Community Voices

At Home with the Homeless: Am I out of the loop?

The revelations in the July issue of the Observer about physical abuse and overdose deaths in Orange County shelters still have me reeling. I feel a bit like the man who was lost on a desert island. And the folks who read this column would have every right to ask if I’m turning a blind eye to violence and abuse in shelters–am I naive, or too unobservant, or afraid of losing my bed and all that goes with it?

I’m not naive, but I do miss things. And there are subtle issues I’ve not mentioned, such as dealing with staff members who are clearly out of their depth and lack empathy when dealing with mentally disordered/physically handicapped residents, as well as EMT personnel who have been very high-handed in dealing with residents experiencing mental and/or physical distress. But naming names of individuals needs to be done via private channels, if for no other reason than to avoid charges of slander and libel. There is a process for this in place in the shelters, and I have made use of it and will continue to do so.

I am aghast that Illumination Foundation and Mercy House are so adamant in their refusal to allow press scrutiny. Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect operation. And any organization that provides food, shelter, and medical services to hundreds of homeless men and women is always going to be a work in progress. But refusing to allow the press to come in and look around? You’re just asking for trouble, as well as greater scrutiny. And it’s clear that there is trouble in River City.

I’m sure the people who died of fentanyl overdoses were addicted long before they got to a shelter. But they should have been medically monitored to ensure they didn’t have an opportunity to score. It’s easy to take advantage of people who are physically and mentally handicapped. It’s why abuse of all kinds must be closely monitored in homeless shelters and assisted care facilities. All I can do is report what I have seen, which is an observer’s (pun intended) main job.

As Irwin Shaw so succinctly put it, “A writer is reporting in–he is saying, ‘This is where I think I am, and this is what the place looks like today.’” So how does the shelter I call ‘home’ look today?

Well, today we had under-the-beds cleaning from 11-1, but not so you’d notice. Then the building was sanitized for our protection from 1-1:30, followed by snacks and dinner. We did have a bit of excitement with an unexpected fire drill, but people moved out quickly, and we were able to reenter the building within a few minutes. Riveting stuff. But how wonderful to have such an uneventful day, free from dramas and psychoses.

Freedom from distractions is essential to being productive, and to having a clear mind. Which is what makes these reports of abuse and death even more distressing. Difficult enough to maintain any sense of routine when you have no home base, and the only resources are those you can carry on your back. So I feel I must reiterate: I am not ignoring any incidents I have witnessed.

The problem is, after so much storm and stress, night after night, you start to get numb. Instead of feeling sympathy for the man coughing his lungs out in the next row, you find yourself wishing he would get off his ass and go to the hospital. The complaints and devices of your neighbors become annoyances; you want them to shut up and go to sleep or go away. Whichever.

Am I defending my indifference? No. I am explaining it. And for the record, I have witnessed no sexual assaults, no drug overdoses, no deaths. I have seen two people have strokes–they were well attended to– and numerous people having breakdowns due to stress, heat, and other factors, which is to be expected when you put hundreds of strangers together for an extended length of time. And summer’s only half over. If anything of importance happens, you will hear it from me.

Until then, another reminder: Better days are coming if we work for them.