For the sociologically inquisitive, the headline “Bonne Terre Council meets about homeless shelter” (link is ours) is irresistible. Knowing nothing whatsoever about this city in Missouri, except that its name means “good earth,” a person can easily imagine the Cleaver family or Ozzie and Harriet, of vintage TV sitcom fame. It sounds like typical middle America, and that’s not a judgment. Thanks to the very detailed reportage of Teresa Ressel, staff writer for the Daily Journal, a person can form strong impressions and almost share the experience.
The city council meeting is described as “packed,” with about 40 people attending, which implies that, routinely, there might not be as many, so that gives some indication of civic scale. But this was a special session, convened to address concerns around the Shared Blessings shelter for people experiencing homelessness. City officials had some questions for the shelter’s executive director, Charlene Huskey.
Questions were asked by Mayor LeeRoy Calvert, the police and fire chiefs, the city administrator, and council members. Because of the meeting’s special nature, these were the only people allowed to ask questions. Members of the general public can have their say at the next regular meeting.
Ms. Huskey arrived with the impression that the shelter was under attack and that the authorities intended to shut it down. She had provided printed materials beforehand, including the shelter’s rules and regulations, and background information about Shared Blessings, which is always a good idea in situations like this. The paperwork might answer some of the potential questions, though of course it will inevitably lead to others.
Ressel gives us a rundown of the shelter rules, and information about its day-to-day routine that was requested from the director by the council members. A person can stay for as long as a month, if enrolled in counseling programs, or actively job-hunting or, presumably, both. The Shared Blessings shelter is allied with the Career Center/East Missouri Action Agency, the source of job training and job-hunting help.
Generally, the residents go out in the morning, return for lunch, and stay in the rest of the day. Of course, the physically disabled don’t have to go out at all, nor do preschool children or their mothers. And, if the weather is very bad, nobody is made to leave. Ressel writes,
Residents aren’t allowed to do drugs or use alcohol. They have a curfew of 9 p.m. and must be ready to leave the shelter by 7:30 a.m. She said the shelter is not equipped to take anyone with serious mental health problems. The men stay upstairs except for meals and women and children stay downstairs.
Currently, the caretaker position is being filled temporarily by Pastor Roy Bearden and members of the Miracle Center, a local religious institution. Normally, it’s a paying job that includes a furnished apartment on the Shared Blessings premises, and of course the person hired will need to pass a background check.
The caretaker provides the meals, but that’s the least of it. He or she welcomes new residents by searching their bags to make sure no weapons or drugs come in. If the person has a prescription for any kind of narcotic, the caretaker puts it under lock and key, and doles it out.
It’s not clear whether this is done by Huskey or the caretaker, but someone looks up prospective residents on Case.net and the sex offender registry because the shelter doesn’t accept anyone with a serious criminal record or a sex offense in their history. The caretaker logs the residents in and out when they come and go, familiarizes them with the rules, and makes sure they observe the rules. Director Huskey took some heat, apparently, for not overseeing the operation more closely. She has told the council that it’s usual for her to be in daily contact with the caretaker, and she tries to visit the shelter at least once a week.
The journalist gives a thorough report on a certain part of the discussion, which seems to hint that maybe a specific incident might have brought the wrong kind of attention to the shelter. Huskey told the council that she had asked police chief Doug Calvert if he would run criminal background checks on the residents. But Chief Calvert said the only way that can be done is if the person signs a waiver, as part of a job application process, or if there is an active criminal investigation underway. He can, however, check for outstanding warrants and is willing to do so.
The police chief also took the opportunity to air some of his dissatisfactions:
He said the last caretaker called him asking for help in evicting a woman and her two children out in the cold for breaking a shelter rule. He said unless the person committed a crime or unless someone signs a lawful complaint, he can not lawfully evict someone. He added that in that case, the woman did end up having warrants for her arrest so she was arrested and the children were placed in the care of DFS.
The most interesting part of all is a short bit that a fiction writer’s imagination could really run away with:
A former caretaker for the shelter had shared his concerns with Bonne Terre city officials before the meeting. Concerns had included fire safety and safety of residents there, as well as other concerns.
Reading between the lines, it sounds as if a disgruntled former employee put this whole inquiry in motion. That doesn’t make anyone a hero or a villain. In so many efforts to accomplish social good, the great tragedy is that people with the best intentions, who all want to help, often disagree over exactly what needs to be done and the best way to do it. This one news story from one specific place is such a microcosmic reflection of all the vast forces that shape our social climate.