Saturday, October 18, 2008

Whose problem is it?

There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community. M. Scott Peck
On Wednesday, I gave a two hour presentation to a group of Police Sergeants. It was the test presentation for a seminar I will be delivering on homelessness to patrol officers throughout the city. This group of sergeants needed to vet the material and my delivery to ensure it met the needs of the force. Thus, I was rather nervous going in, as you may recall on my blog, Facing Reality.

First off, the presentation went extremely well. The material I had was good -- but the most powerful part of the presentation was the dialogue that ensued around the 'myths'. You know, those beliefs we hold that are set in stone, and no one knows who set them there.

When I am giving presentations about homelessness I always ask the audience at the very beginning, "Who are the homeless?"

The answers are always the same: Addicts. Working Poor. Mentally ill. Runaways...

After giving me the 'nice' labels, I invite people to be share the not so nice words we also use to describe a homeless individual. You know, at the bar with their friends, telling a story about the squiggie guy at the corner, or the bum panhandling on the sidewalk. The words come slowly, but they always come. Scum. Deadbeat. Lazy. Good for nothing. Hobos. Vagrants. Dirty...

I agree. Tell them that 'yes, those are common words we hear and sometimes use. But, they are not the words that describe 'who' are the homeless. They are the words we use to label the people living a life we do not understand. A life that scares us. Frightens us. A life that is beyond our norm.'

Underneath the labels, underneath the dirty clothes, the smells, the funny antics, the not so good behaviours is the truth. The homeless are, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. Grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles. They're nieces, nephews, cousins, friends. The homeless are human beings, just like you and me.

It is the truth about the people experiencing the abuse of homelessness.

They are connected to each and every one of us through the human condition in which we all share.

When presenting to the group on Wednesday, we got into a discussion about, yes but. Yes. they are human beings. But, they're often breaking the law, and police officers must uphold the law.

Sleeping on park benches. Peeing in alleyways. Spitting on the road are all illegal in this city. And yes, officers need to uphold the law.

Under their mandate, to serve and protect, who does it serve when they ticket someone who has nothing? Who does it protect when they roust them from a park bench and tell them to 'move along'? Where do they move to?

"Yes, but," said one of the sergeants. "You guys [meaning the shelter] call us regularly to come and remove someone from your property who is barred. What are we supposed to do with them? You are their last resort."

And that's where I challenge the myth. "We are their last resort."

See, a shelter is no one's last resort. A shelter is an option. It is a place on a continuum of distress.

When someone is barred from our shelter, it is for a variety of reasons. Violence and drug dealing are the two most serious offences, and they will both result in life bars. If Dealing is an automatic life bar. Violence is based on level of escalation, track record and a host of other considerations. If the police don't have a warrant on someone who is barred, we can only ask the police to remove them, not arrest them. They can charge them with trespassing, but they can't put them in jail.

It is a conundrum for all of us.

"What do you want us to do with them?"

When the sergeant asked me that on Wednesday, I asked him a question. "What if I were to tell you, it's not our problem?"

He promptly replied, "Who's problem is it?"

"Good question," I responded. I turned to the group of about 20. "Who's problem is it?"

Every day we walk the contradictions of what we do at the shelter. We call ourselves the shelter of last resort. We recognize we are not everyone's last resort.

Who's problem is it?

There is much more I need to think about on this. Much more I want to write. But.... and there's that but! I am off to coach at Choices today and must run.

Thank you CZ for inspiring my thinking. She commented on my blog yesterday and wrote about studies on narcissism that connect agression with vulnerability. Need to ponder that. Need to think about what it means in a world where agression is common ground for those suffering from homelessness.

The question is: Who's problem is it?


Anonymous said...

who's problem?


whose problem?

M.L. Gallagher said...

Oh My!

Thank you.

You are absolutely right. It is Whose problem?

That's what I get for writing without coffee! :)

Thank you. I appreciate your letting me know.