Should homeless people work for their keep?
11:15 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011
Should Austin's homeless people be put to work at the city-financed shelter? It's a question that Front Steps has struggled with for years.
Last week, I wrote a story about how maintenance costs at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless are piling up because the facility is being used by far more people than it was designed to house. In addition to the $100,000-plus the city spends each year to maintain the 7-year-old building, it also plans to spend nearly $700,000 to fix plumbing, roofing, mold and other problems.
Front Steps, the nonprofit group that is paid to run the facility, says the shelter is serving hundreds more people every day than the building was designed to handle. Thus, parts of it are wearing out faster than anticipated.
That story led several readers to contact me with this question: Why is the city paying $100,000 a year for maintenance when it has all the free labor it could want living under its roof? Why don't they make the homeless people clean and maintain the building?
"We feed them," Austin reader Lan Archer told me. "We care for them. Why don't we make them work a little?"
To clarify, most of the $700,000 in repairs being done at the shelter are pretty major. Among other things, the entire men's shower room is being ripped apart and rebuilt to address ventilation, flooring and mold problems. That's not something just anyone who walks in the door can or should do.
But Archer's question is valid. Are shelter residents required, in essence, to work for their keep?
No, said Front Steps spokesman Mitchell Gibbs. The nonprofit's first priority is to make sure people come in for services. Staffers feel that requiring clients to perform chores might make them stay away from the shelter, where they are connected to services that can get them off the streets permanently, such as job training, drug treatment or housing.
Meanwhile, many of the shelter's clients have mental health, drug or medical problems that would prevent them from doing chores, Gibbs said. There are, however, others who can and do help out around the building.
"Without asking them, we often have clients who are willing to move chairs, sweep up or tell people not to throw things on the ground," he said. "We have folks who are very attentive."
The Salvation Army in Austin takes the same approach and does not force clients to work at its downtown shelter, which houses about 250 people every night. There are liability issues involved in requiring people to work, and staffers encourage people to spend their free time looking for work or housing, said Kathleen Ridings, the nonprofit's director of social services.
The Salvation Army does, however, give paid jobs at the shelter to clients who qualify and pass the required background check, she said.
Haven for Hope, a homeless shelter in San Antonio, does things differently. The 37-acre campus has multiple programs in which long-term residents are taught jobs skills such as construction or janitorial work, then employ those skills on campus, said development director Megan Legacy. Residents, for example, recently did some remodeling work at the shelter.
The facility has an outdoor sleeping area for homeless people who are not involved in rehabilitation programs and are not medically fragile. If they want to sleep inside, they have to volunteer at the shelter for at least seven days, performing tasks such as cleaning bathrooms or wiping down sleeping mats. The idea is to encourage good behavior and hopefully inspire them to take advantage of other services on campus that help them rebuild their lives, Legacy said.
"We have additional resources, and they are rewarded for their help," she said. "Ultimately, we hope they choose transformation and self-sufficiency."
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