Archive for January, 2016

Snowpocolypse. Snowmaggedon. Holy -Snow-Batman! Whatever you call it, the snowfall over the last weekend was historic. But something else was happening in Allentown while we were all watching from our windows and marveling at this weather phenomenon.

On Saturday morning, with 9 inches of snow already on the ground, the Warming Station in Allentown sent it’s overnight guests to the streets because they are only operational at night. If it had not been for a local pastor, these people would have been left to try to find a public building to shelter in, a business that was trying to remain open that would allow for loitering or an abandoned building that perhaps no one would be looking for trespassers in. 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 a Warming Station staff street their guests who would need a plan to endure another 10-20 inches of snow before the Station opened again?

It really made me think about whose ‘problem’ the homeless people really are.  Why are there only a few who will take responsibility or, dare I say, ownership over  ‘their’ problems? Are we societally too stoic, compartmentalized and self-determined so that we believe that those who face a blizzard alone and homeless should have thought about that before they ‘made all their bad choices’? Are we worried about becoming too involved, caring too much, knowing too much only to find that there are too many one-way, dead end streets in our society? Do we fear the futility that comes with knowing without being able to act?

It would be easy to blame the operators of the Warming Station for streeting these people in the face of an impending Blizzard. These 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? Dr. Jim O’Connell, founder of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, and a Harvard trained physician issued guidelines on temperature associated health risks to the homeless. The bottom line is that while water freezes at 32 degrees, human flesh is at risk for freezing at just 40 degrees. Often the greatest risk occurs when the ambient temperature is warm during the day and then drops drastically at night. From a business standpoint, a warming station could say they don’t have funds to pay for staff to be there during the day. They don’t have a food source there. Maybe they don’t have permission to keep the building owned by the Park and Rec Department open during the day. There are a hundred other reasons that they could come up with and some might be true. But the truth of it is, it doesn’t matter. These are people and they needed shelter. Could there have been a solution? A work-around?

The gravity of this current snow situation for the homeless is likely not to be understood for some time. But with each challenge must come insight and solutions to minimize risk the next time around. First, is the issue of the Code Blue designation. The Code Blue designation is issued by Lehigh County Emergency Management when temperatures dip below 32 degrees. The Code Blue status is supposed to be posted on the Lehigh County Emergency Management website but currently does not indicate a Code Blue listing. Today is a high of 26 and a low of 9, certainly we meet criteria. ‘Code Blue’  isn’t a searchable term on their website and it is difficult to find any information about what this designation really means. Anecdotally, I can tell you that local shelters loosen their admission criteria and put people any where they can as a temporary measure. The most current listing of Code Blue places available on the internet is from 2014 and basically contains a list of local shelters. 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 32 degrees when data supports danger starting at a temperature of 40 degrees?

Second, those who are in the business of providing shelter as a public service should be held accountable for their actions. Many of these shelters and warming stations receive monetary support from citizens, government, grants etc. who expect that they are providing the service of warming and shelter.  You are accountable to your stakeholders. Is the city of Allentown responsible for sheltering these people or are they relieved of their responsibility because they funded another entity to provide this public service?  Take the example of our local hospitals. Healthcare workers slept in the hospital and shoveled on-ramps on 78 in order to get to work because the hospitals take their responsibility of being prepared for patients despite weather or any other natural disaster. The hospitals require it and the healthcare workers abide by it because of their moral responsibilities to their patients. Another example is the accountability of disaster preparedness where organizations accept risk for the greater good. Successful organizations balance between risk and preparedness with the ethical principles of justice and nonmalifecence. These preparedness documents should be well thought out and easily implemented. Just as in disaster preparedness, when running a winter shelter, one must be prepared for winter weather.
Finally, there is the humanistic aspect. In times of trial when human lives and dignity are on the line it is 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 accepted that post in an official matter you aren’t absolved of your moral responsibility. This weekend in Allentown that is exactly what happened. Although not bound by grants or funding, Zion Church opened their doors to those most in need of sheltering from danger, just as they did in 1777 when they “housed” the Liberty Bell, keeping it safe from the British during the Revolutionary War (www.libertybellchurch.org).  Let it be a lessoned learned; that true responsibility comes from within.
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