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A transformative response to a nagging problem

May 12, 2013
One of the tents in a short-lived tent city set up by local activists to serve as a low-barrier shelter for homeless people with substance problems. This photo, taken by Jeremy Hogan, is copyright the Herald-Times.

One of the tents in a short-lived tent city set up by local activists to serve as a low-barrier shelter for homeless people with substance problems. This photo, taken by Jeremy Hogan, is copyright the Herald-Times.

Bloomington, Indiana, currently has hundreds of homeless men. Ragged panhandlers sit on corners begging change; others walk monotonous routes from the Community Kitchen  to the Courthouse Square and the Public Library and back again, toting dirty backpacks. Some are drunk or high; others are obviously crazy. The city is in a tizzy; mothers are afraid to take their children to the library; and the Mayor has recently stopped two different attempts by the public to provide temporary shelter to those with substance problems.

To live without a home is to suffer a genuine disability. It’s no longer acceptable to mock those who have Down’s, or autism, but it’s still commonplace to despise the homeless, presumably because unlike those with autism, they are viewed as having somehow chosen this path of misery, or in some way deserving it.

I do not pretend to be better equipped to handle this problem than city experts, but I do not blame the victim, and I do have some suggestions.  First, the word “homeless” is being used recklessly to lump together very dissimilar people with a wide range of needs. Some have lost their jobs and cannot afford housing; others are sociopathic vagrants; some are war veterans with an array of battle-related psychic injuries; others are mentally ill. All of them need completely different kinds of assistance, but we give them only the bare minimum: a meal and a place to sleep. (This often comes at the cost of being forced to listen to religious speeches by the sponsoring churches.) Food and a bed merely maintain life; they do not improve it.

When it comes to the homeless, many of us have attitudes not far removed from wanting to run them out of town with a whip. But we need a completely different response. For a model, think about our educational system, an institution that travels with children from kindergarten through twelfth grade, with accommodations for special-needs children, remedial tutoring, therapists and social workers. Although it certainly is not perfect, it nevertheless provides our children with far more than just the minimum of rudimentary reading and ciphering. We need something similar for our homeless populations: an institution that can mentor and protect the people who are experiencing homelessness, for a period of several years if necessary, until its clients no longer require its help.

Imagine it: clients who are seeking work could have job counselors, the opportunity to print out a resume, access to a decent set of interview clothes, and even the opportunity to find employment at a WPA-type public works job that will help establish their job credentials. Those who are mentally damaged or addicted need therapists, physicians who can diagnose free medications to treat their illnesses, and helpers to oversee their wellbeing. And all these people need a place to live, a real and permanent address to call home, not simply a place to flop each night. They need room with a closet or a storage locker to call their own, because nothing so deprives a person of a sense of identity as not having the option to have and keep a few personal possessions in a space of their own. And don’t call this new-hope transition academy a  “homeless center,” because that just reinforces the old stereotypes. Clients should not have to hang their heads with embarrassment when they enter the front door.

The ethical responsibility of caring for and assisting our brothers and sisters in time of need is part of the social contract. Little as we might want to deal with the homeless population, to do so is a sign of a compassionate and civilized society. A transition academy requires money to run, but it costs less in the long run than shooing vagrants away, to hunt down  their tents along the fringe of the city and repeatedly evict them, to arrest them, to pay for their emergency room hospital visits, and to maintain and oversee all the multiple homeless shelters that currently operate in our city. To improve these people’s chances of re-entering society and functioning again as citizens is a cost well worth investing in.

Many vacant buildings within the city limits could contain such a permanent transition academy. This is not an unattainable goal and many cities are doing just this. In Portland, Oregon, Transition Projects assists more than 9000 homeless persons each year and has grown and strengthened its services since 1969. Minneapolis has Higher Ground. Many similar services are discoverable online. Bloomington is a progressive and good place to live—if you own a house. It should aspire to being a progressive place as well for those who are experiencing homelessness.

Staying here is no picnic, but the City of Bloomington closed down this temporary tent shelter. Photo by Jeremy Hogan, copyright the Herald-Times.

Staying here is no picnic, but the City of Bloomington closed down this temporary tent shelter. Photo by Jeremy Hogan, copyright the Herald-Times.

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