The real question:
How can he help us?
By Peter Huntley
I believe congratulations are in order. It must have taken considerable courage to publish William Crandell’s deeply disturbing report on homelessness. Rather than safe, light-hearted entertainment, to present such a frightening description of society’s desperate fringe requires true journalistic integrity. Hopefully, one day we will learn something of the story behind the story: How were William Crandell and The Ann first brought together? How was the decision made to publish? How did the editorial staff come to accept the author’s preferred true-to-life story ending rather than a more upbeat conclusion as required by the market for narratives?
You were certainly quite correct in assuring this reader he will never look at a homeless person the same way again. It is not often that an article changes a reader’s way of thinking, or creates a viewpoint where nothing on that same subject had previously been in mind. We can assume most citizens are reminded of the homeless among us, and then only briefly, when one homeless person is waiting by a traffic light, holding a cardboard sign with an abbreviated appeal. There may be the fleeting eye contact, sometimes pleading, sometimes despairing. Then the lights change and with increasing distance comes the convenience of fading memory, diminished curiosity, and the concluding twinge of self-reproach. If only everybody’s experience of homelessness was so transitory.
For a clearer perspective on Ann Arbor’s treatment of the homeless, let us take note of how it is done in another city. I recently visited Las Cruces, N.M., which is comparable to Ann Arbor in several respects. Both are university towns, with a population difference of less than 16 percent, and each was long isolated from surrounding communities, explaining in both cases a certain insularity in self-regard.
The motto of Las Cruces, “People Helping People,” still seems to be a point of reference and taken to heart, more than some empty words which serve as a motto for too many communities. The city has set aside a few acres for social services catering to the needy and rezoned the property to permit a tent city. A large modern building houses the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope with its five agencies administering and coordinating the city’s social services. Laundry and shower facilities are available for the people living in the adjacent tent city, and nearby is the all-important El Caldito soup kitchen, supplying all who come with one warm, hearty meal per day. And, yes, it is entirely free.
The tent city for the homeless, known as Hope Village, comprises some 50 tents, each set on a raised wooden platform, and spaced out far enough to give each temporary home a feeling of privacy. When we visited, we were greeted by J.C., one of the occupants and the nominated spokesperson for the village. A sturdy, jovial man-of-the-road from Southern California with a fully developed beard and weather-beaten countenance, he evidently enjoys his responsibilities and takes them seriously. He pointed out the amenities of the site, including the communal benches and the recently erected security fence. He emphasized with pride the charitable contributions of many organizations and individuals, including the solar panels on the roof of the hut by the gate; these had been installed by a troop of local Boy Scouts. Cottage industries, including the cannibalization of discarded parts to make sellable bicycles, are encouraged; they keep the occupants busy, develop skills and teamwork, and help with the village budget.
After we took our leave, I thought about J.C. and his well-delivered presentation. Although, to a skeptic, elements might be considered extracts from a puff piece, there was, I am sure, also genuine pride in the continuing improvements and genuine appreciation of the village benefactors. He was letting us know that the gods are smiling on the village.
Ongoing support for temporary shelter for the homeless is unpredictable. In early 2015, the New Mexico Legislature earmarked $45,000 for Las Cruces Hope Village improvements. Meanwhile, local governments elsewhere were closing down similar tent cities, citing poor sanitation, disorderly conduct, drug and alcohol abuse and/or the financial burden. This year, even the New Mexico state appropriations for support of the homeless are expected to be cut. But on June 20, out of the blue, the Las Cruces City Council, confronted with leftover funds in the financial year ending June 30, with little discussion, voted unanimously to award $23,000 to MVCH. Announcing the award, the council made clear its particular concern regarding homeless veterans. And here, inter alia, the political consideration is introduced.
The attitude toward use of government revenue as a source for charitable donations is a reliable litmus test, identifying position on the conservative/liberal political spectrum. Those on the political right are fearful that such gifts create a disincentive for people to work for a living. They may also be rewarding those who brought destitution upon themselves through laziness or self-inflicted impediments, and these awards could also set up channels for future corruption or misappropriation of funds. What the Las Cruces City Council has done, whether or not intentionally, is to address these concerns by singling out those members of the community – veterans, firefighters, law enforcement officials, the first responders or, in short, the heroes and heroines of the community – with whom politicians on the political right have a special affinity and from whom they believe they reliably derive political support. Obviously not all homeless fall into these career categories; Crandell’s life path, for example, didn’t happen to take him in any of these directions. Nor, even more obviously, is the entire conservative voter base among the homeless. Nevertheless, the Las Cruces City Council announcement highlights an interesting strategy for securing government funding for social causes in a right-of-center political environment.
The whole range of specializations which we collectively label as social services exists primarily to help the William Crandells within their reach. These services constitute the safety net. The ideal outcome of their help, rarely achieved, is to bring the individuals back to the status of a normally functioning member of the community. However, in most cases, the outcome amounts to failure, to a lesser or greater degree, which is more an indication of the extreme difficulty of the task rather than any lack of competence or dedication on the part of the service providers. In Crandell’s case, the failure was complete. The safety-net administrators will point out that Crandell failed himself; that his disintegration was deliberate and that he alternately sought help and rejected help according to his fluctuating mood and physical condition.
The relationship of local social services to the homeless is quite different from that of a hospital to its inpatients. Most bed-ridden patients are grateful to the medical staff and are happy to follow instructions. But the homeless and society have rejected each other. He is like the employee handing in his notice just as he is being fired. Whether his feelings toward society are triumphant on account of newfound freedom and having disproven the inevitability of taxes, or whether they are bitter on account of being rejected, the social services, as representatives of society, have learned not to expect much in the way of cooperation from the homeless they exist to help. Unfortunately, these difficulties are precisely the components defining the challenge, not the conditions which exonerate the services from responsibility. That the difficulties in Crandell’s case are so unusually well documented should make us more appreciative of what the social services are attempting to do, but should not give them the license to give up or fail.
Ann Arbor, as a small, proud community just off the eastern edge of the tallgrass prairie, will not be pleased with unfavorable comparisons, but there is no one in this city who would claim we have complete workable solutions to homelessness and the allied problems of substance abuse and long-term unemployment. That leaves us with the choice of continuing current practices, with scant regard for their results, or looking outward to see how other communities cope. And that brings us to take another look at the comparable Las Cruces, just as an example, with the question in mind: What can we learn?
A conspicuous and remarkable feature of the social safety net serving Las Cruces and surrounding Dona Ana County is the coordination of five agencies under one umbrella organization: the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope. The services offered by this nonprofit corporation include information and counseling on preparation for employment, referrals to medical and psychiatric providers, long-term housing, daycare center for homeless children, legal clinic, ID acquisition, income support, work/study programs and connections to government assistance programs. By means of a case manager structure, MVCH can efficiently bring together the applicant with the appropriate resources. Charitable contributions are applied to supplement services where there is heavy demand, and wasteful duplication of resources is avoided. As the homeless applicant is made aware of the multitude of services available, he is encouraged to put down roots in the local community and seek stability. Hope comes with a realistic appreciation of what is possible, and in this case it means recognizing that rehabilitation is a process which must run for months, perhaps years.
By contrast, the rookie homeless Crandell, as a newcomer to Ann Arbor, had to find out about the safety net agencies by word of mouth, as heard on the street. It is one way to learn the ropes but only effective if one is lucky to live long enough. Each agency seems to operate independently as a member of a severely balkanized collection. Crandell describes the output as quick, temporary fixes, attempting to address an immediate crisis before the transient owner removes the crisis and himself with it. This is the nature of the help provided, and this is the nature of the help expected. Unfortunately, the street-wise intelligence also includes advice on how a homeless applicant can best game the system, thereby ensuring further inefficiency in the application of resources.
Crandell’s death soon after he completed his report for The Ann is tragic, but not surprising. As we review what we know of him and the circumstances leading to his death, we can hardly help but wonder how the course of events might instead have taken a positive direction. Was there any realistic possibility that he might have been helped over that threshold which separates the hopeless from the hopeful? Consideration of the “if only” brings home the real magnitude of what we as a society might have lost. It is not just the one life – though that in itself is very important. Think what that one life might have accomplished. The photographs show a well-built man, still young enough to have his best years in front of him, with the contemplative yet resolute expression suggesting strong leadership qualities. The only colored photo published in the July issue of The Ann shows not the ashen gray to be expected after an accumulation of much physical suffering, but a surprisingly healthy, sanguine complexion. Had he survived, in view of his stature, his personal experience plus his ability to express his thoughts, it is easy to imagine him as an effective and persuasive role model and teacher, leading a national movement for the rehabilitation of addicts, alcoholics and the homeless; and then a spokesman on behalf of all who society has cast aside, addressing charitable organizations, administrators, legislators. The Bill McKibben for the homeless.
While the Ann Arbor agencies that he contacted must have asked themselves “How can we help him?” the real question to consider would have been, “How can he help us?”