Search This Blog

29 April 2009

Winter Homeless Shelter season ends / Guests invited to sleep al fresco / Hard Times

Click image, gets bigger.

My (large) town's church alliance homeless shelter -- winter only -- will close on May Day. The shelter sleeps 22 women and men, and serves a hot dinner and a cold breakfast. My team of volunteers cooks and serves dinner on the third Monday of each month.

This is a reflection of good things for the program. When the program began, volunteers were so few (RevJJ was a founding volunteer and manager) that we served one night -- all night overnight -- each week. At that time and for five or six years, the shelter -- and our weary Guests -- moved around town to a different church every night, like a floating crap game.

Now the shelter is in a single, permanent, and architecturally suitable and safe facility. The basement of the former Elks Club building -- now Quaker Meeting -- is next door to the police station, though it's rare that the program has to call the cops. (That's probably because everybody knows the police station is next door.)

Though Pride is listed as one of Christianity's Seven Deadly Sins, our team -- Christians, atheists, agnostics, college students, non-Christians of This and That sort -- takes gentle but overweaning Pride (and even competition) in cooking up the best damn chow in the program.

Looking at it from a contrary theological viewpoint: Is Bland, Uninteresting, Boring Food some kind of Virtue, or a reflection of Virtue?

For our team's last dinner, I was assigned to bake sweet potatoes to go with a Thanksgiving-style turkey dinner. The sweet potatoes were delicious, but to our surprise, were received unenthusiastically. So now I got a whomp-ass Baggie of sweet potato leftovers in the fridge.

This winter appeared to me to be a pretty uneventful (and thus pretty successful) shelter season.

That may be the Calm Before the Storm. Until recently, our guests have been The Usual Suspects -- people in criminal trouble (Northampton is the courthouse and jail town), military veterans (we have a small Veterans Administration hospital in town), alcoholics, addicts, undertreated chronic psychiatric sufferers.

I don't have to be Nostradamus to foretell that, when the shelter opens next Halloween (31 October), a new wave of guests whose troubles are largely financial will be among those lined up at the door each night around 5:30.

(The newspaper comic strip Doonesbury is running a thread about this now -- Old Traditional Homeless in conflict, competition and tension with New Unemployed Homeless.)

Most of our Old Traditional Guests already have 2 or 3 jobs -- badly-paying jobs, so they can't assemble the downpayment for a rental apartment.

If the traditional causes for bringing us our guests stay constant, next season should see a sudden surge in demand for our 22 beds, with people referred to other area shelters -- which will also be experiencing a surge in demand. Some will simply be turned away if there's no room at any other shelter.

SPECIAL MENTION this winter to the town of Amherst, 15 miles to the east, for using $30,000 of government grant money for taxi rides to send their homeless (Amherst has no shelter) to our shelter. They re-thought this Solution after a small but loud public outcry.

When the winter temperature drops to dangerous levels, our Fire Department usually turns the other way and lets us sleep extra guests on the sofas and chairs. Ultimately, it's all about nobody dying from sleeping outdoors at 20F = -7C .

This happens anyway hereabouts once or twice each winter, because some psychiatric sufferers are terrified of the shelter, and take their chances on the streets or in the woods or by the railroad tracks. Sometimes they get lucky and find an unlocked door to a heated building.

From the start, the winter shelter has been a life-and-death deal. Death cometh eventually to us all, but it hovers much more closely and perceivably over the homeless during the brutal New England winter.

After May Day, many guests will set up tents on a long sandbar island in the Connecticut River, reachable only by canoe, or by wading/swimming, and spend the Spring and Summer on the island. Historically the island has had little violent crime.

Nostradamus cannot yet see clearly whether Earth is careening toward a harsh and lingering Recession, or whether it is plummeting into a downright Great Depression -- the 1930s, but with iPods and cellphones and a few laptops, maybe a little free Wi-Fi.

Already the political battle lines are clearly drawn exactly as they were by 1932 when the Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to replace the incumbent Republican Herbert Hoover.

Conservatives claim that the quickest, surest and least damaging economic recovery will happen naturally if Government does nothing to interfere with the natural workings of the Free Market.

Liberals/Progressives believe the Free Market, by its own greed, corruption and folly, has already collapsed and is paralyzed and moribund, far too weak to heal itself. Only Government has the resources to kick-start the capitalist economy, and cushion the unemployed and most vulnerable people from the worst punishments of a collapsed Free Market.

Have I expressed this ancient controversy fairly enough (Vleeptron always aspires to be Fair And Balanced) so you can guess which side I feel is correct, and which side is totally and dangerously whack, idiotic, and historically doomed?

Since before the November 2008 presidential election, Fox News (Murdoch) has had a shrill non-stop campaign portraying Obama and the legislative majority Democratic Party as Secret Socialists who intend to destroy the Capitalist economic system in America.

Well, Hard Times are here again, and all over the world, a lot of people -- children among them -- are going to be badly punished, whether John Maynard Keynes was right or whether Milton Friedman was right.

No one can prevent the suffering to come.

But we can minimize the worst damage by coming together as Community.

A major goal the Community can set clearly for itself now is to resolve to get through the Hard Times in ways we can be proud of -- rather than have to look back on the Hard Times and be ashamed of what we didn't do and what we permitted to happen to our children and our most vulnerable neighbors.

In a world where millions are rapidly losing their Illusion of Control over their lives, coming together as Community, as neighbors who give and do what they can for each other, is the only true and realistic kind of Control we shall have for the next year or the next few years.

Above, another newspaper comic strip's portrayal of professional economists, and their expert scientific grasp of the Present and the Future of the global economic crisis.

In general, economists who, in Boom Times, predict infinite economic growth, profit, and Boomier Times that will Never Stop get paid a lot more than economists who warn that the bubble is about to burst, and dire things lie ahead for the economy.

I pay more to people who tell me I'm talented and handsome than to people who tell me I'm stupid, ugly, and smell bad.

As was in 1929, nobody (whom anybody paid any attention to) Saw This Coming.

As a young man, my father had just begun earning good money and, with his workplace pals, enthusiastically tossed every penny he had into the Booming Stock Market. He was wiped out overnight, and struggled through a terrible Great Depression. Eventually the economy recovered, and my father prospered again, but he never bought another share of stock in his life. To the end of his days, he was convinced Wall Street was a combination whorehouse, clown circus, and den of liars and thieves.

~ ~ ~

Hi everybody --

Thank you all for another very successful and very important Shelter season.
It's all about our Guests, safe and warm shelter, a hearty dinner, neighbors breaking bread together, and help toward housing and better situations.

But it's a huge pleasure and privilege to serve with this team. Thank you all so very much.

Bob Merkin

No comments: