Friday, January 16, 2009

13 Below & no safety net for Springfield's homeless

In Boston, MA, homeless shelters are staying open 24 hours instead of the usual overnight hours until the worst of the cold spell passes.

In Buffalo, NY, the city has opened two warming shelters to handle the overflow of those seeking to get in out of the cold.

In Connecticut, Gov. Rell has ordered the National Guard to open the armories to the homeless.

But in Springfield, MA, the director of the city's largest shelter won't promise no one will be kicked out of the shelter for bad behavior, and won't promise that those who have already been banned will be allowed back in during below zero weather.

"We go on a case by case basis," says Bill Miller, director of the Friends of the Homeless Shelter, one of two shelters for men in the city and the only shelter for women.

One of any shelter's responsibilities to its residents is to keep them safe, and many (but not all) bannings at the Friends of the Homeless Shelter come about because of violent behavior. Fear of violence can keep other homeless people away, so obviously the common good must be preserved. Yet violence in a setting where there is no privacy is almost unavoidable. On Monday, one man told an advocate from the poor people's rights organization Arise for Social Justice that he was sleeping in his cot when someone punched him in the face. Another man told of being asked for a dollar by four other homeless men, and when he said he didn't have a dollar, they attacked him.

Punching a man in the face, however, is not a capital offense, and anyone sent out into the cold is at risk of dying. Men can try to get into the Taylor St. Shelter, which has a limited number of beds and only operates from Monday through Friday. Women who are banned, whether because of theft, violence or possession of drugs, are completely out of luck.

So what's the solution? That's what advocates and some service providers have been asking at the city-sponsored "Homes Within Reach" meetings, which for the past two years have been working on a "Housing First" model to get people out of the shelters and into housing.

Prior to 2004, homelessness was not even on the city's radar screen, but when homeless people organized a tent city with the help of Arise, Springfield officials started to pay attention. The tent city lasted six months, closing only when the Warming Place shelter, operated by Open Pantry Community Services, was able to re-open. But in 2007, facing state cutbacks and with a marked lack of support from the city, OPCS once again was forced to close the Warming Place-- this time, permanently. Nearly ninety people were left scrambling for space in the other shelters. Many just seemed to disappear; some left town; others started camping in hidden places.

One of the city's strategies-- and for a while, it worked-- was to limit the number of homeless in Springfield by limiting the number of shelter beds, and to move the "chronically homeless" into housing. But progress in Springfield-- and indeed, across the country-- is slowing to a crawl as more people become homeless while state and federal resources are being cut.

Recent Homes Within Reach meetings have attempted to organize resources to assist homeless people out on the street, including helping the Springfield Police Department come up with a set of procedures for when it is appropriate to forcibly place a homeless person into protective custody.

But so far, the city and the Friends of the Homeless Shelter have been unable to figure out what to do to preserve the wellbeing of those who have been banned.

The following email from Kevin Noonan, director of the Open Pantry Community Services to the Homes Within Reach committee members, gives an inside look at the politics of homelessness and points out the limitations of the city's approach-- limitations that may cost someone his life.

Four years ago Larry Dunham died on the steps of Springfield's Symphony Hall. After Mr. Dunham died, the then mayor of the city of Springfield, whose office window overlooked the Symphony Hall steps, told us all in january 2004, this was indeed a tragedy and adequate shelter space would be developed as soon as possible!

Since then we have witnessed the number of shelter beds, available in the city, deliberately reduced and we have repeatedly heard this touted as a celebrated accomplishment. There have even been glossy brochures boasting wonderful successes which include a depiction of people who are homeless, who managed to peacefully shelter and care for themselves on our postage stamp of a parking lot in an encampment known as Sanctuary City (which demonstrated more racial harmony than the city as a whole) as an example of one of the low points of "where we have been" and "how much better we can do than that".

A snapshot / a point in time count in 2008, which calculated 39% fewer people than a previous point in time count one year before it (visible on the streets), became an urban myth, repeated in the local and national media and again in the glossy promotional brochure, that street homelessness in Springfield, MA has been reduced by 39% thanks to a new housing first strategy. Yet over two years into a housing first strategy, which was used to justify the reduction of shelter beds, approximately 70 housing first vouchers which were issued to Springfield by HUD remain unused and people who are without homes still languish on the waiting list and in many cases, on the streets of Springfield.

Since the closure of the Warming Place in June 2007, over a dozen people who once resided there, are now dead, though clearly not all of them died from hypothermia or hyperthermia. While we wholeheartedly agree with a "housing first" strategy and we have personally participated in the development of permanent affordable housing over the last twenty years, it is a strategy that cannot sink its anchor into the bodies of people who once trusted us to hold onto the safety net below them.

At the last solstice, we got together to mourn those who died in 2008. the length of the list and the ages of the people who had died was deeply disturbing.

After more than two decades of obfuscation, amid repeated assertions that no one is turned away, there is still no public acknowledgment or accountability regarding people who are banned from the only government funded shelter for individuals in Springfield, and it is difficult to
accurately ascertain why they are banned or for how long.

The city, as a conduit for federal government funds to the agency which operates the only government funded shelter for individuals within its boundaries is probably best suited to set up a system for monitoring who is banned, why and for how long etc. this could be done with signed releases of information and without compromising confidentiality. City officials might even be in a position to take proactive steps to guarantee the safety of individuals they know in advance are banned, or they might be able to broker the re-entry to the shelter of some of these individuals, or perhaps even function as a point of appeal.

Instead, the repeated e-mail messages or calls over the last two years, sent by me or by Open Door Director Theresa O'connor, and Loaves & Fishes director, outlining specific problems or complaints alleged by guests have been met with a startling silence which only seems to continue to put lives at risk and leave all parties feeling very frustrated.

The procedures outlined in the earlier e-mail from Ms. McCafferty (director of Homeless and Special Needs Housing) are indeed confusing. We are now instructed to first contact the shelter to see if a person is
indeed banned before we move onto the next step: i.e. determining if they were appropriately discharged from the last place they resided. As I understand it, only then should we contact Rev. Greg Dyson, and preferably via e-mail. He then may be able to help provide a room in a motel (for one night - maybe more?) or may be able to help us work out some other solution? all this while not revealing to people who are homeless that this remedy is even a possibility!

Last night at about 6:30 p.m. I was called by Marion Hohn of Western Mass Legal Services, who had encountered a woman sitting in one of the doorways of a downtown restaurant. despite a warm restaurant teeming with patrons chatting, sipping drinks and enjoying themselves this woman (K) sat just outside one of the doors, slowly freezing.
She was intoxicated, wearing a light jacket and an oversize pair of overalls with broken clips. She was unable to keep her overalls up without exposing her bare hands to the bitter cold and when she couldn't bear the stinging cold on her hands and chose to warm them next to her body her pants would fall to her knees, revealing she not only lacked thermal underwear, but that she had none at all. Thanks to the Red Cross' People's Center, she was at least wearing a hat. Although she described the hat as ugly it may well have helped to save her life.

K was alternately agitated and despondent. Her body temperature, in my opinion, was beginning to descend into a state of hypothermia. We convinced her to walk with us down to the Crown Chicken pizza shop to try to help her warm up and to give her something to eat and drink. K would not agree to let us contact an ambulance and she claimed she was afraid to go to the Friends of the Homeless shelter (although she said she had not been banned from the facility) because she feared for her safety from other residents.

I absolutely appreciate Rev. Dyson's willingness to help out with resources and I suspect, more often than not, those resources come from his own pocket and they are given selflessly, from the heart, with love and compassion. I also appreciate the resources that have regularly been made available by Rev. Jack Desroches and his associates, most likely also from their own pockets, and ditto from Rev. Jim Munroe and members of his congregation, or from the folks who go out on the streets each week to search for people who are homeless, and many other folks, including members of the mobile outreach team or the police department, other agencies and our own staff who are committed to saving lives. I deeply admire and respect each of them for their willingness to do whatever it takes.

That said, I absolutely believe it is
not a viable city policy to simply acknowledge the good will and support of these committed and loving individuals and tell us to seek them out whenever we encounter people on the streets, after we have called a shelter to determine if they "really are banned" and after we have determined if they were "appropriately discharged from the last place they stayed" and presumably we should not contact Rev. Dyson -- or any of these other kind people, if there has been, in someones estimation, an inappropriate discharge?

It was way too cold to do all that yesterday evening (and then send an e-mail and hope for a reply) while standing on the street with a woman in crisis. In these temperatures we also can not engage in what I believe was termed by Ms. McCafferty in our last meeting as "push back" or wait to hear what Rev. Dyson referred to in his last e-mail as being sent "back to the drawing board" if someone thinks the last place to accommodate this individual engaged in "inappropriate discharge planning". Btw: is banning someone and sending them out into the bitter winter cold of New England considered an "appropriate discharge"?

One of the reasons for not making public the list of people who are banned is presumably confidentiality, or that the list, according to Mr. Miller, is "an internal document". If this is the case, why then are we now told that on an ad hoc basis, when we encounter someone half naked and freezing to death on the streets of Springfield, we can dial into the shelter (if we have a cell phone with us) and expect to be granted an update on a person's confidential status on the shelter's "internal document" also known as the "banned list". It was stated in our last meeting that there is at least one name (perhaps more I can't recall) on that list for an individual(s) who is permanently banned.

If any of the clergy or people in our community can help or are available, of course we will attempt to contact them to see what can be done. We have done this in the past and will continue to do so. yet their kindness and goodwill should not and cannot be the official response on the part of the city of Springfield. certainly not four years after finding Larry Dunham's frozen corpse at the portal of music and culture for the city of homes and definitely not thirty five+ years after the onset of this epidemic in Springfield which has witnessed people languishing on the streets year after year.

We should be ashamed of our collective failure to not have a more responsive policy. Icannot possibly believe that taking advantage of the love and compassion of these well meaning and hardworking clergy and others is the only appropriate city wide response in 2009!
We acknowledge the right of the only government funded shelter for individuals who are homeless to exclude people on occasion for various behavioral reasons but what we cannot and will not accept is that the appropriate consequence of that exclusion is: "see if you can survive on the streets tonight" or "tomorrow night" or "until we say so" or "for a longer period of time if you choose to argue with us about the matter" as some have alleged.

There absolutely needs to be a clear and unambiguous policy and preferably an easily accessible place for people (who are at risk of dying on the streets) to seek refuge if further fatalities are to be avoided. Although we and others did our best to secure a safe place for K to stay last night who knows where she will be tonight, which of us will encounter her and what her body temperature will be when meet her. We really don't need additional names for the memorial list.


PS - For those who wish to attend: there will be a memorial service for Bill Conners, on Friday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral, 35 Chestnut St. Bill, who was a very nice man, collapsed and died of a massive heart attack in December.


Noah said...

Fantastic points and a brave confrontation with an issue that goes beyond Springfield and is too-often overlooked due to a deplorable lack of resources. Primarily, you were right-on when you said "there is still no public acknowledgment or accountability" regarding the homeless, though you were speaking specifically of those banned from shelters. Where I work in the Boulder-Denver area, there is a bizarre disconnect that addresses no civic responsibility to the question of homelessness. The thinking goes, if they can find shelter, good for them. If not, that's the lot of the homeless. Very odd response from an otherwise progressive metro area. Mobile outreach is a decent stop-gap; housing first programs have great potential; shelters are a necessary support- but the most radical confrontation with homelessness is to expand the culture of communities to include the displaced and curiously forgotten. City and county boards need to remember their accountability to the most vulnerable citizens. Thanks for the awesome post.

EelKat said...

I live a short distance north of here. I'm in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, and I live on the beach. I am homeless. At night the temperature drops to -15*F BEFORE wind chill factor. Including wind chill factor the temps are often as low as -42*F (and the ocean freezes over when the temps are like that!) This year it's pretty warm and stays around 0F. In 2006, however, Maine had it's coldest winter on record and I got frost-bite that year.

No one cares that you are cold, so long as they are not.

Being homeless myself for quite some time, I found out just how badly homeless people are treated by none homeless people, and why so many are not in shelters (the nearest shelter to me was a 5 hour drive by car and I don't have a car!)

Part of me liked being homeless, like when I could sleep under the stars on warm nights, listening to the ocean, but most of the time it was sheer hell and I hated it.

My family of 7 people, 2 dogs, 75+ birds, and 14 cats, became homeless after a flood took away everything we owned and left my dad in a coma. My mom was a stay at home mom, who was disabled, but still took care of us kids.

My dad's hospital bills were more than $12,000 per day just for the life support machine that he was on, not including all the tests and treatments besides. In the end his medical bill topped 2 million dollars!

Without a house to live in anymore and with my dad no longer working because he was in a coma, we ended up homeless and living in a tent-thing made out of a tarp and cinderblocks, and we had to fight off a winter in Maine under that thing. We couldn't go to a shelter, because my dad (after waking up 2 months later) was disabled, plus my mom was already disabled, plus there were too many minor children in the family, and we had pets. No shelter would take us.

We were not eligible for any of the state programs that supposedly helped homeless people either.

Well, when you are homeless, it doesn't matter what happened or how you became homeless, because just the fact that you are homeless "brands" you as inferior and worthless and sets you up for all sorts of a abuse by "regular" people (non-homeless people). I had no idea people were so mean or that homeless people were being treated so shamelessly until my family became homeless. That was the worst year of my life and I don't ever want to have to go through anything like that again, and I wish that no one else had to go though it either.

You can find out more about what life was like for me while I was homeless here:

Unknown said...

Wendy, I read your lens....part of me says, only in Maine! but another part says variations on this story happen everywhere all the time.

I lived in Maine for three years, one of those in a tent but it was inland of Belfast (Knox) so no one saw us or cared...this was 35 years ago, though, so I'm sure things have changed...but one thing i remember is that the real poor people of Maine were (mostly) treated with contempt by the newcomers.

Hope life continues to improve for you and I'm sorry things had to get so bad. God bless.

EelKat said...

yep, in our case, it was "newcomers" that were doing the mean things. Maine is a backwoods state, with a lot of poor families, if new people don't like it, than they should not move into an area where they well be surrounded by a lot of poor families. It's sad really, we should all be able to get along.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled across your page while looking for images of homlessness for a social problems class project I am doing. I then got interested in what you had to say, about the man who passed on the steps of such a public building. Its disgusting the amount of social irresponcibility this world obtains.

I would be very interested in having you come and speak to my class about some of your expieriences in life. I would have sent you an email but I am not sure where that information would be. I understand if you dont want to but I feel, through your writing, that you would really send a message about this ever growing tragedy.

America land of the brave and home of the homeless....


Thanks for your time, and your courage!
my name is D.