Marla R. Stevens

Stragglers -- An Open Letter to Policymakers

Filed By Marla R. Stevens | September 06, 2005 6:59 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics

First you starved and dehydrated and terrorized and neglected and dehumanized and did everything possible to not meet the needs of those stranded in New Orleans in the Superdome and Convention Center and hospitals and highway overpasses. Now you're declaring the opening salvo of the same war on the citizens still there called the stragglers.

Just as with drug addicts, there's a widespread sense of puzzlement about why people do things that are obviously self-harmful. When dealing with addicts, officialdom's response in America is punitive and moralistic and tends to force and coercion. There's a better way with addicts and a better way with stragglers. It's called harm reduction -- the opposite of which with stragglers is to block the one thing that could prove a link to assuage their very real, even rational fears and concerns that prevent them from acting in their own best interests: food and water.

Starving people and dangerously dehydrating people ostensibly to improve their health and safety, beyond just being Orwellianly illogical is profoundly counterproductive to the mission of their removal to safer ground.

Harm reducers first respect an individual's autonomy. That gains a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation.

Harm reducers help people get what's needed to sustain life and health. That builds trust and keeps people as safe as possible until they're ready to make better choices.

Harm reducers help people establish their own goals and priorities and hold up mirrors to help people see where those goals and their current choices don't meet.

Harm reducers help people figure out what the obstacles are to making choices that meet their goals and work to get those obstacles out of the way.

When those things happen, people naturally start making better choices.

The stragglers each have their own reasons for not leaving. Many have pets and are afraid that leaving means abandoning these loved ones. Many are afraid that all they have left in the world will be looted or destroyed. Some are not aware of the very real dangers to their health that their environment currently provides. Many prefer a known peril to the terror of the unknown and seemingly chaotic. Others are intensely private and solitary people for whom shelter life would be emotionally unbearable. Others are addicts who need drugs and/or alcohol not to become violently ill and know that that will not jive with shelter life. Some are just too stressed or otherwise mentally challenged to think well. Others stay hoping that, by doing so, it will be easier to either keep families together or reunite them. A substantial majority do not trust authority or, more accurately, do trust that the powerful will screw them and lie to them and abuse them and just plain not care enough about them to meet their needs better than they can meet them themselves where they currently are.

Nothing about intentionally starving and dehydrating them solves any of those problems. Nor do the quick conversations that end with threats or shrugged shoulder statements that belittle them.

Establish trust that you do give a damn about them that has been broken repeatedly in their lives and reached astronomically shameful proportions in this catastrophe. Hand them a pair of waders and plenty of insect repellant to help protect them from foul water and the disease-carrying insects it breeds. Give them the food and water and medical care and emotional support and problem solving you'd give them if they were in a shelter.

Solve the problems that keep them where they clearly should not be: Clear out the criminals that threaten their homes. Show how serious you are about helping people by doing the serious, intensive, house-to-house searching for those who do want to leave but are trapped that you should've been doing all along. Let them know in advance where they will be going and that their fears about being separated from family and pets and abandoned to their own devices are groundless. Let them know that you will not tear down their homes without their permission in their absence and that there will be a New Orleans to come home to when it is safe. Show them that they will be able to live with dignity and autonomy while they are away from home.

It's just not that hard to do and, more importantly, it will work, it will save bureaucratic headaches, and it will save lives. Do it well and it might even save what too many of you obviously treasure even more -- what's left of your sorry political reputations.

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