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Op-ed: If we recognize the homeless as 'good people,' they get even better

Published April 18, 2017 5:27 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

With all of the recent thought and consideration given to homeless shelters, one aspect of curbing the nefarious consequences of them seems to have been overlooked. Certainly there is a criminal element, and, yes, there is a drug and alcohol element, both of which must be addressed.

But there is also a "good people" element. Many homeless people are not that different than the rest of us. If we expect a person to do good things, the odds are greatly increased that they will do good things.

A fine example of this is First Step House back when it was small and less-known. First Step House, then and now, worked with homeless substance abusers. When I went there as a state employee in 1985, the goal of the state was to put it on a professional footing. Relationships with the neighborhood were abysmal. Complaints were common. Police visits were not unusual, and Cornerstone, an auxiliary site nearby, lost its permit to operate due to neighborhood petitions.

Due to an excellent staff and "good people" residents, First Step House made a number of dramatic changes. For one thing, it became an active, contributing member of the local community council.

But other changes occurred. Nighttime security had always been furnished by residents. They were paid a nominal amount as part of a work-training program. We extended that security service to security checks during the night for senior citizens in the neighborhood as a regular — and permanent — service. On request, we did the same for other neighbors when they were on vacation. This service grew to include cutting lawns and shoveling snow for needy neighbors. This reversal of First Step House relationships with neighbors was crowned when a young couple living nearby lost their little girl, about 5 or 6 years old. They had combed the surrounding streets and not found her. They called First Step House and asked for help in locating their daughter. We sent out several pair of residents. One pair found her in an alley, scared and confused. They brought her back to the facility. We called the parents and fed the little girl ice cream until they arrived.

Yes, the population has changed since then. The numbers have increased. The homeless shelters are sometimes shorter term than First Step House. We screened residents for these tasks. Some residents were not allowed to deliver these services. Occasionally a resident did not perform as "expected." But the axiom, "If you expect a person to do good things, the odds are greatly increased that they will do good things," has not changed.

Effort must be put into controlling the criminal aspects of a homeless shelter. But if equal effort were put into this "good people" aspect of the homeless population, some good things might present themselves to those living near the shelter.

Errol Remington was director of First Step House from May 1985 to September 1986, and he worked for 20 years in substance abuse before retirement.






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