Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Human nature: Knock at the door

There's a guy at the door. He looks banged up. "Hey," he says, "I heard you might have some vouchers so I could stay for a night in a hotel?" 

I invite him in. Before the recession hit, I could offer vouchers for a hotel 4 times a year to those who knock on our door. Now, due to shrinking funding, people get only one voucher. Ever. Once your name is on the list as having received one, you can't get another. 

"I'm sick," he says, and I can hear it in the scratch of his voice. He sits down to tell me his story: he was thrown of his roommate's house, had to leave in a hurry when they got into a fight. 

"I can't remember right," he says, "but he kicked me in the nose and broke my nose tunnel." He puts his hands up and closes them in around his eyes. "Angry like a tunnel," he says. "I can't remember but he took me down onto the carpet, and carpet wouldn't break your nose. I remember, I'm pretty sure he kicked me. He says he has a witness, but that guy's lying."

He tells me the cops had pulled him over, and wanted to talk with him. Now he needs a lawyer, and has a court date set next month. He's worried: he doesn't want to go to jail or have court-ordered supervision.

"Can I get a voucher?"

Here's the thing: the police want us to give hotel vouchers to people who "deserve" them. I appreciate the police department's willingness to be a part of this system to help people: I sign the referral forms, which must be taken to the station to be exchanged for the hotel voucher. This gives me a sense of protection because folks on the street understand that the police are involved in this transaction. 

So does this guy "deserve" a referral form for a voucher? He had a home, got into a fight and got kicked out of it. Drink or drugs were involved, no doubt. And the cops are already onto him for one reason or another. There are a limited number of vouchers.

And ... he's sick--probably mentally as well as physically--and he's on the street. I give him a referral form to get a voucher.

Would you?

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  1. I don't know. I know you're my hero.

  2. Hmmm.
    Another pair of eyes; a triangulation.
    Bad news? Good news? Who's to say?
    Let not the hope of the poor be taken away.
    Can you forgive yourself when you say, No?
    Can you forgive yourself when you say, Yes?
    Forgiveness, yes.

  3. What other options are available?  Could he stay in a shelter overnight?  Would he consider checking in to a mental care facility?  Will the police curtail the vouchers if you award them frivolously? (or what they consider to be frivolously) Your job is so hard!  I don't know what I would do.  I gave all the change in my pocket to a panhandler on the street yesterday, after passing by four others without making eye contact. I HATE denying the humanity of the desperate street people, but I can't help them all.  And I want to genuinely help them, not enable their addictions.

  4. So provocative, and brings up the same struggle I have, we all have, that Roxie articulated so well. We have the compassion, but not the resources. We want to help those in need in a genuine way, yet we have conflicting responsibilities in our own lives.  It is beyond irresponsible to give up our own work and resources for the time and knowledge and money it would take to really help even one mentally ill street person on an individual basis in the longterm.  If we all did that, we ourselves would become street people. The only way I can reconcile the paradox is to consider the importance of doing the best job we know how at the work we have trained to do---and to give a bit more money than we feel we can to the institutions that are trained to help those who can't help themselves---so as to still be able to care well for ourselves and for those who depend on us---so as to make the world a better place for those in our sphere of influence to the best of our intentions and ability---and so as to have some leftover for the occasional handout.  Because who among us can look away at every instance. Yes, Patricia, I would have made the same choice you made. Yes, Roxie, I feel guilt when I look away most times, but give in sometimes. Yes, Bill, to the importance of forgiveness for yes AND no.
    And yes, Murr Brewster---people who do the kind of work that Patricia Lichen does are my heroes too. 

  5. You are being too kind to me. I mean, here I find myself in this strange position of having the power to decide whether someone spends the night in a hotel. But no matter what I decide, I know *I’m* going home to a warm bed…
    What a terrible problem homelessness is for this (really, still) very wealthy country. I hate how the rest of us are left in a position of denying their humanity. When I encounter homeless people on the street or flying signs at the off ramps, I have to pretend these people are invisible—because to acknowledge them is mutually understood as an invitation for solicitation. The horribly reasonable and sensible alternative: pretend that they don’t exist.
    And young people my daughter’s age don’t remember a time when there weren’t people begging on every downtown corner. Our children grow up watching their parents walk past and ignore real people in need.

  6. Just when I reconcile for myself how I balance my ignoring and minimal assistance, you bring up the issue of how we model compassion for our children.  I didn't want to think about this today. I have work to do. I must ignore it. That is,  I have the luxury of choosing to ignore it. And no matter how much compassion I profess, a nice shower and bed wait for me. Darn you, PL. You're not my hero anymore!  Just kidding, of course. 

  7. Yes I would have given the voucher.
    Until you have a line at the door, it seems easy.

    When you look at the world one out of three people are facing extremely bad situation. A lot of people like to think that country border lines contain the problems and those problems only marginally effect us or not at all. How many people do you hear say "It's not my problem". Yet we all want to enjoy the bounty this planet offers.
    With today's high speed world problems of any sort anywhere can be at your doorstep in a matter of days to a matter of hours . Its called the speed of business, it works all too well.   Shoes and cargo pallets are the first class accommodations of the virus, bacterial and fungal worlds. 

    The most common easily transferable commodity that crosses international borders are "germs" and pollution. Neither one obeys international, national, local or personal laws or physical barriers like steel bars. In the olden days time and distance were physical barriers to disease that worked. Those days are long gone. It is the global village concept, if you can see it, you can feel it.
    The pay for health care model is a Maginot line that looks good, keeps people busy but does not work in a crunch. 

    In today's world it is a sure bet that if one does not prevent or change for the better what is happening then one will be reacting and become part of what is happening. Since we can not fix this on our own and add to that each day a couple of hundred thousand people are born into situations which could only be described as a nightmare science fiction dystopian world through no choice of their own, there does not appear to be an easy solution except to preserve your own well being. In my opinion that is only a temporary stop gap measure.

  8. Patricia,
    I'm feeling guilty about my earlier response; I know there is more to say, to offer.
    The police bring the word "deserve" into the mix. You are thankful for feeling their sense of their concern for protection; it's implicit that you mean your protection.

    I worked with a woman whom I assisted. We created some general rules, or guidelines, or framework for assessing.

    Our #1 rule for assisting a mendicant was protect thyself. If at any time we felt threatened, were in the presence of hostility, rage, or aggression, I'd bring the encounter to a close. Just say "No, I'm sorry, we can't help you." If you feel your personal safety is being jeopardized, it probably already is.

    Our # 2 rule was never to judge  the action we chose. It's impossible to determine the, or a, right / wrong action. Ours was a judgement free zone for our choices. I found it liberating. Jenny was gifted with the people; I suspect she found it liberating too; it was her suggestion! 
    No one wants to judge a person in desperate circumstances, no one wants to judge a person when one is charged with serving their requests. In the real world I judge all the time; it's easy! So I trained myself, gave myself permission, to leap over, or flow around, my judgment. My task was to fan the ember of hope embedded in their request. Facilitate hope. One night in a warm bed?

    What is, "deserving?" I believe your police breach my rule, or boundary, implicitly asking you to answer their question; their jawboning you to judge, FOR THEM. I'd take myself off their hook. On the other hand, see #1Rule.

    Our #3 rule was, "There is no silver bullet answer or response. Forgive yourself." Every answer builds up your foundation of experience so that your facility for discernment is keener. Building up your gift for discernment takes time and experience.

    My #3 rule was, if I knew I'd say, "No", I'd give something else: a bit of fellowship in conversation, water, food, time. I was literally paid to serve the needy. Mendicants are thankful. They know they've been treated with respect and dignity. Their dignity and respect and that which is truly given is not an abstraction and it does not occur in a  vacuum; it's a feeling, a sense, and a reality. The mendicant, even the mentally ill mendicant, know when they're objectified. My touchstone for this was Dorothy Day. See Robert Coles' biography of Dorothy Day.

    Bill Collins

  9. Wow---very helpful, Bill. But I liked your first response. No guilt necessary. 

  10. I love the thoughtful responses to this post. Nothing about this experience is definite--there are so many shades of gray. I'm grateful that the folks who have commented on this post are articulate, kind, and have weighed their words and responses. 

    Bill, you are right that sometimes all I can offer is respect and a willingness to listen--and that to those who knock at the door, this in itself can be a valuable thing.

  11. Hey PKL,
    Check this out; it's definite.
    Please, please, please, be careful.

  12. I'm at a loss for words over this. (Except to say that I very much appreciate your concern, Bill. Thank you.)