When the homeless come in from the cold
In the past year there’s been talk in Summit County about starting up a homeless shelter. It’s ambitious talk, and no doubt every community needs to take a look at Maslowe’s Hierarchy now and then to see if the basic tiers of human needs are being met. Food, shelter, discount ski passes.And yes, there are real-life, bona fide homeless people here; otherwise I wouldn’t squander my weekly allocation of ink on the subject. My question is, can we create a shelter here in Summit, what with our widespread NIMBYism, and second, can we do a shelter well? Third, if you had a hard-ass, no-drugs/alcohol/hitting-other-people rule (a basic tenet of most shelter operations), how many people would we be serving? I can’t pretend to have anything close to an answer. Homelessness is something that makes observers feel pretty crappy when they first encounter it. I remember living in New York City in the pre-Giuliani days and hopscotching over a community of 12 or so people every morning as I changed trains at Grand Central. They took over one of the warmer corridors, and nobody seemed to have the lack of heart to kick them out into the cold.
At first it was creepy. I vaguely recall feeling extremely bad about it and giving my lunch to one of the campers. Or maybe I didn’t do anything at all, but instead put that thought into my memory bank so I didn’t feel permanently rotten about disrespecting my fellow man.But after a while I hardly thought about their situation; stepping over them became part of the way things were. Similarly, they knew to stay still on the floor and not trip any of the commuters. They didn’t tell us about their problems, and we didn’t ask. How’s that for working together?Now, most of us here in Summit would summon all manner of authority and slash our own wrists in guilt if we had to leap over a single body on our ways to work. But most of our homeless folks don’t operate that way. They get out of the cold in hidden places where people with good intentions conveniently forget to lock a door. They might get a night or two on a friend’s couch, or they might have a zero-rated sleeping bag, a tent and a pair of snowshoes that gets them to and fro. Some of them live in snow caves or shacks that are just halfway out of the wind, and some might not even call themselves homeless.
We also get folks who get stranded here. They’re on the way to somewhere else and run out of cash. Or their cars break down and they’ve got no easy way to get things fixed. Let’s not get going on families who’ve fallen short on rent for the last time, or the mentally ill people who fall through all the programmatic cracks. As someone pointed out to me recently, “there’s a whole population out there that’s just … roaming.”All these people are candidates for a bed and a hot meal. And it would be really great if someone would just donate a big house to the cause, kick in some money for food, and if all the neighbors would leap in joy at the prospect of such goodness.And it would be good to see entire farms of swine take wing.
Summit County is more on top of things than most places, and as a relatively small community it usually does an OK job of pulling its resources together. But bringing people in from the cold contains a whole lot of metaphor. Chronic homelessness is the result of a zillion other problems. Are we ready to look those problems in the eye and then throw enough money and expertise in the right places, or is that the domain of bigger locales like Denver – places that are large enough to provide things like treatment programs and job training? Again, I can’t pretend to have the answer.But to those good people who plan to change the way things are, I say Godspeed to y’all.Tara Flanagan writes a Wednesday column. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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