Thursday, July 12, 2007

Homeless man loses bid for injunction to keep shelter open

Well-- a straight-sounding headline-- but I hardly feel objective about what happened in Housing Court today.

Ali Mohammed, a guest at the Warming Place shelter for the last few months, did his best to speak up for homeless people and explain to Judge Fein why it was important to them that the Warming Place stay open.

He was there to request an injunction prohibiting the city from closing the Warming Place. Sue Venne, another Warming Place guest, was added last minute as a plaintiff, but really every one of the twenty homeless people in the courtroom was a plaintiff.

I didn't expect him to prevail. The Open Pantry, which runs the Warming Place, lost a similar attempt last Thursday. This time, however, the shelter was a defendant along with the city, and I'm sure Kevin Noonan, OP director, had a few odd feelings in the city's company.

Everybody was there-- Gerry McCafferty, head of the Homeless and Special Needs Housing, two attorneys for the city, the head of the building department, Bill Miller, director of the Friends of the Homeless, one of the two shelters remaining in the city, the president of F.O.H.'s board of Directors, Bob Carroll-- some others I don't remember-- all on one side-- the city's.

On the other side were twenty Warming Place residents, Warming Place staff and a few advocates.

Ali told a simple story, with three main points: the Friends of the Homeless shelter was unsafe and would be overcrowded, some people had been banned from the Friends previously and had nowhere to go, and the Warming Place residents and staff were like a family and needed more time to transition to the other shelters.

Four other WP guests testified, all telling similar stories. One man got a bit emotional when talking about his friend who had recently been found dead on a park bench.

Coincidentally, the Friends' shelter's basement had flooded the night before in a heavy rain, and their shelter's guests had had to be moved upstairs. Leaks at the shelter are old news and a problem that's never been successfully resolved, although I'm sure the shelter is working on it.

That flood was not enough, however, to convince the judge. She asked the people who testified how long it had been since they'd stayed at the Friends' shelter, and felt no one had recent enough experience to judge the shelter now.

The city defended itself, saying all the right things, all very credible.

The judge excused herself for deliberation.

Then came that moment when people started to believe, as improbable as it was, that the truth might speake louder than the evidence and that justice would prevail.

But that was not to be.

Sometime just before the judge came back to deliver her decision, I looked around and saw that the security guards in the courtroom had increased from two to five. I was not the only one who noticed, either. I thought it was an insult to the homeless people who were present, who had come to court clean and well-dressed and who had behaved with complete appropriateness.

Judge Fein came back and denied the injunction. I saw shoulders fall throughout the room. The judge suggested that the Warming Place folks meet with Gerry McCafferty to find out about availability of housing subsidies, and offered her courtroom for the remainder of the afternoon. The Bailiff said "All rise" and we all rose. The judge left the bench and it was over.

Gerry called out that people could come and talk to her, but as far as I could tell, no one did. It was the wrong moment. People needed the dignity of their defeat.

The homeless people who spoke up today were very brave. Many of them know they will wind up having to stay at the very shelter they criticized. I could see some people's thoughts turning to where they were going to stay that night.

I continue to be saddened by how people with power silence the voices of the homeless and devalue and dismiss homeless people's loyalty to each other. Yeah, sometimes they'll stab each other in the back but they're more likely to be watching each other's back, as best as they can. And that's what I felt today.

I want to close this by remembering that no matter how sad I am, no matter how bad I feel, tonight I get to be at home, typing these words.


Tom Gough said...

Hi Michaelann,

I really appreciate the degree of advocacy you demonstrate in behalf of homeless men and women. This current situation in Springfield is so depressing and demeaning to the most vulnerable people in our city.

I know that both Bill Miller and Gerry McCafferty are good people who care about our more vulnerable citizens but their agenda is being set by a city government that is both beholden to downtown economic interests and unwilling to see the homeless as more than a series of cardboard boxes that can be dealt with by finding the right amount of warehouse space.

The city's agenda is:

First - make the homeless invisible
Then - treat the homeless as though they don't exist.

When Old First Church wanted to open its doors as a shelter this time around there was tremendous pressure brought to bear from the city and especially from the business community. (You can't imagine the phone calls.) So much so that Gerry McCafferty decided that she had the legal authority to dictate what the church can and cannot offer as outreach ministry, saying that we would violate the law by housing homeless people. Of course, when they needed us to resolve the tent city issue a couple of years ago we were a great place to house homeless people. Our space has not changed only the city's atitude has changed.

The city of Springfield does not really care about homeless people, only about the "homeless problem." There is an advanced mythology that suggests that people do not come into the downtown of Springfield because they might see or be accosted by homeless people. Business people are terrified by the prospect of seeing a homeless person on the street, it gives them the willies. So the city wants to comfort them by removing homeless people, and the services provided for them, from the downtown area (they also want the Loaves and Fishes meals program to move).

I expect that Springfield will once again find itself with an increasing population of men and women living rough, down by the river, under the bridges, behind bushes, because there are a lot of people who simply will not stay at the FOH shelter. I have already had many homeless people come to me at the church and ask help finding another alternative. I have seen them sitting hidden in the shadows at night, sleeping on our lawn, trying again to find a place they feel is safe. We are headed for another tent city or another winter of death.

Springfield has become fearful and largely heartless. It just grieves me to see it.

Liz said...

Hi Michaelann,
Wanted to let you know I love your blog and am always referring people to it when they ask what's happening in Spfld. about homelessness.
I did want to remind people that there are no "NON-CITY RUN" single homeless shelters left. The mayor appointed the majority of FoH board and even though the Rescue Mission takes no state of federal money they re-opened their shelter with money from the buisness community that was secured by the city. We all know that one phone call from the mayor and that money would dry up just like the money the city promised Open Pantry did. So agiain all we have in Spfld is city run shelters. A city with a history of diappearing homeless. Way back in 1990 Open Pantry and it's staff helped provide a count of the homeless for the censis. I personally did 40-50 intakes and yet when the figures came out several years later Spfld. had only 35 homeless and they were all in shelters. Well not much changes in this "The city of the disappearing homeless".


Alicia said...

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Thank you for what you do!