Wednesday, January 16, 2019

On the Streets, Serving the "Hardest to Serve."

For homeless outreach workers, hardcore alcoholics are some of the most difficult people to get off the streets. 
by Brian Whitney


I saw Zack the other day. 

He was drunk and trying to panhandle, hitting up tourists for cash to buy more beer.  It wasn’t working very well because he was so hammered that he couldn’t speak.  When you’re a filthy older man, drunk and barely able to stand up, enunciation is a requirement of successful panhandling.

When I first started working at the  shelter, they gave me Zack to work with. His caseworker was leaving and he needed a new one. I remember her saying over and over, “Oh, you’re going to have fun with him” in a sarcastic manner. Pretty much everyone said something like that. It was like they all knew I had herpes, but I didn’t know it yet.

My job was to do “outreach.” That meant looking for guys who were causing disturbances in the tourist areas and try to hustle them back to the shelter. There were two shelters: the city shelter and the wet house.

If the guy wasn’t too messed up he would go to the shelter where I worked. This was in a rundown part of the city, but it had a soup kitchen, lockers, a shower, places to sit and cots to sleep on at night.

If the guy was drunk he would go to the wet house. I don’t mean drunk in the traditional sense—that was fine at the city shelter—I mean drunk in the “unable to move” or “acting violent” sense.  The wet shelter was in a really crappy part of the city.  It was basically a basement filled with cots.  Some guys had lived there for a decade or more.  They called it The Club.

They gave me Zack and all the other serious wastrels—we officially called them the “hardest to serve”—mostly because I was weird. While most social workers at the shelter acted like they were better than the clients, I had a vibe that I was one of them. Anyone who seemed like a lost cause or who scared people wound up on my caseload.

In theory I was supposed to be “helping,” but the reality was that our adorable coastal city wanted these hardcore street alcoholics off the street—at least the streets where people shopped and spent money. You know, they looked and smelled like shit and they got in peoples faces: not good for sales. The goal was to get them to go to a shelter, but if they went to a bad part of town that was fine, too.

We had a van that would pick these guys up— if they consented—and take them to the wet shelter where they could sleep it off.

A typical day at the Club: Wake up at 6 am on a cot in a basement with 30 other guys. Have a breakfast of weak coffee and day-old doughnuts. Get kicked out at 7 am. They would leave and then spend every second of the day either getting fucked up or trying to. Some got disability checks, others panhandled. At night they would come back, hammered, and pass out on a cot again.

A wet house is based on the philosophy of harm reduction, much like a needle exchange program. If addicts are going to engage in self-destructive behavior no matter what, it’s better they do it in a supervised environment, where detrimental effects can be managed. Wet houses also save tons of money. 

Instead of spending money on emergency services, ambulances, shelters and jails, you just take the guy and throw him in the wet shelter.  Out of sight, out of mind.


Just Out Partying With Friends

I also spent time with garden-variety street alcoholics.  These guys were a lot easier to deal with then Zack.  They acted like they were cool, hanging out on street corners, laughing, drunk all day.

In reality, they were broken and sad behind their façade, pretending they were just out partying with friends. This crew managed to get motel rooms half the month, someone would get a disability check and they would all crowd into the Motel 6, watch TV, drink and crash out. Then they would hit the streets and the shelter until another check came in.

Johnny  and Lumberjack both were this garden-variety type of street alcoholic. Johnny’ story, as he told it, was that he had once been a salesman of some sort; he had money and a home, and he lost it all because of alcoholism and a tendency to act violent when he was drunk. 

Lumberjack had a similar tale of love gone wrong, mistakes made…and here he was.  Johnny  and Lumberjack were both charming guys in their 40s.  Johnny  talked a mile a minute, played the harmonica and was always smiling. Lumberjack was his quiet sidekick.  

When I met them, they had been around for a few years, drunk and panhandling, but not really causing problems, other than that if you knew them you would cross the street as soon as you saw them.

Lumberjack drowned.  All I heard was that he was out swimming in the harbor and went under.  Johnny  is sober now.  I saw him in the supermarket the other day, and I started to turn so I could avoid him, but then I saw that his eyes were clear.  He was happy to see me, and said he had been sober a year.

Zack wasn’t ever going to get sober.  Zack was alone.  Zack was angry.  Most of the time he was impossible to even communicate with.

In all honestly I couldn’t stand Zack.  He was drunk all the time and his pants often had shit in them.  He would yell at me and call me a cunt.  He would take out his dick and piss on the floor in the soup kitchen.

This was my caseload.  I was at the city shelter for the same reason as the clients: I had fucked up along the way.  I had had some sort of career at some point, and I fucked it up because of my own addictions so I ended up working at the shelter.  

I cared what happened to these guys, but I sure knew I wasn’t able to do anything about it.  My role was basically to give out cigs and shoot the shit with people.  I was good at both of these things.

There was no city money for housing, nor were there any support services afterward.  Even if we could have gotten a place for them, no landlord would want them.  We had some housing vouchers, of course, but this group was so far gone that it was impossible to find a landlord to take them.  Even the worst slumlord in town would turn them down.


Natural Law

There was one guy by the name of Joe.  He was a hardcore drunk and he was nasty, particularly to women, and would often say things to the female caseworkers about how much he wanted to bang them.  He was nuts, there was no doubt about it.

His scene was to wander around town and aggressively panhandle, kind of a cross between “Hey, can you help me?” and a mugging.  Needless to say, he and I encountered each other a lot.

We found him an apartment.  He was housed.  Off the streets.

This lasted a few months before he was evicted.  Apparently he invited every other homeless guy he knew over and they tore the place apart.  When I saw Joe on the street and asked him about it he said there “were too many rules” and he liked it better at the Club.

I wondered sometimes about what would happen if we were to just stop feeding these dudes, and giving them a place to sleep.  Not just the street alcoholics, all of the homeless in our city.  Would they get angry to the point of violence?  Rise up and take over the city?  

Then shit would just be natural law and people would have to do something about what was going on.  Instead we just gave them chicken fingers to eat and a cot to sleep on, like zookeepers, feeding the animals in their cages.

The homeless are not a priority to anyone.  They don’t vote.  They have few advocates.  But we could improve their lives a lot with only a little investment of resources, if only we had the political will.  More affordable housing could be built, government vouchers could be increased, support services put in place.  It isn’t an easy problem.  It’s much easier just to be disgusted at the sight of them and keep on walking.

I used to see Zack before I started at the shelter.  He was everywhere in the city, it seemed.  Trying to bum money, pissing in doorways.  I wondered what his story was, why was he like this?  What had happened?

When I worked with him I was told that he used to be a welder and had a wife and kids.  Then it just kept going downhill from there.  I never succeeded in helping him, whatever “helping” means in that situation.

Now when I see him I just keep on walking, like everyone else. 



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