trust between staff, volunteers and Guests.
In practical terms, if a Guest's behavior appeared safe, sober, cooperative and non-disruptive, this has worked well enough to comfortably allow us to provide warmth, safety, bath facilities, a clean night's sleep, a hot supper and a cold breakfast. Other resources, where and when available, are also offered to Guests who conform to and respect Shelter policies and rules.
But realistically we have always understood who our Guests are. They seek and badly need this primitive winter cot shelter as the only safe alternative to spending winter nights outdoors -- a life-threatening situation, and indeed homeless deaths from exposure are typical events almost every winter in Hampshire and Franklin Counties. Preventing these winter deaths was the fundamental reason the Shelter was founded and has re-opened every winter since.
In the worst weather, the only other choice open to our Guests is "couch-surfing" from strangers, which exposes them -- women and teenagers -- to sexual predation and rape, a common experience of street life.
Consequences of the new policy
Guests who, for any reason, can't find Shelter with us, face the likelihood that their chronic respiratory illnesses will worsen, and face greater likelihood of winter death from exposure. The Shelter has twenty-two beds, and on most nights, more than that seek our Shelter. Late-comers and overflows must be turned away, and on typical bad-weather nights, staff has no realistic safe alternative shelters to refer them to.
Many guests -- young people and the mentally ill -- lack reliable skills to arrive early enough to secure an available bed. All Guests are without reliable transportation. As the homeless population keeps growing and demand outstrips capacity, turning needy Guests away is a nearly nightly occurrence.
The new policy adds a new hurdle and barrier to receiving the warm and safe winter night the church coalition Shelter was founded to provide.
Unlike Shelter bed capacity and clear, obvious "acting-out" situations, the mandatory suspicionless drug test is an arbitrary and artificial hurdle and barrier. It is not a clear, necessary response to the authentic Shelter problems we have experienced in the past.
It strikingly ignores who our Guests are. They include large numbers of chronic alcoholics, needle drug addicts, and chronically mentally ill women, men, military veterans and teenagers many of whom turn to alcohol and drugs as a natural response to the brutal experience of the streets, alleys, unlocked basements, ATM kiosks, the train tracks, and the woods. Alcohol in particular provides a false sensation of warmth, but is a likely precursor to falling asleep and succumbing to exposure.
These are the very people who will now be barred from the Shelter. The very circumstances that have brought them to our door will now be a reason to lock the door on them. The Shelter has one door, and staff controls its electric security lock.
Except for the veterans' hospital in Leeds, Hampshire County has almost no available drug or alcohol treatment for the uninsured, so very few of those who test positive for alcohol and drugs, and will now be barred from the Shelter, will find medical treatment.
Moral and ethical consequences
"The worthy poor" is an ancient but widespread community notion. The prosperous and homed are encouraged to offer scant charity to those without money or homes whom we judge to be "worthy" of our charity. We withhold and deny our charity to those we judge unworthy because of their own wicked and foolish choices. Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo excruciatingly described the cruelty at the core of this mindset in the 19th Century.
But even in our enlightened and highly educated community, it lingers. The notion of "the worthy poor" is alive and sadly common in the Five College Area.
By those blessed to have been spared these afflictions, alcoholism and drug addiction are commonly regarded as wicked and foolish personal choices which justify denying the community's charity.
But those increasingly common families from all social and economic backgrounds who have been devastated by these afflictions learn painfully that "wicked and foolish personal choices" have little realistic and no practical relevance to helping their loved ones heal and recover from these diseases.
I have been privileged and deeply moved to see some of our most troubled and hopeless Guests achieve sobriety and return to the community indistinguishable from my most stable, upright and productive neighbors. Their recovery was regularly only hindered, set backwards, and made more difficult by these cruel, simplistic and judgmental notions which they encountered in the form of rigid policies, regulations and laws -- barriers to returning to health and sober full participation in the community.
I am convinced this new barrier is the worst, cruelest, most dangerous, and most foot-shooting and anti-productive policy to ever taint the Interfaith Shelter program. I cannot believe it has the knowing and informed support and approval of the spiritual and volunteer communities which founded and continue to guide and provide vision to the Shelter.
I suspect rather it has been slipped quietly "under the radar" with little or no community discussion or scrutiny.
Dignity and Human Rights consequences
We welcomed and served our Guests with a small degree of worry, caution and wariness a decade of experience sadly taught us. We welcomed and served these women, men, veterans and teenagers -- runaways, throwaways, victims of domestic abuse -- by extending trust and treating them with scrupulous dignity. Trust and respect make possible the always fragile and nervous bridge between our Guests and the staff and the volunteers. In a sadly small but always present measure, we are neighbors breaking bread together for a few hours.
When trust and respect are assaulted by this new policy, they instantly vanish in the other direction. Every positive and human thing the volunteers and spiritual leaders have worked long and hard to achieve quickly evaporates in tension and seething resentment.
First and with perfect clarity, the Guests see that this is something We can force on Them, but they are powerless to impose any such rule on Us.
In that compromised new atmosphere, the very safety the new policy claims to insure will itself insure less safety for everyone. We manifestly disrespect the Guests. The Guests will manifestly disrespect the Shelter and everyone they associate with it.
Safety at the Shelter has always been a reflection of mutual respect and mutual trust. This policy announces that no Guest can be trusted, the new admission price is a staff-supervised visit to the toilet to provide a urine sample, and any Guest who fails to comply, or fails the test, will be punished by expulsion to the streets and the elements.
It is realistic to expect that for a few, the punishment will be the death penalty.
We would be wise to balance our honest concerns about safety with the inevitable negative consequences of the new policy.
If the new policy reflects a new condition attached to government funding, we would be wise to consider if the funds from Beacon Hill or Washington will be worth the things we will risk and could lose. We could receive grant funds to support the Shelter, but ultimately lose the Shelter itself from the new policy's negative consequences.
Speaking only for myself, I will find it very difficult to continue to support the Shelter, or silently assent to the new policy. This fundamental change in the relationship between the Shelter and our neighbors for whom it was established may precipitate a loss of community support for the Shelter.
We have bitter experience of community and political opposition to the Shelter which on several occasions came close to shutting down the Shelter or failing to find an uncontroversial home for it.
Churches gave birth to the Shelter, and the Shelter's current home is again hosted by a house of worship. These communities obligate themselves to give the most serious consideration to all issues of ethics, morals, and human dignity and respect.
I sincerely and respectfully urge S********* immediately to suspend implementing and enforcing this policy for the rest of this winter season. Between this suspension and next October is time to invite all concerned -- S*********, volunteers, religious and civic leaders, and without fail our Guests -- to openly and fully discuss all the dimensions of this situation, and ask all the questions that ought properly be asked about the origin and details of and the necessity for the policy.
Thank you for considering this matter. It would greatly settle my heart and give me great hope for a finer and stronger Shelter future if many of my neighbors exchanged their feelings and opinions about it.