HELL IN SHELTERS

By William Markiewicz

A relatively young, extremely frail looking beggar hangs out in my neighborhood.. He dreads the coming winter but says that in order to enter any rehabilitation programs he has to spend time in a shelter. He says that for someone like him the shelters are dangerous. He's had bad experiences in shelters and feels he's risking his life to go into one. Lately, he's developed a speech impediment, I suspect it's the result of a blow. So the rules place him in an impossible situation. Either way, he's doomed.

This reminds me of a situation many years ago in Paris, which I described in my " Return to Paris" - Vagabond, November 95. Police used to regularly raid the prostitution streets, hauling in as many as they could and holding them for one night. In the morning, all were released and the game continued night after night. It was a pure formality that wasn't meant to resolve anything; it just kept the cops busy. Sometimes before being released they were led before a clerk who asked the same question: "Do you want to stop being a prostitute?" The answer usually was, 'I have kids to support ... bills to pay ...' The clerk would note 'She doesn't want to change.' I give this example because both stories illustrate the bureaucracy's heartlessness and stupidity.

Shouldn't we find a way for people who can't hold up under the law of the jungle that reigns in shelters? We'll never know how many early deaths result from this ridiculous ultimatum: 'Survive the shelter and then we'll take care of you.'

It surely would be possible to eliminate this aspect of soullessness in our society -- just as we have special protection for children and women -- to extend special protection to people at the edge of society who could be helped just by ensuring their security. Usually those people are not only physically disabled but probably more tender, timid, attracting rapacious characters who dominate the homeless subculture.

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