People In Peril: Where When You Have to Go There, They Have to Take You In
The headline above is from a poem by Robert Frost.
On a Thursday, a few weeks ago, it was cold, even for Worcester. Seeking cover, Allan McKeon, 55, crawled into the thick juniper bushes around the rotary at Washington Square, across from the architectually soaring $39 million Union Station, shown above.
Mr. McKeon was found in the junipers the next morning, dead of exposure. I have become used to stories like this. Last year 17 homeless persons died on our streets, and it goes on this year.
In other words, an apt place to die.
He got off to an awful start in life. His father beat him and his mother and quickly faded from the scene. His mother remarried and had seven more children. By all accounts, Mr. McKeon grew up in a loving home in West Brookfield.
Speaking for the family, a half sister said that he had been surrounded by love all his life. She said that Allan was a nice guy who was warm and friendly and people liked him; it was the drinking that destroyed his life and killed him.
The drinking took over after he was honorably discharged from the Air Force early because of asthma. Having put all his hopes on the Air Force, his early release had apparently been too much for him to bear.
But he had also grown up around drinking. He was brought up in an Irish family in which drinking was a normal and expected part of life. He learned early that a good Irish boy was supposed to be able to hold his liquor.
Mr. McKeon's half sister emphasized that he was not homeless; he just chose not to go home because drinking was his life and the only place for that was on the streets. She said that everybody in the family reached out to him over and over, trying to help, begging him to come back. At one time or another, four of his half brothers took him in and gave him a home.
But each time, he could not or would not be a responsible member of the family. All he wanted to do was drink. And, the family spokesperson said, he would do anything for a drink, even give up a home and a loving family-- which he did repeatedly.
He stole from the family, she said, and he robbed stores to get money for booze. He served two prison terms. In the end, family members came to realize that, as much as they loved Allan, they could not help a grown man who consistently chose drinking over all else. Nor, they believed, could the community or city agencies or the People in Peril homeless shelter, PIP, where he spent some of his last days.
Leading the vigil was the Rev. Gary Richards, paster of Aldersgate United Methodist Church. He told the little group, "Yet another brother, another neighbor, another friend, has succumbed to the tragedy of homelessness. Each life is precious, each life has great value. When there is a loss of life, it has a great effect on many."
Along with prayers and moments of silence, there were words of outrage, not from Rev. Richards, but from homeless advocates. "I can't believe someone else died," said one, who asked what it would take "for the people of our city to get outraged enough," according to Taryn Plumb of the Telegram & Gazette.
Some of the homeless people there said that when they were too drunk or too late to get into PIP, they often spent the night with Mr. McKeon on the rotary common across from Union Station where he died. One woman, who said she had been living on the streets and in shelters for 17 years, said she had covered Mr. McKeon with her sleeping bag the night he died.
Reeking of alcohol, she berated the group and told them to take their signs, speeches, and attitudes and go home. At the same time, firmly grounded in reality, she worried about getting her sleeping bag back from the police.
When I saw that there was going to be a service for Allan McKeon at the People in Peril homeless shelter, I decided to attend. I wondered what kind of service it would be and who would be there. Would Mr. McKeon's family show up? Would there be a city official? Was PIP the awful place everybody said it was?
PIP is located in the infamous Main South where drug dealers and prostitutes and all manner of petty criminals ply their trade and where the police stage periodic sweeps. I witnessed an arrest myself and took a picture of it, shown here, across the street from PIP.
There are liquor stores, Spanish and Asian grocers, check-cashing places, used-car lots, storefront ministries, and apartment buildings offering short-term housing and halfway houses. Each year, the funeral home on the street, Graham, O'Brien and Maloney, buries dozens of victims of AIDS, drug-overdose, and alcoholism. It is owned by Peter Stefan, a member of the advisory board at PIP, and an outspoken advocate for the homeless.
Main South is not a smart choice for a carefree stroll, unless one is looking for trouble. My wife and daughter regularly warn me to stay away from the area. I have heard so many horror stories about PIP and Main South that, as an elderly suburbanite from the more sedate West Side, the place scares me.
PIP is the only "wet shelter" in the area, meaning that everybody over 18 is eligible for a meal and a bed regardless of gender, race, addictions, and physical or mental health. Most other shelters are selective, accepting the drug-free and sober, or the veteran, or male or female.
PIP's door is open to all comers, even if they are inebriated or aggressive when they arrive, which is not unusual. In the early evening when desperate people with no other option begin arriving, tensions rise. As the shelter of last resort, many looking for a bed for the night are in a state of emergency, often with critical medical needs. Dr. Garcia is shown below at work.
The other night a 28-year-old woman, a heroin addict, showed up in great pain and distress, Dr. Garcia told me. Luckily, it was a Thursday when Dr. Garcia sees patients at PIP. He examined her and found that she had a heart infection that ran all the way down her legs. It was life-threatening.
Dr. Garcia swung into action. He and the PIP staff arranged for the woman to be hospitalized as well as transportation for her. While they were doing so, the woman – left.
"Left?," I asked. "Just like that?"
"Yes and we couldn't find her. She wasn't ready to be put in a hospital."
"She's somewhere out in the streets now."
"Yes. I wasn't able to give her the care she needed."
The same night a young man, a nonstop drinker in a wheelchair well known at PIP, showed up with a long open wound "from his sternum to his pubic hair," Dr. Garcia said. Stitches from appendicitis surgery had broken open.
Dr. Garcia cleaned the wound, sewed it back up, put on a fresh dressing. PIP staff helped the man get cleaned up, gave him clean clothes and got him settled for the night.
He does not judge or lecture the patients he sees at PIP, Dr. Garcia says. It would only get in the way of his giving care or drive them away altogether. It's an approach known as harm or risk reduction. If he can't stop people from engaging in risky behavior, he believes he should at least help them engage in it more safely -- through a needle-exchange program for drug addicts, for example.
Dr. Garcia says that when a prostitute comes in, he doesn't see a professional hooker doing so by choice like prostitutes in Nevada. What he sees in almost every case are women beaten to their knees by one or more of the same things: poverty, domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction, and virtual enslavement by pimps and drug dealers.
"They are forced to sell themselves. It's hard for me to vilify them for this. They are victims and I need to do everything I can to help them."
Dr. Garcia does acknowledge, without judging, that the people he treats at PIP are "individual limiting factors" in how much he can do for them. He reserves his moral condemnation for the tiny percentage of people at PIP who are predators. He puts them at no more than 2%, if that.
"These are the ones who do violence to others, who rape, steal, and terrorize others. Morality is not about the harm that people do to themselves, but about the harm that is done to others."
The rush, especially on cold winter nights, sometimes overflows the lot at the back of the building where the main entrance is, and puts the PIP staff under tremendous pressure. I went there one early evening and saw for myself. The back lot was filled with people, almost all men.
PIP staff never know what kind of emergency is going to walk through the door. Dr. Garcia said the staff has to be all things to every person who shows up. "The staff have to be counselors, mothers, caretakers, friends, even health-care providers," Dr. Garcia said.
PIP is the center of a storm of controversy that sets off emotions around the city like a nonstop fireworks display. No one wants a PIP or a spin-off of PIP in his backyard. In my own backyard, a battle has raged over the Newton Square siting, on 2 June Street, of a sober house for 14 women.
And yet, here it is holding a memorial service for Mr. McKeon when it could easily have done nothing. It is the idea of Peter Stefan of the PIP advisory board and a funeral director at Graham, O'Brien, and Maloney. His firm donated its services and arranged for Mr. McKeon to be buried in a veteran's cemetary with military honors.
I take a seat at a table in the back and am soon joined by Peter Stefan and two other homeless advocates, Bill McNeil and Kevin Ksen. All express disappointment that the city sent no representative to the service. "Imagine that," Mr. Stefan said. "Nobody. You'd think that's the least they could do."
Bill McNeil, who used to own and operate Bill's Diner where he fed the homeless, says the city doesn't care enough about the homeless. "People here are afraid. They aren't treated the way they should be. We need to do better."
He went on to talk about how last winter a homeless person froze to death in the garage of St. Joseph's Church. "Never should have happened. There were all kinds of unused rooms in the rectory." He said that many rectories in the Worcester area have a lot of unused space.
"One has 39 rooms and one priest living there," he said. He says he is working to see if some of this unused space can be used to shelter the homeless, but so far without success.
Bill McNeil's diner was near the 1999 Cold Storage fire in which six Worcester firefighters lost their lives trying to save two homeless people thought to be in the Cold Storage building. After the tragedy, fire investigators said that the two homeless people had been in the building but had left. A later investigation implicated them in the fire, which may have been an accident causing them to panic and flee.
Kevin Ksen works at Worcester Common Ground, a non-profit hat works to create affordable housing and more viable neighborhoods. He agrees that the homeless at PIPS deserve better -- more understanding; more programs; more longterm, citywide housing planning.
While waiting for the service to begin, Kevin Ksen and Bill McNeil, pictured here, talk meetings, organization, and ground-roots action. Mr. Ksen is also involved with a group working to get out untold stories of Worcester,Worcester.indymedia.org, and to raise public consciousness of the homeless as human beings.
The brief service begins with perhaps 15 to 20 people present, some of whom wrote "stranger" after their names in the guest book. Feeling like an intruder, I wrote "concerned citizen" after my name.
As it turns out, Allan McKeon has more intimate mourners than strangers and intruders; he has family. Four of his half brothers arrive. They are escorted by PIP Executive Director, David McCloskey and he shows them to a seat near the front.
Rev. Gary Richards talks briefly about how Allan McKeon has now gone on to a more peaceful place. He asks for prayers for those still on the streets struggling with addiction, for those confronting the reality of not having a place called home, and for all who grieve as family members and friends of Allan.
Rev. Richards lights candles. "Our prayers go with all of you as you go your way this day," he said.
After the service, Peter Stefan, shown at right, presents the flag to Allan McKeon's four half-brothers. Next week, he plans to present a flag to the city at a City Council Meeting, admittedly to make the the officials squirm. "They don't like to see me coming because I tell the truth and they don't like to hear it," he said.
After the service, the four brothers get up and leave immediately. I had planned to talk to them and run out the door after them. They are getting into their car when I think, "Enough intrusion already."
I stand there and watch them drive away. Then something else dawns on me: Why wouldn't they want to get out of that place as fast as they can? Why wouldn't they pass on making small talk with strangers, intruders, alcoholics, drug addicts, and do-gooders?
For another thing, the scene may have been a little too close to home. All four have struggled with the alcoholism that claimed Allan McKeon. The same thing could easily have happened to them except that it didn't, or hasn't yet. Today all four live in the Worcester area and are in business as construction contractors.
Inside, PIP is not what I had imagined it to be. I expected it to be dark and seedy with addled wrecks of people lying on the floor and propped up in corners. I expected to see people behaving badly and perhaps having to be restrained by staff. I expected grime, noise, arguments, and a kind of half-controlled chaos. I thought the staff would be not much different from the guests.
What I find is very different. At the service, homeless people act just like everybody else present: quiet, respectful, reflective. It is hard to say for sure who is homeless and who is not.
One older man (probably 10 or 15 years younger than I am) announces himself as a PIP client by coming up to me and saying, "I'm an alcoholic" and then walking away. I wouldn't have known it if he hadn't told me.
A few days after the service, I show up asking if I can look around the PIP facility and talk with the Executive Director, David McCloskey. I had met him at the service and talked briefly with him. Debbie Davis, a quick-to-smile supervisor, is happy to oblige.
With her leading the way, and providing running commentary, I get to inspect the PIP facility. She points out Dr. Garcia's office off the main dining hall/reception area. As someone who appreciates photography, I notice the large framed photographs around the room. One is of Oakham Farm, a PIP transitional facility for former male drinkers now sober, and it is beautifully photographed.
"That was taken by a resident of Oakham," Ms. Davis said. "So were all these others," she said, pointing to the large framed photographs all around the hall. I look at them all and every one of them is beautifully photographed. The PIPS photographer is loaded with talent.
I check out the bathrooms. They look like normal bathrooms to me, except in the men's there is no enclosed toilet – denying a private place to shoot up -- and "number two" has to be done in the open. Not feeling comfortable with public defecation, I hope I don't have to go.
I see the large men's 100-person dorm and showers on the ground floor and the much smaller women's 10-person dorm and showers on the second floor. On the second floor is space for administration and nursing and counseling offices, as well as a modern kitchen that serves three meals a day. The kitchen prepared and served 131,453 meals in 2005, according to SMOC.
The men's dorm, pictured above, has the look and feel of an army barracks. Being daytime, only a few men are there sitting on beds. The women's dorm is empty. "We only get about ten women a night, the rest are men," Ms. Davis says. The worst thing I can say about the dorms is that not all the beds are made.
The laundry room has a industrial-sized washers and dryers. "We wash our guest's clothes every day," Ms. Davis says.
"You mean the guests wash them?"
"No, we, the staff, washes them, every day." She points out a wall of numbered baskets. "Each guest gets his own basket so the clothes don't get mixed up."
The top floor is taken up exclusively with self-help recovery and community meeting and activities space. It includes Unity Hall, which could be a large university lecture room. It is used for regular meetings devoted to helping people understand and overcome alcohol and drug addiction and other destructive life habits.
The walls of the room have many short sayings prominently displayed to encourage positive thinking and determination. Among them are: Live and Let Live, Keep It Simple, Remember When, I Can't We Can, But For the Grace of God, Think, and Easy Does it. There are also photographs honoring former PIP people who have moved on to better lives. One of those is "Sully," shown here.
Also on the top floor is a large recreation and activities room and this is where most residents can be found during the day. Flooded with light from many large windows, it is being well used on this day. People are playing pool, sitting and flipping through magazines, chatting sociably, sitting quietly. It could easily be mistaken for a VFW or American Legion hall.
No one is drunk or causing trouble. It is as tranquil a scene as I have seen in some time. I want to take a picture because, perhaps more than anything else I have seen at PIP, this scene shows the remarkable normality of the people here.
But out of respect for privacy, I do not take the picture.
The office of the Executive Director of PIP, David McCloskey, is airy and bright, that of a corporate executive, which is what he is. Large windows look directly onto Main South. He has a great view of the troubled streets below. Every time he hears police sirens, all he has to do is walk over to the window and watch the action real time.
He is a former high school teacher who is a relative newcomer to PIP. He is shown in the picture, seated, along with George Orcutt, Director of Operations. Mr. McCloskey has been on the job for only seven months. Almost everybody on the PIP staff has been there longer than he has. But he has logged nine years at SMOC.
Some Worcester officials worry about the financial impact of tax-exempt non-profits like SMOC buying up properties and taking them off the tax rolls. According to city Assessor Robert Allard, 116 tax-generating properties have been taken off the tax rolls in the last ten years as the result of expansion by social service agencies such as SMOC. This comes to a loss of $1.6 million in tax revenues per year.
The Mayor's Social Services Task Force of October 2005 expressed official concern about the steady erosion of tax dollars because of the growth of real estate ownship by social service agencies. The report said: "Property taxes are the lifeline for how municipalities provide services and anything that erodes that lifeline needs to be understood. The loss of $11.7 over 10 years is a cause for concern for everyone, including non-profits because they rely on our services too."
The Report urged that PIP downsize to a population of 50 people per night and "relocate with the consent and advice of the city to a new location and cease shelter operations at 701 Main Street no later than June 30, 2007."
Currently PIPS is approved for 88 people per night but regularly has more than that, sometimes 170 and more on cold winter nights. For the most part, the city looks the other way for the simple reason that there is nowhere else for the homeless to go.
"I can tell you that there is no police presence here, "Mr. McCloskey said. "The police pick up people on the streets and drop them off here for us to worry about. We're a dumping ground." As far as maintaining order and lawfulness here, "we are on our own," he said.
Mr. McClosky is clear about what he is up against. "This is Iraq," he said. "This is the front lines. The drug dealers and the pimps are lined up outside every morning ready to deal as people leave. At night, it's the reverse. Predators are out there to prey on people who come looking for a place to sleep. And we have to deal with it on our own every day."
PIP employs 29 people who work three shifts seven days a week. "Our staff are the ones who take it on the chin," Mr. McCloskey said. "They have to do the impossible every day and night and then get hit with all this outside criticism. But it doesn't stop them from doing their jobs."
Mr. McClosky gets emotional as he talks about the dedication of the staff and how much they do for guests. He says that the staff is as committed as any he has seen. Many have been working at PIP for a surprisingly long time. He said at least five people have worked between 10 and 15 years and eight to ten have worked five years or more.
He tells of one young man on the staff who came to PIP as an intern at age 15 and has just turned 21. Asked by Mr. McCloskey why he stayed, he replied, "PIP gave me my Dad." Many years ago his father had come to PIP in desperation, got help, and was saved.
My guide, Ms. Davis, pictured at right, has been at PIP for nine years. I asked her why she had stayed so long. She said she was once a drug addict. After she got herself clean, she said she wanted to help others do the same.
The Director of Operations, George Orcutt, has been at PIP for 19 years. I wanted to ask him why, but he had to rush off to direct operations. One can only imagine the stories he can tell.
It could be loss of a job, a traumatic medical event leading to unpayable medical bills, or a divorce dealing debilitating emotional blows. Often, Mr. McCloskey said, homelessness arrives without warning and suddenly, one night, there is no place to sleep.
"There is this idea out there that everybody who comes here is dysfunctional, "Mr. McCloskey said. "But you talk to the people here and they are so normal it absolutely blows you away."
So long and keep moving.