Albuquerque (and probably most of the country as well) seems of two minds when it comes to homelessness. I don’t mean there are two schools of thought about its causes and how to resolve them--I mean part of the time we as a community want to pretend it doesn’t exist and part of the time we want to punish the homeless … as if they themselves were the problem and not simply the evidence of deeper concerns.
Lashing out at the symptoms of a problem has never worked particularly well in any sphere of human activity. The “war on terror,” the “war on drugs” and the “war on poverty” are but three examples of how futile it can be to spend decades of effort and billions of dollars on reactive, punitive, patchwork approaches.
Yet in recent days I’ve been reminded repeatedly by events in Albuquerque that our policy of waging war on homelessness fits that same failed pattern.
Residents of one Downtown neighborhood complain that criminal activity has jumped because a faith-based organization is feeding the homeless (how dare they!) on Sunday afternoons in a city park. Efforts are underway to put a stop to that dangerous service, apparently on the theory that if you don’t offer sandwiches and coffee, drug dealers will take their business elsewhere.
In another neighborhood, some of the homeless have been discovered using alleys as outdoor toilets. Since there are no public facilities at the nearby park and since most businesses are unwilling to allow the use of their restrooms by any but paying customers, I don’t know what the people who have resorted to using the alley are supposed to do, but the incident did reinforce my view that ignoring a problem certainly doesn’t make it go away—and could actually create a public health issue.
In a third, older neighborhood near Downtown residents have been pushing to have a large homeless shelter relocated elsewhere … but are getting only lukewarm support from the city fathers who (surprise!) have not found any other locale that is volunteering to offer the shelter a welcome. Apparently, the city will not act on relocating until they do.
Then, just as I was about to give up hope that Albuquerque would ever get real about coping with the issue, I attended a groundbreaking ceremony that changed my thinking.
It isn’t often that a groundbreaking is memorable. Even when the mayor is there, expertly manipulating the controls on a gigantic front-end loader, or when the dozen gold (painted) shovels are particularly shiny or the ceremonial plastic hard hats truly spiffy, these rituals have a patterned sameness that blurs them all in the memory into one extended introduction of dignitaries followed by the consumption of finger foods. Within a few hours it’s usually hard to distinguish one from another.
But last week’s ceremonial spading of earth at the site of the Metropolitan Assessment and Treatment Services’ (MATS) new transitional housing complex will not soon be forgotten. This happened because one of the speakers, a former patient at the facility, read a prayer she’d written for the event. She cut through all the protective language we usually employ to avoid the reality of life on the streets. Her prayer touched deeply the entire assemblage of staff, patients and community members.
More importantly, what “Sharon” (her real name will remain anonymous) managed with her quiet, simple words was to wipe out forever for those who prayed with her the fiction that somehow “street people” are so different from the rest of society that they will not or cannot respond to help the way the rest of us would.
We could, any of us, in some scenario, wind up alongside them in the dinner line at the soup kitchen or fading to invisibility in a doorway at nightfall.
She prayed about her own life, her experience on the street, thanking God for all that had happened to her, the savagery and the kindness, because it all helped bring her back … to sobriety, to an apartment of her own, to another chance at her career as a teacher.
And she thanked God for MATS and the people who work there, who refuse to give up on those they serve, no matter how many times they slide backward.
In five minutes of quiet prayer, Sharon put a human face on homelessness. No one who heard her that morning will be likely to make the mistake in the future of ruling out redemption for the drug- or booze-addled men and women who people the margins of this community.
She was an appropriate spokesperson for MATS (there must be a better name for such a valuable resource) because the organization’s own history proves we can do more about homelessness than cursing or ignoring it.
It has taken more than 15 years of patient effort to reach the point to which our public detoxification, assessment and treatment facility has arrived. Not a straight line of steady progress; more of a fitful, start-and-stop journey of dashed hopes and renewed determination, the chart of MATS life marks Albuquerque’s inconsistent attitude toward street people.
The Bernalillo County Commission has invested in a real solution for homelessness by committing its resources to MATS. In place of punishment or a blind eye, they offer hope—for all of us, not just those looking for a place to stay invisible. Sharon prayed her thanks. We all can add our own.