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Judgment Goes Both Ways

I’ve learned a lot since my direct service days in a family shelter from 2003-2009. Fresh out of college with big ideas and a big heart, I put all of myself into my work as a case manager for children and adults, a Housing Counselor and a grant writer. Now, in hindsight, I will admit that I did a lot of my direct service work pretty poorly, though the best I knew at that time. I focused on housing readiness, I focused on life skills, I focused on stuff; I knew I needed to provide my clients with everything they needed to get back on their feet. I claimed to have a housing focus, but only after my families were "ready" for housing. What I did do well was love them. I followed up with them when they left. I did not want them to come back and my biggest failure was to see a family re-apply for my programs.

Thanks to amazing mentors like Zach Brown, who really made Housing First make sense to me for the first time back in 2011; Iain De Jong who laid the SPDAT products on our work as a communities; and Linda Kaufman who inspires me to reach for justice and have a voice for others.

I still love to visit programs across the state and country, but I recently had an experience that left me shaken.

I walked into a very large faith-based shelter in WV with my colleague, just on a whim to say hi, introduce ourselves and see how their programs were doing. We were greeted with a lounge full of clients, a couple young mothers with babies, one of which was crying. Mom was trying tirelessly to calm her sweet baby. The receptionist was sitting quietly at her desk. My colleague and I introduced ourselves and asked to see the director. We were told he was in a meeting and would be out shortly. Standing there, I took notice of my surroundings. There were signs and notes everywhere serving as warnings to residents “SMILE, you’re on camera,” “Do not leave belongings here, they will be thrown away,” and “Chores must be done daily.” There were no positive messages in this place. Men were sleeping on couches, some were using computers, but no one was talking amongst each other, it seemed like there was no sense of community, no hope, no happiness. All the while, the baby continued to cry. Was this how people experiencing homelessness spent their days here? When the shelter worker came out yelling, and repeating loudly that he “needs a volunteer right now (to take out the trash),” which woke the now calm baby, angered the mom and woke the men who were asleep, I had to refrain from jumping into the middle of the situation. After all, I was just there to say hi to the director. But I had learned so much about where this project’s mission laid in the 10 minutes waiting and observing. 

To add to my confusion about how people are treated by shelters across our country, fast forward to just yesterday when I happened upon an article titled “Women no longer accepted at homeless shelter after ‘sex problem.’” The article said that the director made his decision based on the bible and that what was happening at the shelter was sinful. Guess what? The bible also talks, in Genesis, at great lengths about “taking wives” and having “servants.” Have we moved beyond that concept as a society?  So I beg the question as to why some shelters, like this one in Kentucky, feel they need to exercise control over their guests? Is it the presumption that people experiencing homelessness are dangerous, immoral, or somewhat beneath the ones providing the services? Do we reinforce dignity in our guests and provide social services or are we exercising social control? When accepting someone into our shelter, we should expect nothing less than them to behave like adults, which may include having sex, or cursing, or any combination of behaviors that we may, or may not, agree with. After all, should an animal shelter expect a dog not to bark or whine, or a cat not to meow? Would the animal shelter ban a dog for barking too loud when the other dogs are sleeping?

How do we instill in the person who feels the “calling to serve” that serving others is a privilege and that we should treat those we serve with righteousness? After all, Proverbs 29:7 says “A righteous man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge.” Is it not the rights of people experiencing homelessness to be treated in a manner that is uplifting and encouraging, rather than punishing?

So I ask, have YOU visited a shelter recently? If you haven’t and you believe in ending homelessness, or work in this field, or donate your money to a shelter, I suggest you take a couple hours and go visit one. If you already work in one, I challenge you to examine why you do certain things you do in your shelter. Is your shelter trying to heal or fix people? Is your shelter just a step on the way to permanent housing or is your shelter the destination for people experiencing homelessness? Are you treating homelessness as a sin? Could you live in your shelter? Would you follow your rules? Is your shelter a place of peace or a place of persecution? Because though we may not like to examine it; people experiencing homelessness are much more like us than different from us.

So when you impart your judment on those you are serving, are you willing  to be judged when someone dies because of your policies, judgment or barriers?

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