A tale of two PIP shelters

By William T. Breault

The former Public Inebriate Program, now the People in Peril Shelter, is the only “wet” walk-in shelter in the region for homeless individuals. People walk in, or are dropped off, or released from incarceration and given a place to stay. We now are working hard as a region to close this shelter. I have been working to do exactly this for decades. This article explains why.

There have always been two PIP Shelters at 701 Main Street.

The first PIP Shelter is the one that most people know. It is the safety net shelter for people with no options. This PIP offers people a refuge from the street, a place to sleep and get a meal, a place to see a doctor and connect with social services. This is the humane PIP – the PIP that recognizes that we are all legitimate, that we are all worthy of hope, and that we all deserve a place that will “catch you, time after time.” This is the PIP that helps us to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, a PIP that gives us a place to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to forgive the sinner.

The other PIP is the shelter that the neighborhood and social service providers for the homeless know. This is the PIP that enables self-destructive behavior on many levels, the place to go if you want to buy or sell drugs to feed addictions, to buy or sell bodies for sex, to fence stolen goods. This is the PIP where you can go to connect with the underworld of dope good enough to overdose on. This is the PIP where you can find “friends” to hang with. In its worst days, before SMOC took over, it was a place where you could shoot up your drugs inside or in the PIP’s parking lot without worry of arrest.

The PIP I know is a magnet for all types of bad behaviors that neighborhoods work to keep out. Fist fights, loud and ugly cursing, aggressive panhandling, public urination and defecation, littering, vomiting, drug injecting, being unconscious on the sidewalk, stealing, breaking and entering, squatting in buildings – are all accepted behaviors around the PIP. And then there are the murders, rapes, and sex offenses that are done in secret because even around 701 Main Street these acts remain taboos.

The PIP I know is the place where even the homeless do not want to go because of the ugliness around it and in it. People have trouble sleeping because their stuff might be stolen. The PIP I know releases its “guests” in the morning to the street if they are not involved in a service program. These individuals become “guests” of the neighborhood – at the YMCA Family Park, in front of the NeighborWorks Homeownership Center, at Compare Foods, at the Salvation Army, in Castle Park, across from Emanuel Baptist Church, all along Main Street and its side streets, at the Worcester Common, in the Public Library, along the railroad tracks.

The PIP I know has driven away businesses, residents, and investors. The PIP I know has created a market for bad behavior – behavior that most of us do not want to be around. This is the PIP that has crushed hopes of revitalization and renewal. This is the PIP that I have fought against for years and years and years.

There have been a few in the neighborhood who have stood with me in this battle against the PIP. Most choose not to be visible and vocal because those who know only the safety net PIP are strong in their support for the PIP. PIP supporters are not afraid to call me and Councilor Haller names – Nazis, anti-poor, gentrifers, and mean-spirited. It is hard to be accused of hate crimes and so most keep quiet and lend off-line support for our work to make the city aware of the PIP I know. This has slowed our progress toward change, but it has not silenced it.

Interestingly, social service and government agencies that interact with the PIP know of its fatal flaws. But they too are careful to only whisper their knowledge, afraid of retribution and responsibility if they exclaim the “the emperor has no clothes!” The many task forces on homelessness worked to uncover the failure of the PIP and to identify ways to reform it, to move it, to close it. The process has been slow and sad.

We have finally realized that we can’t reform it, that we can’t move it, and so we must close it and reinvent a way to approach homelessness. This realization is shared by the City Manager, the City Council, social service providers, the community, and perhaps most tellingly, the PIP. And the federal and state governments get it too – money is being granted this year and next to Worcester to find a new way to end homelessness.

For the first time in decades I believe that the PIP will close – maybe not in 2009, but certainly by 2010. As a member of the City Manager’s Leadership Council of the Worcester County Regional Network on Homelessness I see the resolve and I see the progress. Implementing a new approach to homelessness will not be easy, or cheap, or without mistakes, but I believe that we are finally on the right path. The Regional Network will not result in supersaturating one neighborhood with serious and overwhelming negative behaviors and it is committed to recognize problems early on and address them. Despite Councilor Haller’s and my many years of standing alone, we are now standing together with the Leadership Council for progress – progress for the neighborhood around 701 Main Street, progress for our city, and progress for persons threatened by homelessness.

There has always been two PIPs. Soon there will be none. That is a good thing.

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