Editorials, Opinion

Warming shelter pushback crossed the line

As we saw nights dip into freezing temperatures, we were so relieved that someone had stepped up to host the warming shelter that we offered our thanks and support a little too soon. We are, of course, still grateful to Sabra United Methodist Church and the private individuals who volunteered to take on a task no one else had been willing to do. They accomplished in a handful of days what others hadn’t been able to do in months. It seems, however, that Sabra UMC will not be home to this winter’s cold weather shelter.

At the time of this writing, it is most likely that the warming shelter will be back at Hazel’s House of Hope, this time in the space that was previously reserved for the sobering center. Instead of being staffed by Health Right, as was proposed for the other shelter, this one will be run by Bartlett House.

To us, what’s important is not so much where the cold weather shelter is located but that there is one and that it’s up and running as soon as possible. Our days may be unseasonably warm, but once the sun goes down, temperatures quickly fall below 40 degrees. It is not safe for people to remain unsheltered all night in those conditions.

We were surprised, though, at the animosity shown toward the proposed shelter in Jerome Park and toward the people organizing it. We expected some pushback — people had valid misgivings — but the neighborhood responded with far more vitriol than we would have thought.

Several people expressed legitimate concerns: What would happen if someone was expelled from the shelter for drug or alcohol use — would they be left on the street to wander the neighborhood? Transportation was going to be arranged to bring people to the church in the evening, but was it also arranged to take them back in the morning?

These were reasonable questions that deserved thoughtful answers. But some of the pushback seemed to demonize all homeless people as criminals and drug users. And some of it went to so far as to air the personal business of one of the volunteers who helped organize the proposed shelter at Sabra UMC in order to cast a negative light on both her and the shelter.

We don’t want to downplay residents’ worries. It’s natural to want to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our property. It’s not wrong to be concerned about the side effects of such a shelter in a new location. However, not all unhoused people engage in drug use or criminal behavior, just as drug use and criminal behavior are not limited to the unhoused.  It’s one thing for us to be cautious; it is another to punish others because of our own sense of vulnerability.

Perhaps Sabra UMC wasn’t the best location for the warming shelter. But that should have been a conclusion reached through thoughtful conversations, not through fear-mongering.