The Intermittent Volunteer’s Weblog

Befriending People in Dallas Who Are Homeless

Coercion or Cooperation? January 10, 2012

Monday, January 9, 2012

Coercion or Cooperation?

Pine Street Inn in Boston, Massachusetts, New England’s largest resource for homeless men and women, sends Outreach vans onto the city’s streets 365 nights per year — in the cold, snow and rain — offering homeless men and women help in the form of warm blankets, hot meals, clean clothes and transportation to shelter.  The journal below allows us to follow a van on one night’s journey and details some of the experiences of the shelter’s outreach volunteers.

Imagine just for a moment that you are one of the homeless women or men described in the article.  As you read, ask yourself whether you would respond better to the approach used by Pine Street — one of respect and trust building — or to the methods used by many other cities, which often includes this choice:  “Do you want to go to a shelter or go to jail?”  KS

 

 

One Night’s Journey

December 2011

Have you ever wondered what happens to Boston’s homeless men and women on cold winter nights?



Every night, Pine Street Inn’s Outreach vans head out, loaded with warm blankets, hot meals and clean clothes, offering rides to shelter. Through the cold and snow, the Outreach teams crisscross the city from 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., serving people in need.

Here are just a few of the situations that Outreach counselors Nelson, Vincent and Maggie encounter during one night on the vans.

10:05 p.m., Financial District

Outreach counselors find two homeless women in their 60s, Susan and Annie, huddled together in an alley. Susan was assaulted the previous night, and Annie is determined to stay by her side “to protect her.” Maggie offers the women hot soup and a sandwich. She listens as they tell their story, but senses that it will take time to build their trust before they will accept a ride to the shelter. Reluctantly, the Outreach team moves on, but they will check on Susan and Annie again tomorrow.

1:30 a.m., Washington Crossing

Outside a coffee shop, the Outreach team finds Donald, whom they have encouraged to go to shelter before. Tonight, he accepts a ride to Pine Street. On the way, Donald tells the counselors that he has been sick. By the time the van arrives at Pine Street, Vincent has arranged for Donald to see a doctor the next morning.

3:45 a.m., Boston Common

It’s cold and raining when Nelson spots a light coming from under a bridge. There, Nelson finds James, who is trying to stay dry. Nelson has known James for three months and is slowly trying to build his trust and convince him to spend the night at Pine Street. James has not been ready in the past, but tonight when Nelson asks if he’d like a ride to the shelter, James says “yes.”

A warm bed and a hot meal were his first steps on the road to a better life. Today – with the help of Pine Street – James has a full-time job and is living in his own apartment.

5:00 a.m., Pine Street Inn

The outreach vans return to Pine Street and the counselors meet to talk about the individuals they spoke with the night before and prepare for the next night’s journey.

Video link: “Human Dignity is Paramount:

http://www.pinestreetinn.org/about_history.php

http://www.pinestreetinn.org/



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Should We House Homeless Alcoholics…? January 3, 2012

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

 

Should We House Homeless Alcoholics or Make Them Get Sober First?

 

People will doubtless have strong — and differing — opinions about this, but I’ll offer this observation:  the traditional approach of making homeless alcoholics and drug addicts get clean and sober before they qualify for housing has left a large percentage of them still on the street.  The Housing First approach described in this article has some very favorable statistics in its favor.

 

Is it better, if someone is going to die of their addiction, for them to die cold and alone outdoors?  Maybe if they don’t have the ‘moral courage’ to get clean, this is what they deserve.    This Associated Press article considers some differing perspectives.  What do you think?  KS

 

http://enews.earthlink.net/article/top?guid=20120103/243cdd6f-7af9-4a07-aef4-bfe5d271fa78

 

 

Medicine That Matters October 13, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

 

Medicine That Matters

by Karen Shafer

“The Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program’s mission is to provide or assure access to the highest quality health care for all homeless men, women and children in the greater Boston area.”

The lobby of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program at Jean Yawkey Place, with Deshawn Parris, Security Officer, and Shirley Berard, Administrative Assistant

Jean Yawkey Place 

In the summer of 2011, while touring the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, I stepped off the third-floor elevator into Barbara McInnis House, looked around, and began to cry, (and I’m pretty sure it was what Oprah refers to as “the ugly cry”.)  Those accompanying me — my daughter, two of my grandchildren, and our tour guide, Manager of Volunteer Services Carrie Eldridge-Dickson — at first looked at me in surprise.  After all, we were viewing a beautiful, pristine environment decorated in pastels — a state-of-the-art facility which provides “medical respite care”, short-term medical and recuperative services, for homeless men and women in Boston, Massachusetts.  I felt as if I’d stepped into an ideal world.

 

My companions’ surprise turned quickly to understanding.  They shared the comprehension that my tears were in part joyful at what has been accomplished there, but that they also conveyed frustration at how few of our homeless brothers and sisters will ever experience the level of loving and dignified care expressed in the atmosphere surrounding us at that moment.

 

The 104-bed Barbara McInnis House is a medical respite care facility spread throughout three floors of Jean Yawkey Place, Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program’s central facility which opened in May of 2008.  The building also houses a primary care walk-in clinic with ten exam rooms and four meeting rooms for mental health care, a dental clinic with five operatories, a pharmacy, office space for “street” and “family” outreach teams, and the organization’s administrative offices.

 

Barbara McInnis House provides 24-hour care for homeless men and women who are too sick for life on the streets or in shelters but not sick enough to occupy acute care rooms in area hospitals.  It has a dining room that serves patients three nutritious meals a day, and a large common area and outdoor patio — all under one roof.

 

The cellar-to-roof renovation of this former city morgue and forensic research facility now addresses the unique medical needs of the city’s homeless men and women.  It was made possible through the combined generosity of private, foundation and corporate donors.  BHCHP raised $42,000,000 in the organization’s only capital campaign in its 26-year history.

 

Model of Care

Jean Yawkey Place sets the stage for the model of ‘integrated care’ practiced at BHCHP.  The organization’s web site, www.BHCHP.org, describes the complex challenge of tackling health care among the vulnerable homeless population.

“Many homeless patients struggle with at least one substance abuse problem, at least one chronic physical condition and a psychiatric illness. Each condition is often preventable and manageable… on its own. But, in combination and left untreated, such health problems become compounded and all too often fatal. Medicine, in general, and homeless medicine, in particular, have long grappled with addressing these interconnected aspects of a patient’s healthcare in a coordinated way. In the traditional care model, behavioral health care and medical care operate independently.

The integrated care model at BHCHP unites physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, case managers and behavioral health professionals in a close collaboration. They follow patients together and separately in a variety of settings: on the street, at Barbara McInnis House, in outpatient clinics and, as needed, in shelter or housing.

A patient can move from street to clinic to hospital to respite care to shelter to housing, having easy and regular contact with at least one member of the medical team so that serious medical and behavioral diagnoses receive integrated attention.”

No homeless person is refused treatment at BHCHP.  The professional staff provides medical treatment to homeless men, women and children at eighty locations across the city — in adult and family shelters; in two hospital-based clinics; in emergency, transitional and permanent-supportive housing; and through home visits to formerly long-term homeless patients who are now housed through the Housing First initiatives in Boston.  They also provide care on the street, in alleyways and under bridges to those “rough sleepers” who avoid shelters.

 

BHCHP’s Beginnings

How does such an impressive result come to be?  An article from the American Journal of Public Health entitled “The Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program: A Public Health Framework” talks about its beginnings.  (O’Connell, Oppenheimer, Judge, Taube, Blanchfield, Swain, Koh: August, 2010)

 

In 1984, a community coalition consisting of eighty people representing shelters, homeless service providers, community health centers, nursing and medical schools, state and city governments, homeless persons, and advocacy groups was convened by Boston mayor Raymond Flynn and Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.  An extensive community needs assessment to identify gaps in existing health care services was then conducted.

 

Initial funding for the program came through a pilot grant of $300,000 annually for four years from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts, subsequently matched by an additional $250,000 annually from the state of Massachusetts.

 

City wide cooperation and ‘buy in’ strikes me right away as a predictor of the program’s probable success, and, in particular, the inclusion of homeless people and their advocates in the planning.  All too often, critical issues of how service is to be conceived and delivered to the homeless community is decided by committees comprised of those who have never experienced homelessness, without ‘grass roots’ input.  Such a comprehensive network early on hopefully precludes the ‘fiefdom’ approach of non profit organizations that can occur in cities, resulting in duplication of services and competition for funding.

 

The Mission of BHCHP

“To provide or assure access to the highest quality health care for all homeless men, women and children in the greater Boston area.”

When the program began offering clinical services in 1985 with a staff of seven, these things stand out in terms of its mission:

“The coalition insisted that health care be embraced as a matter of social justice rather than charity, and they defined the program’s mission to ensure that the highest-quality health care would be available to all homeless men, women, and children in Boston.” (O’Connell, et al)

It also viewed  itself as a viable professional career for health professionals rather than as a volunteer opportunity and hoped to ensure thereby continuity of top-tier, accessible health care for homeless men, women and children.  This seems a radically positive, innovative notion, and would seem to insure that, by having physicians and other health care providers as salaried employees of BHCHP, not only would availability of health care be assured, but vital relationships of trust could be built between provider and patient, leading to ‘continuity of care.’

 

What is meant by ‘continuity of care’?

1.  Continuity of care from street and shelter to hospital requires an enduring and trusting relationship between the doctor or clinician and patient.

2.  Multidisciplinary teams should deliver care.

3.  BHCHP should act as a catalyst within the mainstream health care system to ensure that the special needs of homeless persons are addressed.

4.  BHCHP should serve as the “glue” linking hospitals and health centers with the community of shelters and homeless service providers.

5.  BHCHP should strive to bridge medicine and public health.

6.  BHCHP should create and implement ‘respite care.’  [now existing as Barbara McInnis House]  (O’Connell, et al)

It is also significant that BHCHP is located near two teaching hospitals, Massachusetts General and Boston Medical Center.  BHCHP has walk-in clinics on the campuses of both facilities.  Colleges and universities are now educating healthcare providers in increased sensitivity to the particular needs of various ethnic and social groups.  This is especially important as the homeless population is one which requires special care in building trust and relationships, both because of possible health issues such as mental illness or addiction, and because attitudes toward homeless people in society as a whole tend at times to be negative, and opportunities for rejection abound.

 

Who Deserves Compassionate Care?

One only has to read the comments section of newspaper articles on homelessness — where homeless people are frequently referred to as ‘bums’ or in other derogatory language — to understand the negativity which can be directed at people living on the street.  This attitude in the public at large may be a more powerful determinant of the quality and scope of the health care offered to the homeless population than one thinks.  For example, some nonprofit organizations seeking to provide health care to those living in poverty may be hesitant to include homeless individuals within their scope — even when they believe they are deserving and needful of help — because they may feel that the ‘homeless’ label will impede funding efforts.

 

So, at the heart of the mission of any program offering health care to those living in poverty must be the consideration of this question:  Are people experiencing homelessness deserving of compassionate care?  Whether or not to include homeless healthcare in programs may in part be a matter of conscience, where non profit leaders either bend to public pressure and opinion, or stand firm in the moral commitment to treat all human beings as equally deserving of inclusion in a community of care.

 

The decision at the outset by the founders of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program to emphatically declare that individuals who are homeless are entitled to and would be provided with top tier, continuous and compassionate health care, provided in an integrated model by on-staff medical and clinical professionals, and with the assumption of the inherent worthiness of each patient to receive such care, regardless of circumstance, represents a rare commitment, but one that seems to have been met there in an extraordinarily successful manner.

 

Toward the end of our tour of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, my family and I were fortunate to have a chance meeting with Dr. James O’Connell, a founding physician of the program and currently its president.  When we told him how moved we were by the beauty of the facility and the range and depth of its proffered services, he said, “Remember, it hasn’t always been like this!  It took us a while to get here.”

 

The success of the program says a great deal about an inspired vision; about the wisdom of its founders and their careful planning; about a limitless amount of dedicated work and commitment; and also, not to be underestimated, about the political and moral will of a public which supports and undergirds the idea that those who at this moment live in society’s shadows are nonetheless deserving of its best.

 

BHCHP Overview

~~ BHCHP has operated in the black for all of its 26 years and has brought medicine that matters to tens of thousands of homeless men, women and children.

~~ BHCHP employs close to 300 doctors, dentists, physician assistants, registered nurses, nurse practitioners, psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health case workers, chefs, building and maintenance staff, substance abuse counselors, case managers and dental assistants.

~~ BHCHP delivers health care to over 11,000 patients each year.

~~ BHCHP manages the medical care throughout greater Boston’s adult and family shelter system, in two hospital based clinics and at over 80 sites throughout greater Boston.

~~ Over its 26 year history BHCHP has developed a care model that makes it a leader in urban medicine throughout the world…compassionate, professional care from a full-time staff…immeasurable savings in both dignity and dollars.

Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program: www.BHCHP.org

 

Special thanks to Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, in particular Tom McCormack andVicki Ritterband for editing, and Carrie Eldridge-Dickson;  and to Nancy Johnson, Master’s of Science Candidate with a focus on Community Health, for access to journal articles and for thoughtful discussions of and insights into public health policy.


 

This article appears in the October, 2011 issue of Street Zine, which is available from licensed street vendors across Dallas.

 

Off the Wagon: Max Revisited August 29, 2011

Monday, August 29, 2011

 

“Abandon yourself entirely to God’s guidance.  Do not hesitate or be frightened.”

~~  Mother Teresa

Friends who read this blog have told me that the posts they like best are those that tell about the lives of people living on the street.  In that spirit, here’s an entry from my journal from 2009.  Prior to this encounter, Max was in recovery from an addiction, had a sponsor and was attending Twelve-Step meetings.

 

Journal Archives  

Sunday, February 22, 2009

 

Off the Wagon:  Max Revisited

Sitting on my patio this afternoon drinking a cup of tea in this beautiful weather, I thought about my friend, Max, and tears stung my eyes.  Everywhere I looked around the garden I saw his smiling face and bright blue eyes: in the fresh, green Vinca springing up by the gravel path, in the last of the rusty leaves still clinging to the Red Oak tree by the fence.

 

It’s funny:  you may not think about a person every day, but there’s a notch somewhere in your gut that fits neatly into place when you know they’re doing well, and that comes unhinged when they’re not.

 

There are joys without number in knowing and loving people who live on the street, but this is one of the costs.  Once you know, you can’t ‘not know’, and their troubles visit you even in the most peaceful moments.  On the other hand, the depth of their suffering, and sharing it with them, carves out a place in yourself where their loving spirits reside, and that is a gift beyond measure that also stays with you.

 

One day this week, I was crossing a downtown street with a friend and heard a voice calling out, “Hey, Mama!” in my direction.  It was Max, who grabbed me in a bear hug as I stepped up onto the curb and planted his characteristic kiss on my cheek, complete with the “Mmmm,MMM!” sound that people make when we kiss someone we haven’t seen in a while.  I hadn’t seen Max in about a month, and I almost didn’t recognize him from our most recent encounter.  This day, he was unshaven and disheveled, a different Max than I’d last seen, ‘spit-shined and polished’, as they say, with a new buzzed haircut of which he was proud.

 

“How’re you doing?” I asked him.  “Well, not so good,” he confessed, “I’ve slipped a little bit.  I’m having some trouble.”  I knew what he meant.  He’d been struggling with and — when last I saw him — succeeding in kicking his addition to crack cocaine.  At that time, he’d been more than three months ‘clean’ — not an easy thing when you’re on the street, because those who are willing to facilitate your return to your old life greet you out there at every turn, when you don’t have a door you can close to get away from them, clear your head and make a ‘right’ choice for yourself.

 

What I said to him was, “I’m so, so sorry about this.”  There is absolutely no point in a ‘tsk, tsk.’  For starters, like every other human being, I make bad decisions on a daily basis.  However, gratefully, I have the peace and quiet of a home within which to consider my options.

 

Also, I know well that the person who will be hardest on Max in this case is certain to be himself.  I have rarely met a person living on the street who falls back into an addiction and does anything other than take responsibility for it and heap blame and guilt on their own shoulders.  “I’m working to get back on track,” he told me.  “Max, I know you can do it, and I’ll be praying that you do.”  “Love you, Mama.”  “Love you, Max.”  We parted.

 

Max had been sleeping in The Bridge Homeless Assistance Center courtyard before it closed for sleeping December 1, 2008, and was one of the lucky ones who got into a shelter.  As long as he’s been sober, he’s been talking about securing a place in a drug rehabilitation program in Houston.

 

The sheer guts that it takes for a former addict to stay clean and sober for four months while spending his or her days on the streets of a big city is a lot more guts than most of us have.  Shelters put people outside around 6 A.M. and reopen for business around four in the afternoon, and this man works past the afternoon cut off.

 

Yet Max did it.  And I pray he can do it again.

 

KS

 

 

Mayoral Forum Held at The Stewpot April 16, 2011

Saturday, April 16, 2010


Mayoral Forum Held at The Stewpot This Week


The Stewpot of First Presbyterian Church, Dallas, held a mayoral forum Thursday, April 14, 2011 to give Dallas Mayoral candidates an opportunity to address questions regarding the concerns and well-being of Dallas homeless citizens.  Present at the event were vendors of the homeless newspaper Street Zine (published by The Stewpot), Stewpot and Crossroads Community Services staff, Bridge Homeless Assistance Center staff and homeless advocates.  The forum was organized by Street Zine Editor, Pat Spradley and other Stewpot staffers, and the candidates were invited to the event by homeless advocate Clare Nilson.

Panelists were former Dallas Police Chief, David Kunkle, and former Homeless Czar, Mike Rawlings. Candidates Ron Natinsky and Edward Okpa were invited but unable to attend.

The questions ranged from their support of sales of the homeless newspaper published by The Stewpot, Street Zine and the needs of homeless citizens generally, to questions about the Bridge Homeless Assistance Center, and specifics regarding the candidates’ opinions of so-called Quality of Life ordinances, passed by Dallas and other cities to limit the presence and movements of homeless citizens in public places.  Those attending learned about the opinions of the men regarding homelessness and a little of their personalities as well.

Everyone involved in the event is appreciative that the two candidates took time to attend and offer their perspectives on the important issues facing those experiencing homelessness in our city.  Much gratitude as well goes to Ms. Spradley, Ms. Nilson and the Rev. Dr. Bruce Buchanan, Executive Director of The Stewpot, as well as Stewpot staff, for hosting this event.

KS

Check the Street Zine Facebook page next week for an update on this important and informational event and see some pictures as well at :

www.facebook.com/pages/Street-Zine/157413954313713?sk=wall

 

Generic Ministry Cares for Boston Homeless in All Weather March 1, 2011

 

‘Generic Ministry’ cares for Boston homeless in all weather

by Karen Shafer, February 10, 2011


The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.” -Hubert Humphrey, 1977


The Boston area has been slammed by an unusually large amount of snow this winter, even by New England standards — six snowstorms in a month — but that does not stop John Mark, Judi, Mick, Robert, Scott and the dedicated volunteers of Generic Ministry in the small town Needham, Massachusetts from hitting the streets of downtown Boston every Tuesday and Wednesday night to care for those who are homeless.  During a visit to my family in January, 2011, it was my privilege to ride along with this dedicated group for two nights in the midst of the some of Boston’s most extreme weather in years, and to learn a little bit about the situation for our homeless brothers and sisters in the Boston area.  Although Boston provides an adequate number of shelter beds for its homeless population, there are always people in any city who are ‘shelter resistant’ — unable or unwilling to cope with going into shelters, often due to mental illness and its ramifications.

 

The Generic Ministry van is equipped with shelves of warm clothing organized by size and type, with hanging racks of winter-worthy coats, with bins of socks, underwear and hygiene products, and with military surplus blankets, all of which are stocked and sorted twice weekly by a ‘behind-the-scenes crew’ made up of Robert (who also coordinates all contacts), Rick, and Scott, and by Martha, who finds online deals for the toiletries.  Sandwiches made by school children in Needham and adjacent towns are available, as are bottled water, juice, chips and desserts.

 

John Mark loads the van on a cold January night

 

Street feeding is not prohibited in Boston as it currently is in Dallas, and requires no registration or permit, but I was still surprised the first night when we pulled up right on the busy street next to the sidewalk across from Boston Common and opened up the van for the distribution of food and clothing.  The food giveaway is run by volunteers who themselves are formerly homeless, and they were waiting for us in front of a popular hamburger restaurant when we arrived.  Immediately about thirty people came out of nowhere and formed a line behind the truck to request warm clothing, while traffic on the busy street patiently drove around us.  Generic Ministry volunteer Mick filled orders for specific clothing items and sizes from inside the van.  Short a worker for manning the food line, Anthony and James, who head up the formerly-homeless volunteers, put me to work distributing food from a table on the sidewalk, although we had to search for a path through the snow bank, which was about waist high.  (By the time I left the area a week later, the snow banks were higher than your head!)

 

After everyone had been served, the remaining sandwiches, chips, desserts and bottled water were given to the formerly-homeless volunteers to distribute among people who sleep in train stations, doorways, alleyways, and on church steps throughout the city.  At this point there was ample time for visiting and street counseling.  The Generic Ministry volunteers have warm and mutually-respectful relationships with their street friends and seem to know them well.  They hand out cards printed with information about shelters, emergency services,  medical care and rehabilitation, but their service goes way beyond this.  If someone is in need of transportation to a shelter or the emergency room (there are three major hospitals in the area), they will transport them in their van — or call 911 if appropriate, and they keep track of the situations and challenges of individuals from week to week.

 

One of the people I’ll always remember from that first night is Harry.  He had brought with him a beautiful spiral bound notebook tied with ribbons, and I saw him ask John Mark for his signature.  It turns out he was collecting autographs in celebration of the life of Sargent Shriver and his advocacy for those living in poverty and with disabilities.  Then he pulled a twenty dollar bill from his pocket and gave it to John Mark as a donation for the ministry.

 

The next night, as we made the ministry’s usual stops around downtown Boston, Harry met us again at one of the locations to help out.  I was sitting in the front seat of the van with the door open, and he came up to say ‘hi’.  He was so cold that his teeth were chattering and he was shivering, as the temperature edged in the direction of zero for the second night in a row, but his dedication is such that he had gotten a ride from the halfway house where he lives in a small town outside of Boston to come and aid the ministry.  I offered him a blanket to wrap around himself, but he laughed as he declined it — “Oh, I’m not homeless!” he said.  John Mark later told me that Harry had collected clothing for his homeless brothers and sisters in the past and gotten a ride for the half-hour trip to the ministry headquarters to deliver it in person.

 

A highlight of the Wednesday night outing was a visit to the Pilgrim Church Homeless Shelter in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a neighborhood of Boston, where Generic Ministry delivers desserts weekly.  The shelter operates without guards, metal detectors or policing of any kind, except for the self-policing done by those who stay there, despite the fact that Pilgrim Center takes in men who have been banned from other area shelters.  Out of respect for those who were already bedded down for the night and those who were waiting in line to get in, I walked through quickly, but the order and calm of the shelter space — a church sanctuary with the pews removed — made a deep impression on me.

 

Later, outside on the snow-covered parking lot, I was introduced to the church’s pastor, The Rev. Mr. John Odams, and I asked him how the shelter works so well without guards.  “We used to have a policeman on duty, but he didn’t have anything to do,” he told me.  “I’m not sure why it works.  Maybe it’s because it’s more an atmosphere of a home than a shelter.”  A large number of those who stay at Pilgrim Shelter have aged out of foster care, not having been adopted by the age of eighteen, so the shelter is run under the direction of the United Homes Adult Services division of Children’s Services of Roxbury.

 

Keeping an eye on the weather, we left Dorchester and drove into downtown Boston.  An emergency weather declaration had been issued for Boston that night — with the expectation of a winter gale predicted for 9 P.M. and slated to bring at least an additional eight inches of snow on top of the approximately four feet that had already fallen this winter — which means any car blocking roads or impeding snowplows can be towed by the city at the owner’s expense.  As we drove around downtown, emergency vehicles were busy removing cars that had been left parked in order to make way for snow plows and sanding trucks.  Despite the amount of snow that had fallen in the last several weeks, the streets of downtown were clear of snow, having been plowed and sanded aggressively in preparation for the next round that night.

 

The ministry know the whereabouts of a number of individuals and groups who ‘sleep rough’ in the downtown area and makes about a dozen stops on its Wednesday night rounds.  In front of a downtown Seven-Eleven, we saw one of their ‘regulars’ — Sammy — sitting hunched over on a low windowsill.  Judi got out to check on him, while we pulled over by a snow bank and parked the van next to the sidewalk in the valet area of an elegant-looking restaurant.  I was surprised that no one asked us to move, though there were a number police cars cruising the area, as the streets were still actively being cleared of parked cars.  Judi came back to the van with the message that Sammy had a leg injury and wanted to go inside somewhere for the night, so together she and John Mark helped him into the van.  It had seemed at first that Sammy was willing to go into Pine Street Inn, a major Boston shelter, or to the hospital, but en route to the shelter he made the decision to go back to his camp in the back of a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority train station, so we took him there, and Judi and John Mark helped him limp inside.

 

Sammy had left Barbara McInnis House (which provides respite medical care for homeless men and women) against medical advice that same week, and, on our way to his camp, he and Judi discussed his plan for re-admittance.  I was struck again by the nonjudgmental and respectful-yet-realistic approach that Judi took with him, acknowledging his rights as an individual to make choices — good or bad — yet encouraging in a calm and supportive way the healthy choice of rehabilitation and medical care.  It is because of this non-patronizing approach that Generic Ministry — called ‘earth people’ by their homeless friends — has the trust and confidence of this extremely wary, at-risk population.

 

At one point we parked in a cab stand, and the cabbies waited patiently in line behind us as a small group of people lined up for clothing, blankets and sandwiches and we visited with them.  A prosperous-looking man walked by and stopped to watch what we were doing.  He looked at the ‘Generic Ministry’ name on the side of the van and nodded:  “I like it,” he said.

 

Mick & John Mark making the rounds after a snowstorm

As we continued our rounds, including a visit to another MBTA station encampment, I expressed my surprise that people are allowed to seek out and create their own shelter in the downtown Boston area, considering the restrictions on homeless people in Dallas and other cities and the amount of resources that many cities spend on policing to keep them off the street.  Here is a conversation from a Boston Herald article which seems to sum up the city’s approach towards it homeless citizens.  The article covers a high-profile homeless woman who refused to go indoors for this cold snap, saying she could handle this level of cold.

 

Homeless woman shuns shelter as temps turn deadly

By Christine McConville / The Pulse / Tuesday, January 25, 2011

http://bostonherald.com/news/regional/view.bg?articleid=1311794

“I’m not that cold,” she said, as she showcased her seven layers of clothing. “I can handle it.”Not possible, Boston police Superintendent in Chief Daniel Linskey told the Pulse. While police can’t force people off the streets, he said, he doubts the wisdom of testing the elements.  “This cold is a different type of cold. It’s lethal. You can have negative effects just being exposed to the elements for a few minutes,” Linskey said.

This weekend, the city ordered evening shelters to remain open during the day and relaxed requirements for other, sober-only facilities. There’s the obvious threat of frostbite and hypothermia, said Dr. James O’Connell, who provides medical care for Boston’s many homeless.  And in extreme weather conditions, chronic medical conditions can really tax the body, he said.  “There’s nothing good about staying outside in this,” he said.

Each year in Boston, one or two people die from the extreme cold, he said, numbers kept down by active campaigns to get people into shelters….

No one can force [the woman] indoors.  “It’s a tricky situation,” O’Connell said. “People have the right to live their life the way they want.”

Linskey agreed.  “If someone can show us their sleeping bag and a heat source, and they are lucid and have the method and manner to survive the cold weather, we would allow them that option, if what they are doing is legal,” Linskey said. “If they’re drunk or in harm, we can put them in protective custody, but mainly, we’re just looking for them to go to the shelter.”

Yesterday, the city’s push appeared to be largely working. The Pine Street Inn was setting up extra cots to accommodate the overflow crowd, shelter spokesman Barbara Trevisan said.

O’Connell said he’s seeing some patients indoors for the first time.  “There’s an elderly man in his mid 70s, and this weekend was the first time in 26 years I’ve seen him sleep in a bed, rather than a sidewalk,” he said. “With the bitter cold and all the snow, even though he struggles to be around other people, he realized it’s better to be inside.”


This article seems to represent a fundamentally different view of homeless issues and civil rights than what we are accustomed to seeing in many cities, and certainly in Dallas.  Perhaps it can be classified as ‘non-criminalization’.  One often hears about the ‘rights of individuals’, but this so often means that the rights of those who have financial means supersedes the rights of those who do not:  property owners, business owners and organizations of those who are housed are more likely to be heard than those who are disenfranchised and have nothing.

 

At our last stop, a small tent camp on Boston Harbor that had been in the news because of the city’s efforts to persuade people living there to come inside during the extreme cold, Judi and John Mark delivered some supplies to the campers on foot.  Then, as we began the drive home, we looked up at the Boston skyline, which was just beginning to be shrouded in a mist of snow.  “It’s here,” said John Mark, of the impending snowstorm.  It was making its appearance just over an hour past its predicted start time and had thankfully given us a grace period to complete our rounds.  By the time we reached my family’s house about twenty minutes away, the footprints that we’d left on the driveway just a few hours earlier were completely obscured by the steadily falling snow.

 

Generic Ministry, Needham, Massachusetts

www.genericministry.org

Pilgrim Church Homeless Shelter, Dorchester, Massachusetts

http://www.pilgrimchurch1862.org/ministrytothehomeless/pilgrimhomelessshelter.html

Pine Street Inn, Boston, Massachusetts

http://www.pinestreetinn.org/

Barbara McInnis House, Boston, Massachusetts

http://www.bhchp.org/specializedservices.htmhttp://www.bhchp.org/pdf/BMHBrochure-JYP.pdf

This article appeared in the March, 2011 issue of Street Zine. http://www.thestewpot.org/sz.asp


 

Empty Streets December 14, 2010

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Empty Streets


Last night I realized that this is the first year in many that I haven’t given away my winter coat, hat and gloves to someone living on the street.  However, lest this admission be seen as my attempt to cast myself as St. Karen for past impulsive generosity — the same sort of thing I’ve often seen other advocates do — I’ll quickly add that this year’s new self-care feels good.  I ordered a good wool coat from a catalog in early fall and am wearing it right now — indoors, sitting in a cafe.  And I fully intend to keep it with me until spring.

However, if I were inclined to drive around in downtown Dallas, as I’ve done for the past seven winters, and look for people who are out on the street and in need of warm clothing in order to give them something to wear or a blanket, I’d be hard put to find them.  The streets of our fair city are pristine these days late at night — free from those in need or want and, for that matter, of everyone else.

Last week I attended a lecture near downtown that ended around 10 P.M., so I drove through the central business district afterward — past The Stewpot, past The Bridge, past Austin Street Shelter.  It was cold, but not bitter, so there was no one waiting on the sidewalk outside The Bridge for ‘overflow’ to go into effect due to cold weather policy, and I saw only two people, walking quickly, on the streets.  At Austin Street last winter in my ’rounds’, I always found between five and twenty people sleeping either on the sidewalk or in the parking lots adjacent to the shelter.  But this year all of those areas are fenced in, and there was nary a backpack, sleeping bag or plastic-grocery-sack suitcase to be found.

I’d like to think this is a result of the unstinting efforts of homeless service providers and advocates to solve the problem of homelessness in Dallas — that we are a glistening city, a beacon on a hill, because there are no longer any homeless people in the downtown area.  But, as the newly-strengthened panhandling ordinances passed by the Dallas City Council show us, we are still, in Dallas, extremely concerned about the appearance of things, and I think the empty streets are much more likely to be a result of policing.  Our unhoused brothers and sisters are still with us.  They just don’t dare show themselves on the streets of downtown at night.

I’ve written about this in the past, so I won’t repeat my thoughts here.

http://www.pegasusnews.com/news/2010/feb/22/dallas-homeless-sweeps-are-counterproductive/

http://www.pegasusnews.com/news/2010/jul/13/dallas-be-great-city-must-we-all-look-alike/

But, like many others, I’m concerned that the creation of new ‘solicitation-free zones’ in the expanded ordinance has at its heart a deeper purpose than the desire to protect the middle class and the tourist who are visiting downtown from aggressive and ‘vewy scawey’ panhandling homeless people, and I worry about its application in practice.

http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/localnews/tv/stories/DN-panhandle_11met.ART.State.Edition1.27fee36.html

Here’s a quote from the Dallas Morning News article above:

“Bradley Kizzia, an attorney for Groden, said he is concerned the ordinance is written so broadly that the city could use it to crack down anytime on people like his client.

Groden was arrested in June for selling conspiracy theory merchandise in Dealey Plaza without authorization. He has sued the city, arguing his free speech rights were infringed.

“Nowhere in the [amended ordinance] does it even mention begging or panhandling. Rather, the ordinance is specifically aimed at ‘solicitation,’ which is broadly defined. I’m suspicious of the city’s intent and how the Dallas Police Department will be asked to apply the ordinance,” Kizzia wrote in a recent e-mail.

Kizzia said the ordinance appears to be tied to the Super Bowl and could be used to round up any number of people the city doesn’t want on the streets.

“The language of the ordinance’s prohibition on ‘solicitation’ is not aimed only at aggressive, coercive, or threatening conduct. Watch it be used against the likes of street musicians in the West End (who leave open their instrument cases for tips) and street preachers who accept donations,” he wrote.

First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers said the ordinance is targeted to panhandlers who work the streets for handouts.”

How will such a broadly written ordinance be interpreted by city officials, and how will it play out to those trying to survive on the streets?  It remains to be seen.

I can’t help feeling, as I reflect on the last seven years during which homelessness in Dallas has been an issue to which I’ve paid attention:  we just don’t get it in Dallas, and we never will.

KS