During 2011, I was a resident at the Lifebridge shelter in Salem, Massachusetts. This letter was published in the Salem Gazette and I’m still getting compliments for sharing this story with the public.
I was recently screamed at by a shelter staff member, for following shelter policies in regards to certain items in the refridgerator. I am not exaggerating, I was literally screamed at. If you do not believe a shelter has the right to act this way towards it’s residents, then copy and paste the letter below into an e-mail and send it out to every Letters to the Editor section of your local paper.
In this rough economic climate, it’s only natural to expect that people will suffer a bit of hard luck. As much as we would like to pretend otherwise, the homeless exist. That means there is a need for places and services to assist those people, including, but not limited to shelters.
The question a lot of people in Salem, Massachusetts have no doubt been asking is just what is the Lifebridge Shelter doing to improve this situation in our town?
When you go into the living area of Lifebridge, the first thing you are likely to notice is the people who are just sitting around, reading, watching TV, or just staring off into space. These aren’t just people who have jobs and are simply taking it easy. The majority of them are people who are there every single day, all day, unless otherwise asked to leave. Half of them will only leave of their own volition to smoke, or to run down to the store to buy cigarettes and junk food. Remember this.
There is no doubt that some of these residents are mentally ill. There are also those who have limited mobility, or disabilities that otherwise make it difficult to leave the building. Once again, the majority of the people you will meet here have no greater disability than their own overinflated sense of entitlement.
Failure or refusal on behalf of staff members to enforce certain policies fuels this entitlement. People who would lose their beds or other services in a much stricter environment mistake this laxness for the norm.
Intoxicated residents who are banned by one staff member are given the run of the place by another. The lives of residents who need oxygen to breathe at night are placed in danger as residents prop the exit to the sleeping area open, allowing cigarette smoke to blow in. Remember this as well, it will be important later.
To speak to some of the residents, you might be lead to believe that you were in the Hawthorne Hotel rather than a homeless shelter. But then again, hotels have rules and policies that are better enforced. And those people actually pay to spend the night there.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the one percent of shelter residents who do take advantage of the services and try to improve their situations. If you see them at the shelter at all they are likely eating, sleeping, or heaven forbid taking it easy for a little bit. But they are awake and out the door early in the morning. If they do have jobs, they are faithful to their schedules and working hard to get a place to live. If they are unemployed then they are pounding the pavement in search of work.
Ironically, these are the people who suffer the most. Instead of assistance, they are given excuses. Appointments are made with their caseworkers, only to be canceled or forgotten without notice. Miscommunications between staff lead to misunderstandings that can cause these people to miss a meal, or to wind up being needlessly penalized.
Probably the worst offense of all is when a staff member who cannot properly manage their stress takes it out on a resident. This creates a hostile environment as that person’s inner circle of residents now believes that they can mistreat the victim. This is further reinforced when that staff member refuses to apologize, thus ensuring that a supposedly safe environment grows potentially dangerous.
Take a moment to think about that. As mentioned, there are mentally ill people living in this shelter. Some of these people would not be credible witnesses in a court case and very likely, if one of them were to tell you what someone did to them, you would likely dismiss them. But try to imagine a relative of yours.
Maybe someone with a similar mental illness or an elderly relative with Alzheimer’s disease, who for whatever reason has been placed in a home or other sheltered environment. How would you feel, knowing that a nurse or an orderly took out their frustrations on that loved one? Where would you draw the line? How would you feel if you were that person and you felt threatened and intimidated by people who were supposed to be there to help you?
What does this have to do with you, the citizen of Salem, Massachusetts or any other town with a similar situation to deal with? Well, at one point or another you’ve probably been asked to donate to one of these shelters.
You might have seen a booth at a fair, or attended a benefit dinner to support a homeless shelter. Or, perhaps you received a pamphlet from a place like Lifebridge, full of color photos of the staff, residents, and campus. In that pamphlet is an envelope where you would put a check or money order in one of the amounts requested.
The question you need to ask yourself is after reading this letter, do you honestly believe that this is a place you would want to donate your money? Does this sound like a place where your hard earned dollars would go towards caring for the mentally ill or for helping that once percent who just need that extra boost. Or does it sound more like you’re funding a twenty-four hour college fraternity party? Read on.
A number of the aforementioned residents, who suffer from those disabilities and limited mobility, will receive a disability check. Half of that money will go towards cigarettes. Similarly, their food stamps will pay for junk food while they enjoy full meals provided by donations from well meaning businesses and church groups. To add further insult to injury, the oxygen tanks, which many of these smokers use believe it or not, were paid for by health insurance that was provided by the state.
So in a sense, you, the tax payer have all ready paid a substantial amount for these people to just sit around, smoking, eating and reading. Do you really need to donate more money for them to do the exact same thing?