Opinion: Who's really responsible for sheltering the homeless?

by Corinne T. Feldman, MMS, PA-C | Feb 01, 2016

Please note: This opinion originally appeared in The Morning Call on January 29, 2016. 

Last Saturday morning, with 9 inches of snow already on the ground, the staff at the warming station in Allentown sent its overnight guests to the streets because it only operates at night.

If it had not been for a local pastor, the Rev. Bob Stevens at Zion's United Church of Christ, these people would have been left to try to find shelter in a public building, a business trying to remain open or an abandoned building. And what about the people who were not at the warming station the night before who may not have known about the good pastor and his open doors? How could warming station staff send out their guests with a possible blizzard approaching?

Corinne FeldmanIt made me think about who is really responsible for sheltering the homeless. Why are there only a few who will take responsibility for problems of the homeless? Are we as a society too stoic and self-determined so that we believe that those who face blizzard-like conditions homeless should have thought about that before they "made all their bad choices"? Are we worried about becoming too involved, caring too much, only to find too many one-way, dead-end streets in our society?

It would be easy to blame the operators of the warming station for sending these people to the street. Such stations are opened on the heels of a public health concern. Who wants to have citizens of their town freezing to death on their streets? But it is also a public service based on the principles of justice and beneficence.

So how could people be left to fend for themselves in these harsh conditions? The warming station operators could say they don't have funds to pay for daytime staff. They don't have a food source. Maybe they don't have permission to keep open the building, which is owned by the city. But could there have been a solution? A work-around?

The gravity of this situation for the homeless won't be understood for some time. However, each challenge must spark solutions to minimize future risk.

First is the issue of the Code Blue designation when the temperature dips below 32. Who issues the Code Blue warning that alerts groups who deal with the homeless? Lehigh County Emergency Management? If so, there was nothing on its website during the storm. What about Allentown? Shouldn't this designation allow for other buildings owned by the city to remain open as a public health measure? And why is the temperature cut off at 32 degrees for Code Blue when data support a health danger starting at 40 degrees?

Second, those who are in the business of providing shelter as a public service should have accountability. Many of these shelters and warming stations receive monetary support from citizens, government and organizations with the expectation that shelter is provided. All are accountable to their stakeholders. Is the city of Allentown responsible for sheltering these people? Is it relieved of its responsibility because another entity provides this service? Another example is the accountability of disaster preparedness where organizations accept risk for the greater good. Successful organizations balance risk and preparedness with the ethical principles of justice and not doing harm. Just as in disaster preparedness, when running a winter shelter, one must be prepared for winter weather.

Finally, there is the humanistic aspect. Is it not all of our responsibility to care for those in need? If you've accepted the public commission to care for the most vulnerable, you can't abandon that post in the worst of times. At the same time, if you haven't officially accepted that post, you aren't absolved of your moral responsibility.

Although not bound by grants or public funding, Zion's Church opened its doors to those most in need of shelter from danger, just as it did in 1777 when the church housed the Liberty Bell, keeping it safe from the British during the Revolutionary War.

Let it be a lesson learned: True responsibility comes from within.

Corinne Feldman, who lives in Lower Macungie Township, is a physician assistant, an assistant professor in the DeSales University Physician Assistant Program and executive director of the DeSales Free Clinic, which provides free health care to the homeless. This commentary was adapted from her blog, streetmedicinelehighvalley.org.


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