AA/NA meetings mandatory at shelter in Clearwater, FL FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Fri, 10 Apr 1998 01:32:05 -0700 (PDT)

FWD  April 3, 1998   St. Petersburg Times
     Guest Column By Janine Little


The nearly completed homeless shelter run by the Clearwater Homeless
Intervention Project may work for the temporarily homeless, who will
naturally regain their footing anyway. Then again, even they may resent the
mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and refuse
what the shelter has to offer.

The perpetually homeless, the street people, make up the majority of the
homeless population here. They could most benefit from the new facility but
will not be attracted.

They share these traits: dysfunctional upbringings, addictions to drugs
and/or alcohol and low self-esteem. They are a rebellious lot and will not
respond well to being forced to get regular jobs, attend counseling
sessions, obey a curfew and go daily to AA/NA meetings.

The street people are a subculture of our own larger society. Their "laws"
are few, the most-enforced being "don't steal from the family."

On the street, people are ruled by fears, the illusion of freedom and
alcohol. They are beset with insecurity, physical problems and hot anger
that is always bubbling close to the surface.

In the shelter they would be forced to get a job, but most could not stand
the restrictions of full-time labor. Eight hours is too far away from the
necessary drink. A day or two  weekly, working through a day-labor service
(where a drink can be hidden nearby), or recycling copper wire and aluminum
cans, provides for scant needs -- beer and cigarettes (or "rip," which is a
pouch of tobacco).

Some are "wet brains," those whose excessive use of alcohol has destroyed
their ability to function.

Counseling is unlikely to work. Street people don't want it, don't want to
relive the past even in their heads. Besides, they are masters of
observation and intuition. They have all the answers.

Having drifted in and out of treatment and detox centers, they know what
"authority figures" want to hear -- and will feed it to them to get them
off their backs.

An imposed curfew is another drawback. Time -- except for "Meet me at the
Jazz Festival at 7" (which means anywhere between 6 and 10) -- is a loose
concept. Street people abhor regimentation.

Wandering through the day, hooking up with friends, sitting in the
sun-dappled shade on a park bench, hunting for brass or copper wire to
sell, panhandling for a quart of beer and walking to a feed is a normal
day. People with such a lackadaisical lifestyle could not adhere to a

AA and NA meetings are extremely effective for those who truly desire
sobriety. Most street people prefer to remain inebriated, though, and are
so heavily addicted that morning shakes accompanied by vomiting and even
seizures (after six hours of restless sleep with no alcohol intake) are
preferred to the horrors of detoxing completely. Forced meeting attendance
could not change that.

The homeless spend a good deal of time "beetling about" in order to avoid
police confrontation. Many have warrants for their arrest, so they remain
low profile to keep out of jail.

Others have been rousted from their sleeping "hole" so often and hassled so
frequently that they keep on the move to avoid the "bubble monsters" (as
police are humorously nicknamed). The fact that police will be stationed in
the shelter will act as a deterrent to these homeless.

St. Vincent de Paul's soup kitchen feeds many now. It offers showers and
the use of washers and dryers, accepts mail for those who have no address
and more.

There the homeless also have the opportunity to make use of the medical van
for sickness and injury. If the service of the soup kitchen is limited only
to the residents of the shelter, the street people will suffer a great
loss, because most are dependent on it. It is the hub that street life
revolves around now.

There seems to be no solution to the plight of the street people. Many
want, even need, to live outdoors with little or no restrictions or
obligations. A shelter with few rules to house and feed those who want a
place to stay would only serve to enable the street people.

They would be on the public dole as long as possible, never having the
desire to learn to stand on their own feet.

Jail is not the answer either; it is merely a temporary discomfort of
"three hots and a cot," not a solution. Enforcing anything, be it sobriety,
counseling or job placement, is not feasible, because the change is not
desired by the participants.

There are hundreds out there in desperate need, but they will not make use
of the new facility. The new shelter, with its stringent rules, may be able
to house 48 people . . .but will it?

-- Janine Little spent three years getting to know street people in
Clearwater, where she lives. Her book about the experience, Road Dog
Warriors, has recently been submitted for publication. --


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