Answers for a Reader

I don’t understand this at all!! Why isn’t someone doing something to help???? Can you ask the Arc to help you? What can we as citizens do about this? I used to work with special needs kids and this is totally unacceptable to me.

Above is a comment that one blog reader posted on Mike’s December 22nd post regarding an intellectually disabled (retarded) man living on the streets down town.  I think the statements and questions in the comment illuminate some of the misunderstandings about our work, and I’ll attempt to answer them in turn.

As to the reader’s lack of understanding: we don’t get it either.  In a comparative politics class on the welfare state in college, the United States was identified as one relying on means testing aimed at identifying the deserving poor in order to make sure that they received assistance while the other half of the poor – if not deserving, I guess they’d be the undeserving poor – go without public assistance.  Without even addressing the issue of whether the concept of deserving vs. undeserving poor people corresponds to reality or is just an exercise in semantics, I instead have to wonder who the deserving poor are if it is not those with serious cognitive impairments.  Means testing is not working if people we meet like this mentally retarded man are not being helped.

Could we ask the Arc to help?   We could ask, though we’ve never worked with them that I know of.  We’ll have to look them up.  One of the things people don’t understand is that most non-profits and social service agencies are underfunded and incapable of helping all of those who qualify for their programs.  In the case of organizations like the Arc that exist to help individuals with serious cognitive disabilities, those who are able to access their services tend to be the more-able members of the target population, or those tied into a good social network and supports.  For example, a man with an I.Q. of 70 is more likely to be able to navigate the Arc’s programs than a man with an I.Q. of 60.  As this man is chronically homeless, he does not have a strong social network of friends and advocates who will help him to navigate the Arc and advocate for him within the Arc’s programs.  The existence of a social service agency focused on helping a particular group of people does not mean that everyone of that target group can actually get help.

What could citizens do about this?  Vote.  Attend City Council meetings and testify about your concerns.  Call your representatives at all levels of government (local through federal) to express outrage that people such as this man are left on the streets, and request an increase in funding for permanent supportive housing programs that provide housing and supportive services for people like this.  Another option might be to volunteer at a local non-profit that helps the target population you care about in order to help expand that cash-strapped agency’s capacity to offer services to the target population.  The worst thing you can do is turn a blind eye, as do most people who walk past this man while he sleeps on the cold, hard ground.

Yes, I used to work with special needs kids too, and now I work with special needs adults.  I agree that this is unacceptable.  But without communication of what’s going on and who many of these people on our streets actually are (i.e. the mentally retarded man, the schizophrenic woman, the fifteen-year old runaway victim of abuse, etc.) their stories will remain hidden.  They will continue to live an unobserved and invisible existence on our streets while the majority of us worry about whether we’re being taxed too much when maybe the real question ought to be whether we’re being taxed for the right reasons.  Seems to me that every day this man sleeps on a cobblestone sidewalk blocks from one of America’s favorite adult playgrounds – the French Quarter – is another day we have to ask the question about what we prioritize as a community and a society. 


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