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Georgetown Ministry Center Georgetown Ministry Center
April 16, 2011

Georgetown Ministry Center News Spring 2011

In this issue:

  • Finding Family
  • Help the Homeless Success
  • Fighting Homelessness
  • Let’s Start Talking
  • Winter Shelter Round-up
  • Students Who Care
  • Spring Sock Drive
  • GMC Temporarily Homeless

Finding Family

Several months ago I received a call from a woman who was trying to find her brother. She knew he was homeless and in the Georgetown area but little else. I knew right where to find RH and was happy to help reunite them. I knew him by name though I had never been able to get much out of him let alone engage him in services. I would see him in passing on a regular basis and say, “How are you doing?”

He would enthusiastically respond, “All right, my man,” but then the responses were limited to grunts, smiles, and one-word replies, usually “No” in response to my asking, “Can I help you get a place to live?”

Well, there is a lot to say about family. His sister, a strong-willed woman, practically dragged him by the ear to Social Security, to the Department of Vital Statistics, and finally to Pathways to Housing where he is on the short list for a place to live.

RH had lived there under the bridge for over 20 years: That is how long I had been trying to engage him. Six months: That is how long it took his sister to move him from his secluded spot under the bridge to putting together a package that will offer a place to live. I was happy to give advice and encouragement where I could, but she had the power to move him.

In the meantime, I learned that RH has limited intellectual functioning, a fact hidden by his laconic nature, which is probably caused by a major mental illness, perhaps schizoid personality disorder. From his sister I learned that he was in special education classes from the beginning. How he detached himself from his family and found his way to Georgetown is anybody’s guess. He just doesn’t say much.

The people who inhabit the streets are there for a variety of reasons. They are not there because of uncaring families. We work with families from around the world who are frustrated by their inability to get their loved ones off the street.

When SA was featured in a Georgetown Dish video about GMC, his sister, who lives in Costa Rica, happened onto it on a Google search. Soon family from around the world were contacting us about him, including a cousin, a Marine colonel in Afghanistan. Using our computers, SA now has a Facebook account where he keeps up with his family, including his adult son in Puerto Rico. I swelled with emotion one day when I saw him on one of our computers, talking to his sister in Costa Rica via Skype.

They had thought he was dead!

—Gunther Stern

Help the Homeless Success

This year’s Help the Homeless check arrived: a nice hearty $176,845.51. More than we expected! We could not have achieved this without the dedicated support of the community. Special thanks to our sponsors: The Stanley Foundation, Walker & Dunlop, and of course, Georgetown Business Improvement District. This year the BID was able to direct the Taste of Georgetown proceeds–which produced a 17-year record-high amount–through Help the Homeless, leveraging an additional incentive bonus of 20 percent.

We also want to extend a special thanks to the students, staff, and parents at Hyde and Stoddert elementary schools, for participating in the annual mini-walks. Our BBQ at Grace Church did not catch on as we had hoped, but we still raised $1,145 and had a lot of fun. We hope to repeat this event next year, so watch for the date! Last, we want to thank those who participated as walkers at the big walk down on the Mall. Overall we had 628 participants, which earned us a $10,000 walker incentive award.

Thank you all so much!

–Malini Suri

Fighting Homelessness

I once heard a young woman walking down M Street say, “They have a lot of bums here.”

Bums? These bums are our failure. They are people with complicated mental illness who have no insight into their condition. They are brothers, sisters, uncles, nieces, and sons and daughters. They are people with broken brains who should no more be wandering the streets on their own than a six-year-old.

Our society needs to take responsibility for this problem for all that it is. This is the important point. Those bums are unable to take care of themselves! The laws that govern civil commitment need to be expanded to recognize that someone with an impaired reality is not making a sound judgment when choosing to live on the street and eat from a garbage can. Where it is evident that people are making really bad decisions because of a mental illness or other brain disorder, we need better legal mechanisms to step in and help redirect their lives. Those mechanisms must be sensitive and well thought out and have limits, but we need them if we are going to make an impact on homelessness in our country.

The people under bridges, through all that dirt and shaggy hair and ragged clothes, are humans beings disconnected from family and home by mental illness.

—Gunther Stern

Let’s Start Talking

When I started working with the homeless over 25 years ago, the population was mushrooming because of crack. Nearly half the people I worked with were crack addicts, new to the streets. The other half were mentally ill when de-institutionalization was still relatively young. Now the crack epidemic has subsided, and most of the people I work with have some form of mental illness.

Sadly, many of the homeless mentally ill street people I am working with now have been homeless for many, many years. Some longer than I have been in this line of work. Without a major change in our attitude toward them they are destined to suffer until an early death. Many have already passed away from neglect. Self-neglect? Or are we all responsible? Is society responsible for those who do not have the insight to understand that they have a serious, disabling brain disease? I think so. A couple of years ago a major shelter occupying prime DC real estate on K Street was closed. To quell the outcry, or more hopefully, to balance the loss, the city made nearly 500 “housing first” units available to the most vulnerable homeless people. It worked! We saw a dramatic decrease in the homeless population in our area. Many of the people who moved off the street were very seriously mentally ill. What was left though were the most profoundly ill. Almost all of those left on the street had absolutely no insight into their illness. “Nothing wrong with me, it’s you all that have the problem.”

These are the people who are dodging the CIA mind-reading rays and avoiding the surveillance aircraft constantly flying overhead (USAir, JetBlue, Southwest). They are very sick, very paranoid. These are the people who need our help the most, and yet we are blocked by law.

The laws in DC and many states make it very hard for families, friends, and caring non-profits like ours to intervene before it is too late. Section 21-545 b (2) of the DC Code: “If the court or jury finds that the person is mentally ill and, because of that mental illness, is likely to injure himself or others if not committed…”

Until you find that person climbing the railing on Key Bridge or jumping in front of a bus, it is nearly impossible to intervene. Yes, if he is saying, “I am going to kill myself” or he is making a believable threat against someone else, there is a way to help, but that is rarely the case.

Take CA, who was eating out of the trash can, sleeping under bridges, and whose clothes smelled of feces because he urinated and defecated in his pants. He walked the street for years before Dr. Koshes, our consulting psychiatrist, could intervene. CA had been evaluated and hospitalized two times before but was released to the street without significant aftercare provision or a reasonable plan.

While some would argue that there are ways we can intervene, practice has taught us that the system will spit the person back out in the blink of an eye. There are a number of reasons: the institutional mindset that chronically ill people are beyond help and therefore shouldn’t have resources wasted on them; an artificially low capacity within the system to help people with severe mental illness; but most obvious is the mindset that people have a right to decide to live on the street and stew in their own juices. That is evidenced by the law quoted above.

  • We need more housing units for those who are ready to move in, without conditions.
  • We need more hospital beds for people who are really profoundly mentally ill.
  • We need better outpatient resources for people who might cooperate with treatment if they had the opportunity.
  • Most important, we need a broader law that allows mental health practitioners to intervene before the person is in imminent danger of death.

The Treatment Advocacy Center has developed a model law that allows for outpatient commitment of people before their condition becomes so dire that we are afraid for their lives (see http://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org).

Isn’t it time to act? At the very least, let’s start talking about real solutions.

—Gunther Stern

Winter Shelter Round-up

The end of the winter shelter each year is always bitter-sweet: We grew fond of the mini-community that was created on a nightly basis. The shelter provides time for our staff and volunteers to get to know our clients on a more personal level, over a hearty meal.

We are thankful to our member congregations that make this opportunity possible.

This year, one of our spots was filled by a French-speaking African native. He was shot 12 times during an incident with the police, with bullet wounds covering his arms and legs. Yet he lives, and remains quiet, gentle, meditative. During his six months at our winter shelter, we were able to connect him with a core agency, and he is now in a transitional program that will allow him eventually to be linked to independent living. Our shelter gave him the resources as well as the safety and stability he needed to start in a positive direction once again.

—Malini Suri

Students Who Care

Spring break is often associated with beaches, bikinis, and worried parents. In recent years, however, there has been an increase in students seeking out other, more meaningful ways to spend this vacation. More organizations and universities have begun to offer what is coined “alternative spring breaks”–structured, volunteer-oriented, group vacations usually consisting of disaster relief efforts or social or environmental work.

In March at GMC we were able to be a part of two groups doing alternative spring breaks. The groups flew in from Penn State University and the University of South Alabama. Their volunteer efforts were based on learning about homelessness in DC and in our country. The groups made sandwich lunches at the Center, participated in Q&As, and walked around Georgetown with our outreach workers, handing out food to our homeless friends. It was inspiring to see these young people being proactive and wanting to learn about these issues, and they showed a mature and insightful interest in and understanding of our teachings.

—Malini Suri

Spring Sock Drive

Donate a pair of socks to the homeless today! A warm pair of new socks can prevent infections, trench foot, and frostbite. Donate socks between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. daily to: 1041 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20007 We are in the alley right next to Grace Church. Call (202) 338-8301 for more information.

GMC Temporarily Homeless

We are the newest members of the homeless population, temporarily. I got word last Thursday that all permits are approved and our contractor, Kadcon, is ready to start. After a year of dancing around this, we are finally ready to start our construction. It was…well…unexpected. We hurried into a staff huddle. The Center is going to be closed for a month…a whole month. What can we do to maintain our connections to our clients during that time?

While we will continue to have an office to work out of, our outreach staff (and I) will be able to set up office anywhere with Wi-Fi. I use my MacBook as a computer and a phone. When I have internet available I just plug in my headphones and use Google Voice to receive phone calls. This comes from the focus of our work with homeless clients who we are trying to train on the Google suite of tools. Perfect for a person without a home or phone. And it is free!

Our database is simple and flexible and online. And the subscription is free, donated to us by Salesforce.com. Our payroll system is online. Everything is online.

We gave up paper a year ago. If you need a copy of something it will be an accurate copy and we can download it from our cloud (internet). We have no fax machines, two printers that we hardly use, and four scanners that are all used every day. The information is far more secure than it would be if it were in our office because all these services use a level of security that is far beyond our capacity otherwise. They all have multiple levels of security and encryption to protect our data.

All this means that more of your generous support goes directly to client services, our clients are going to get services while the Center is down, and we are going to have a new, state-of-the-art Center in about two months.

—Gunther Stern

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