SMOC official issues challenge to close homeless shelters Sunday, January 22, 2006
James T. Cuddy, SMOC Metrowest Daily News
In Framingham recently, a woman burned to death in a dumpster.  Her life ended in a container, on a side street adjacent to downtown, within walking distance of the Common Ground Shelter.  Police were not immediately able to identify the body, did not suspect foul play, and theorized that "Jane Doe" was lying on a mattress smoking a cigarette when the fire started.

Staff members of the South Middlesex Opportunity Council (SMOC) were also unsure, initially, of "Jane’s" involvement with our organization.  She had not recently stayed at one of our shelters or residential programs.

We knew, however, that "Jane" would be identified and that her life story would emerge from shadow.  We thought perhaps "Jane" was a victim of domestic violence; perhaps "Jane" battled substance abuse, mental illness or both; perhaps "Jane" had physical or developmental handicaps.

Sure enough, through dental records, the police identified the body.  "Jane" was given a name and the sadder aspects of her life story carried on the front p ages of this newspaper less than a week later.

What we will never know is why "Jane," on a bitterly cold evening, made the decision to climb into a container and bed down on a discarded mattress.

If there is a sadder way to die, if there is a more unsettling image of death, I am not aware of it.  Perhaps that tenet is one in which all of us, despite our different viewpoints, can agree.  No one deserves to die in such a manner.  Perhaps there is something else, another tenet, that most of us can also agree with -- namely that our society should do everything in its power to prevent "Jane;s " fellow lost souls from suffering this fate.

Shelters and emergency housing for homeless individuals have been a ubiquitous part of urban and semi-urban landscapes for a generation.  Once only existing in major cities, the number of shelters and programs for the homeless has proliferated as a legitimate, compassionate response to the emerging phenomena of a rising number of people without homes.

Not fast enough it seems.  Like a dog chasing its tail, there are still more homeless people in most communities than there are beds for them.

Shelters long ago shed their temporary, emergency identity.  They are now part of our culture.  And our culture is lessened, diminished because of this.

A generation of caring for an increasing number of homeless adults has taught us many lessons.  For instance, we know who becomes homeless, how they become homeless, how long they remain homeless.

"Jane" fit the description of what is now termed a chronically homeless individual, pinballing between systems of care for much of her life. "Jane" had a difficult childhood and a history of mental illness and substance abuse.  She was a victim of domestic violence, and wandered into and out of shelters, hospitals, detox facilities and correctional facilities.  "Jane" was also local, raised in a MetroWest community.  She was educated, and had a college degree.  She had both family and children, but they were lost to her long ago.

Government officials, homeless advocates and homeless service providers know what programs and services not only keep homeless adults from dying but also move them toward self-sufficiency and independence.

If we know all of this, then why are there still so many homeless adults and why are there still so many shelters?  The answer to those questions is complicated, touching on the interplay among numerous variables, including the decimation of inexpensive housing for single adults (think of the old mom and pop lodging houses, think even of the old "flop houses"); loss of access to a minimal amount of money either through General Relief or non-labor "easy" methods of securing cash (selling one's plasma); closure of the public health hospital system; and the lessening of tolerance for nuisance behaviors which has led to an expansion of the criminal justice system.

The situation has become intolerable.  It may surprise some of SMOC's most ardent critics to hear that we share their belief about shelters.  We don't want them either.  It would please us no end to be able to close each and every shelter.  It would mean there would be no more need for them.

SMOC has made a choice.  We pledge to call a meeting by the spring to discuss how we can eliminate the need for an overflow shelter as the first step.  We will invite state and local officials to this meeting.  We will invite the leaders of local foundations, local financial institutions, corporations and the United Way to this meeting.  At that meeting we will present our plan and the assistance we require to accomplish this.

Let me issue one cautionary note, namely that eliminating individual shelters cannot be accomplished in a miserly manner.  Here I am speaking of time, energy and money.  Replacing the existing system with atriage/transitional/permanent housing nexus will require commitment, effort and maybe some additional funding.  But it can be done.  It simply requires social, political and community will and capital.

"Jane" burned to death in a dumpster, a fate all of us would wish on no one.  Out of this dismal, dismaying end can emerge a new hope.

We will work with the community to end the need for each and every shelter for which we are responsible.  This is our social responsibility.  It is our human responsibility.

Send comments to: