To the editors:
Bryan Miller’s article on Sr. Connie Driscoll and the St. Martin de Porres shelter [“The View From the Shelter,” July 20] was perhaps the worst case of a journalist being led around by the nose I’ve encountered in a paper from which I expect better. If Ms. Miller had done her legwork, or merely exercised a reasonably critical intelligence, she might have been more skeptical of the information she was fed. Let’s take a few obvious examples:
On p. 19 we are told that St. Martin de Porres and Pacific Garden Missions are the only shelters that do not accept government funds. Untrue; none of the three Catholic Worker houses in the city accept government funds. And if Sr. Connie is so fiercely independent, what’s she doing hobnobbing with the mayor?
On p. 20 we are told that the “homeless” fall into three groups: those who aren’t really homeless, substance abusers, and long-term homeless people from dysfunctional families. Is any evidence offered, or available, for this generalization?
Again on p. 20, Sr. Connie refers us to “good economists . . . and financial wizards” who must surely know how to get people off of welfare for good. Are we to take this seriously?
Once more on p. 20 Sr. Connie tells us that 61% of people in shelters are there because they’ve been evicted (no source for this statistic). Two non sequiturs follow. People are evicted because they don’t pay their rent, not because they can’t. People don’t pay their rent because they are substance abusers or otherwise irresponsible. Honestly, Ms. Miller, didn’t this rash generalization raise a few doubts?
On p. 22 Sr. Connie tells us that she did a gut-rehab of a thirteen-unit building in “terrible, terrible shape,” spending “in excess of $200,000.” The resulting two-bedroom units, she tells us, were “beautiful”–until her tenants trashed them. I live in a 21-unit at 61st & Woodlawn which was rehabbed for over $750,000, scrimping on every penny. Does Ms. Miller really believe that a gut-rehab can be done for less than $20,000 per unit? Did she make other inquiries into the state of the building before and after rehab?
On p. 27 Sr. Connie presents us with the story of a hypothetical woman who is turned away at two shelters before being admitted at St. Catherine of Genoa Catholic Worker. The hypothesis is rather odd, since St. Catherine’s is a shelter for homeless men with AIDS. If Ms. Miller had known the “shelter system” better, she might have developed a few doubts about Sr. Connie’s expertise.
On p. 29 we learn of the remarkably low “recidivism rate” at St. Martin de Porres: 6.5% versus 38.9% for the city as a whole. This, we are told, is “[o]ne of the measures of success in the shelter business.” I would be more convinced if Ms. Miller told me what it means. Does it mean that 93.5% of the women who pass through the doors of St. Martin de Porres never enter another shelter (at least in Chicago)? If so, it’s an extraordinary, nearly unbelievable rate of success–but for that very reason I’d want to check the notoriously poor statistics of the fragmented, underfunded “shelter system” more closely. Or does it mean that 93.5% never come back to St. Martin de Porres? That could merely signify that most people at St. Martin’s don’t want to come back to Sr. Connie’s rule-laden institution and twelve-foot fence topped with razor wire, but end up at other shelters or on the street. By the way, whose term is “recidivism”? The connotation and typical usage is for relapse into criminal behavior. Perhaps Sr. Connie and her acolyte, Ms. Miller, find the connotation apt.
I don’t pretend to have enough information to judge whether Sr. Connie’s work here in Woodlawn has been as extraordinarily successful as she and Ms. Miller think it has been. I do object to her neatly categorized worldview, though. On one side is Sr. Connie, on the other the left-liberal “advocates” who don’t know what the homeless are really like, and therefore have the nerve to demand housing instead of moral uplift. On one side is Sr. Connie, on the other her charges who have to be taught responsibility, or her tenants who destroyed the beautiful home she gave them. The world is not so simple. I spent three years working at a shelter in St. Louis, living under the same roof with our guests, and I daresay I could swap war stories with Sr. Connie for several hours. I know all the crazies, alcoholics, drug addicts, and compulsively violent people Sr. Connie seems to think constitute nearly all of the homeless, but I also know that each one of them is not only mentally ill, not only a substance abuser, not only violent. God forbid anyone should sum me up by my unlovely traits. I also know other people: a University of Chicago graduate on the way down that we weren’t able to reach; a perfectly sane, responsible, educated mother who was on the streets all day, every day, for two months looking for a job and housing–and who still had to go on AFDC and move into the projects; a Vietnam vet fighting off cancer (probably due to Agent Orange) who lost his job and home due to his illness, but not his self-respect, or the respect of anyone who met him. I could go on, but I won’t. Ms. Miller may have been dazzled by her subject’s energy, charisma, and bluff self-assurance. The editors may have gotten lazy and let a bad article by a regular contributor slip by. I hope few readers will be taken in by the latest street-wise hero with all the answers.
Bryan Miller replies:
Mr. McIntyre’s real complaint is not of inaccuracy or credulity but of sociopolitical heresy. Had he exercised a reasonably critical intelligence, instead of clinging blindly to his articles of left-liberal faith–the received wisdom concerning the homeless population–he might have considered that apartments can be rehabbed for a lot less than the usual cost when most of the labor and materials are donated (fairly common for charities), and that razor wire might be put around a fence to protect the people inside (it was installed after twin children were abducted).
The information on which shelters receive government funds came from the city. And Saint Catherine of Genoa’s client population is women and children. Perhaps Mr. McIntyre was thinking of Holy Cross, which serves men with AIDS. There’s no mystery about the source of Sister Connie’s statistics; she’s been keeping meticulous records for the last seven years–and citywide stats for the last five for the city government. That was right in the article, had Mr. McIntyre been reading it for more than its lack of ideological purity. The piece was, incidentally, intended as a profile, and not as the last word on every aspect of homelessness. The views expressed–including the groups into which the homeless fall–are those of Sister Connie, and they are based on her experience during seven years in the trenches.
Sister Connie says she’s sorry if anyone doesn’t like the word “recidivism,” and she says she meant no insult by it. The fact remains that, given the best figures available, the vast majority of Saint Martin de Porres’s former clients are staying off the streets and out of shelters. Only 6.5 percent of them have turned up again at Saint Martin’s or any other shelter in Chicago.
Sister Connie and her staff offer the homeless a great deal more than “moral uplift.” Unlike too many “advocates,” they give something of lasting value: they teach people to take responsibility for themselves. Without personal responsibility there can be no real solution to the problems of the homeless, no matter how many thousands of units of low-cost housing are built. Sister Connie’s crime, for Mr. McIntyre and his ilk, is to say so; my crime was to report her message.