Tuesday, August 18

Reflections on the House of Charity: Crime and punishment or lack thereof

Like every institution, the House of Charity has rules. To assure the fair and equal distribution of limited donations, you can only go through the lunch line again after seconds have been called and you are only allowed in the clothing room once a week. To make sure there is space for everyone who needed it, you can only keep two bags, both under 35 pounds, in the storage closet at any one time. To protect the other clients, absolutely no alcohol or drugs are allowed on the premise. To protect the staff, their directions must be followed at all times. To protect everyone, weapons and fighting are never permitted.

Punishment is simple. If you break a rule, you have to leave. There are no time outs, and revoking privileges is rare. When you break a rule, your case is brought before the weekly sanctions council, and they determine the length of your punishment according to your history and the circumstances of the latest. A night or day for a minor infraction. A few weeks or months if you are a repeat offender or the first offense is severe enough. A year or permanent if your very presence is a threat to everyone at the House.

Staff broke and ignored this rule all the time. Infractions wouldn't be recorded, and clients would be let off with a warning. Men could come in with full beer cans falling out of their jacket and be sloshed that someone literally had to drag them into bed, but the next day no one would say anything when they came down for coffee and doughnuts. Another woman could spend 30 minutes roundly cursing out anyone who came near her and screaming that there was a conspiracy against her, and nothing would be done except, maybe, trying to calm her down.

There were reasons for this, good reasons I like to think. Like I wrote, many rules were in place to to protect the resources and the staff. When it came down to it, though, we were there to serve and protect our clients. If we weren't doing that, we weren't doing our job, no matter how many official, written rules we could hide behind. Sending someone out from the House and onto the streets was a serious decision. The streets at night carry a host of dangers. Thieves and drunks looking for a cheap thrill could roll you. Opportunistic diseases could have their chance. Exposure to the cold and elements are constant threats. No one wants to have a client's death on their conscience after they kicked them out for sneaking in a beer. Not that the consequences were always so severe. Sometimes it was as simple as grabbing someone a sandwich when they missed dinner or pulling a coat out of the clothing room for someone else who had forgotten that it was only open in the morning.

Making exceptions could quickly become exhausting. You want to believe that when you're doing them, you're helping whatever poor soul just come through the door, but it gets hard to see how that's happening when you make a special trip into the clothing room for that one particular man for the third time that day. Even if you have no other work and would otherwise be just leaning against the counter, you begin to ask yourself at what point you're no longer helping and just feeding their mental illness or addiction or whatever.

There was one client, severely mentally ill, who would literally come in every day to ask for a new T-shirt. Sometimes it was honestly dirty, as though he had rolled in the dirt with it. Other times you would be hard pressed to tell what the problem was. You couldn't reason with him or suggest that he wash it. He was single minded in his pursuit. If we didn't get a new shirt for him in due time, he would stuff the old one into the nearest garbage can. It was rare that we didn't give in. There may have been plans to present a united front and force him to take more responsibility or at least keep a shirt for a week, but I can't recall them ever working. Another man had a ban of indeterminate length from every possible service for refusing to work with our case manager. He could only move with a walker and desperately needed hip surgery, and he knew it. Every morning he would come in and demand attention at that exact moment. She could never help him then, and he would leave because he couldn't go longer than an hour without a beer. I felt for him. Really. He was in an impossible situation. No surgeon would operate on him until he underwent a full and complete medical detox. That wouldn't happen until he was cleared by Spokane Mental Health, and they refused to work with him until he had the surgery. He could have been a character in a Joseph Heller novel. Then again, the man was a pain of the worst sort. After dealing with him, I would need time alone in the back hallway to calm down. Our staff did everything for him. They cleaned him and gave him new clothes when he soiled himself, which was about every other day by my count. Our case manager spent hours trying to get someone to bend and get the surgery started. But he would still only stick around just long enough to be noticed before leaving to get loaded again. I've been out of touch with the House for over a month now. I hope something has changed.

I spoke with the House's assistant director about this after one particularly trying episode. I could hardly even sit down to talk with him. I wanted to pace the three steps across the width of his office until my hands stopped shaking. When I finally said it with the words rushing over each other, halting every ten seconds as I realized I was descending into rant, he told me I was acting as Christ would when I made exceptions and that was my job. The permanent staff in the back had agencies to liaise with and reports to file. If they made exceptions, they would never get to their real work. The AmeriCorps, the Jesuit Volunteer Corp, the Gonzaga work studies were all there to make the exceptions when the others couldn't.

It wasn't what I wanted to hear then. I wanted him to tell me to throw the bum out on his rear with the walker following soon after. I wanted to hear that it was alright to not care about him. But it was reassuring. Our job remained to help and care for those who received nothing from anyone else. That's how we earned our pay on the front desk.

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