Thursday, September 5, 2013

Looking for a way to keep the homeless in their place? Here's how it's done.

I have a bee in my bonnet. A year from now it will probably have turned into a cause which makes me sigh, because I have a lot going on. 

But this is one noisy bee.

A while back, a journalist in our community documented the lives of panhandlers who stand at intersections in our town "flying" signs that say "Homeless Vet", or, "No job. Anything will help," or things along those lines, in hopes that a sympathetic driver will hand over some cash before the light turns green.

Those who shared their stories were candid. Some have drug issues, some have jail in their history, most have bounced from one shelter to the next, some suffer untreated mental illnesses. All of the individuals interviewed revealed a sad but firm resignation to this place in life - more driven to feed their demons than conquer them. Some will die trying. 

I saw a sign flyer at an intersection recently.  He was pacing, ranting into a cell phone and waving his sign around as he gestured so that it was impossible to see if he was a vet, or out of work, or what.  As I watched, I wondered how much damage he was doing to the public perception of his situation. 

Not much, I don't think. There isn't a lot of give in public perception when that perception is already rooted in very narrow minds where one is, or one isn't homeless. There is no room in such minds for "could be" or, "once wasn't."

It was this simple perception which led a nearby community to hear one man's proposal to help the homeless, and then send him packing.

He is the director of a resource center for the homeless in nearby Concord, and he wanted to start a transitional facility for homeless men. His proposal was to purchase a former bed and breakfast and turn it into a working farm where a dozen homeless men would be housed. It is an eight-acre property.

Resident-applicants, all known to the center, would be screened in and screened out based on their drive to return to stable lives. Sex offenders would be banned, as would those with a violent criminal past. Residents would spend their days working on the farm and be required to submit to random drug and alcohol testing. The director would live on the property himself, with his family, to oversee things. Transportation would be provided into Concord, twelve minutes away,  where they would attend substance abuse support groups, receive medical attention, attend interviews. 

All in exchange for an address.

Townspeople gathered to hear about the plan and pose questions to the director of the center.   

"My job as a parent, as a mother, is to protect the safety of my children, does that make me prejudiced?" asked one resident.
"Why here?" asked another. 
"It would be a revolving door for 12 homeless men...we don't know who they are."
"They get bored and they like to wander."
"There’s no way this isn’t going to affect the neighborhood,”
"What it could possibly do to the property values."
"I didn't move to a rural area to have proven substance abusers in a family community."
“I am talking about my backyard, which is 1,000 feet of my property line, where my horses graze, where my kids sleep at night – a property line that is wooded and secluded.”

And more.

Their questions - will extra police be required to respond to problems? Who will enforce the rules? Who will determine who's fit to be included and who's not? - were valid. But with the director's attempts to quell their fears with information, residents grew more hostile, more defensive, and more determined not to live in close proximity to "those people".

“The meeting was clearly more of an ambush than anything else,” the director said afterwards. “We weren’t allowed to give full answers to the questions. . . . It was more of an opportunity for them to tell us that they didn’t want us there. And I understand that.”

Two days later, the town's zoning board unanimously rejected the zoning exception that would have allowed the project to move forward.

Says my bee:  How many people do anything about the homeless other than complain about them, or say things like, "There but for the Grace of God go I," when they couldn't believe anything less? 

Do the sign flyers featured in that article belong in that twelve-bed shelter?  Does the sign flyer on the phone? Maybe not, given their self-described, even growing acclimation to the harbor of the street.    

But there are others, those who might rise above their circumstances with help, but surely won't without it. Those with whom we may share more in ways that connect us as human beings - grief when a loved one dies, joy when a child is born, heartbreak when a fragile being is exploited or abused - than we don't.  

And there are those of noble standing today, who weren't always that way. In an editorialJohn Duval, Concord's former chief of police, described his experience of being one of six children growing up in Manchester when a string of family crises cost his family everything, including their home. Until he left the force, Chief Duval served on the mayor's task force to end homelessness.

But relatability, the "could be," or, "once wasn't" of it,  is not a pretty thing to ponder if we intend to keep our distance.  And many have shown they intend to do exactly that.,

I'm ashamed of the people who rejected the director's proposal. Not for posing provocative questions, but because they welcomed no true debate, offered no interest in a tighter proposal. I suspect, had they not assembled in large enough numbers to squash the plan early on, they would have searched hard for each other until they could. 

"My job as a parent, as a mother, is to protect the safety of my children, does that make me prejudiced?"

Yes, meeting-goer, it does. Absent probable cause for fear, prejudice is the next best thing.

Judgment is not free.  It is costly to cling to the illusion that distancing ourselves from the unluckiest people around will protect us from our own lives. But it is most costly to employ fear and ignorance to derail a compassionate, potentially successful plan to pull twelve homeless men up and over. 

We pay with our humanity and the fee is steep.


  1. Amen. Amen. Amen. I can't say it enough. Thank you for this post. Am definitely sharing this one . You have written what is on my heart----there has to be a way to educate people about homelessness. It is not an issue that is going away anytime soon. Thumbs up to this man and his family who were willing to take a stance. Thumbs down to those who shot it down. Time to really take a serious look at this issue.

  2. You know how you hear about something and have that first, disgusted reaction. And then, you know how it doesn't leave you? That's what happened when I heard about this. I don't think my work here is done, but this is a start.

  3. I would like to think that, if I were an abuttor at that meeting, I would support the man trying to start the program. Good post Susan

  4. You're so right, Susan. I used to work with homeless and marginalized people, and I've seen up close some of the problems they face--both internal and external ones. There was similar uproar in our city a few years back when the Anglican Diocese wanted to build a women's shelter in a downtown area. Neighbours objected that their newly gentrified homes would decline in value, etc. But the project went through, and it's still going strong. I wish more "Christians" would listen to their Master, who believed in loving and caring for the despised and marginalized.