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Photo: David Shankbone

For 10 years I ran a network of shelters and services for homeless adults, families and teens. It was righteous work, and many of our clients made huge strides in stabilizing their lives, reconnecting with family and taking responsibility for their futures. Besides the importance of the services we provided (food, shelter, showers, clothing, counseling, etc.), I felt that the need for our programs served as an indictment of conservative policies that cut basic services for the most destitute members of our community. I thought that once we Americans realized that homelessness and distress were created by the destruction of the social safety net, then we’d vote the rascals out.

Gradually our funders, frustrated that the homeless problem wasn’t “solved,” started requiring changes in how we related to our clients. We were required to use automated, standardized intake forms, placing a computer between our caseworkers and clients. This change forced me to fire one of our most talented counselors who could develop rapport with even the most alienated, mentally ill clients. I realized he was illiterate and couldn’t complete the intake form himself while working with clients, as required by our local government.

the frying pan

The funders’ definition of “success,” by which they judged whether to continue to support us or not, pressured non-profits to shy away from serving the most disabled people in order to get the “outcome” numbers required by our grants – permanent housing, employment or stable income, long-term sobriety, etc.

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Most people know that homeless folks with substance abuse or mental health problems are seldom “fixed” for life. It does happen, but it’s the exception. Falling off the wagon and experiencing periods of instability are part of their challenges. If service organizations can “count” only their ultimate successes as work performed, and not all the steps leading up to that success (e.g. taking a shower, getting a psychiatric evaluation, taking medications, meeting regularly with a caseworker, moving into temporary shelter), they cannot afford to offer the flexible support over time that many of these people need – sometimes for the rest of their lives.

Twenty five years later, homelessness is a permanent presence in our nation’s cities, and ragged, mentally ill people are sleeping in doorways and under bridges throughout the country. And pretty much all that’s left of the safety net is the network of nonprofit organizations like the one I ran, trying to take the place of a government system of housing and income support for the extremely poor.

vivian rothstein

I sometimes wonder what’s become of our society. We seem to be taking the humans out of a system that I thought was organized to make life better for actual people. As the cynics say, human services would be so much easier if it weren’t for the humans.

Vivian Rothstein
The Frying Pan