SMOC says visit to wet shelter violated privacy Thursday, November 3, 2005
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- A member of the committee studying local social service agencies is under fire for trying to inspect the wet shelter downtown, which selectmen and the agency that runs it say is disrespectful and an affront to the privacy of those staying there.

Steven Orr is facing heated criticism for his visit last week to the Irving Street shelter.  He reportedly later boasted that he got his foot in the door by acting like Detective Joe Fontana, a New York City detective on the TV series "Law and Order."

Jim Cuddy, the executive director of SMOC, the Framingham nonprofit that runs the shelter, likened Orr's actions to walking into someone's house to take a look around.

"It's very disrespectful.  There's a protocol, a common courtesy, a way to be respectful to the people who are living there," Cuddy said.

Orr, a Town Meeting member from Precinct 1, sits on the PILOT committee that has launched a wide-ranging investigation of how SMOC and other social service agencies affect Framingham.  For critics of the agencies, the homeless shelter has been a lighting rod.

In a letter to selectmen made public Tuesday, Cuddy wrote that Orr told the shelter manager that he was acting under the authority of a selectmen's committee.  Orr's behavior, Cuddy continued, "violated the good faith working relationship we have with the town and the privacy of the Common Ground shelter residents."

Yesterday, Orr denied that he and another Town Meeting member, Andy Limeri, said they were there on behalf of selectmen or the PILOT committee, though they did identify themselves as Town Meeting members.  They happened to be in the area, he said, and wanted "to see what was going on."

The manager did not allow them to walk around, but Orr said he got a good look from the entranceway.  Anyone should be able to inspect the shelter from the front door, he insisted, because it is "a public business."

"I think if Mr. Cuddy thinks people should not be allowed to walk in there to see what that place looks like, I think there's a serious problem with the tax-exempt nature of that organization," he said.

Selectman John Stasik yesterday called that a "bizarre interpretation," saying the shelter is a private residence like any other.  At the selectmen's meeting Tuesday, he called Orr's visit "terribly inappropriate."

"I don't let anybody in my house just because they're curious to see what it looks like," he said yesterday.

While Orr denies relying on any kind of authority to get into the shelter, a fellow PILOT committee member says otherwise.  In an e-mail yesterday, Dawn Harkness, who is also a Town Meeting member, wrote that during a conversation she had with Orr, Orr said he told the shelter employee, "'It's OK.  I'm authorized. "' Harkness works at a different SMOC shelter. p> He also told her that he "'pulled a Detective Fontana,'" according to her e-mail.

"I didn't know what that meant," Harkness wrote, "so Steve explained that Detective Fontana is a character on a television show called 'Law and Order.'  When Fontana wants to get a look at information he doesn't have a warrant for or permission to see, he says, 'It's OK.  We're authorized.'"

Limeri, the Town Meeting member who was with Orr during the visit, confirmed Orr's account, saying neither of them mentioned the PILOT committee or that selectmen authorized the visit.  In fact, Limeri said, the shelter employee mistook them for selectmen.

They were interested in seeing the operation, but if SMOC did a better job at community relations, he said, they may not have been so curious.

"It's something we've heard about in many discussions, and it's a good thing to understand what you're talking about," Limeri said.

Orr said his conversation with Harkness was meant as a joke, but Harkness didn't see it that way.  She notified SMOC officials about Orr's visit because she was concerned about the privacy of the clients there.

"If somebody came to the shelter where I work and wanted to look around," she said, "I wouldn't let them sit and gawk at clients.  I'd ask them to make an appointment."

Send comments to: