Thursday, June 13, 2024



Rethinking disciplinary power in shelter

October 2, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose


This guest post is by Andrew Huff, the case manager of the Church Shelter Program of Bethesda Project.
Emergency shelter staff members have tremendous power over shelter guests and often tremendous discretion in how we use that power.

The most obvious form this power takes is the power to bring someone inside off the streets — or send him right back, especially if he is threatening the safety of others.

But staff power can go much further. In any particular shelter, staff can also control what you eat for dinner tonight, when you get served, and how much you get served. Staff can control whether or not you get a towel to shower with, whether that towel is clean, and when the shower room is locked. Staff can control where you are permitted to sleep. Staff can control when the lights go on and when the lights go off.

In a high-velocity environment like a shelter, discretion can help us adapt and accommodate in creative ways — which matters, especially when we serve large groups of individuals with severe, persistent and often untreated mental illness, substance use disorders, and chronic health conditions.

But in this kind of power structure, discretion can also easily become impunity. And if you disobey, there may be consequences.

I want to talk about this particular kind of power — the power to discipline. In my experience working in emergency shelters in Boston and Philadelphia, it is often our most significant source of power because it contributes to how we establish some kind of social order — and we want shelter to be orderly so it can be safe.

But in shelter, disciplinary power has traditionally been one-dimensional: when an incident occurs, the staff member decides who is going to be discharged to the streets and for how long. That’s it. Staff members are not expected to engage in any analysis of the root causes of an incident, nor are they expected to debrief about what needs the victim(s) may have, or whether there are meaningful opportunities for reconciliation and restitution.

This has made emergency-shelter justice swift, but lacking in resolution and prone to excess — a way of responding to harm and wrongdoing that can actually cause harm in the process.

Perhaps the most significant way it harms is the way it re-traumatizes individuals who have histories of incarceration in the United States, which describes many of the guests in Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Program for chronically homeless men.

From our Partners

We treat our shelter guests like adults who are capable of self-reflection, accountability, growth, and change — because they are.

They tell me often about their experiences in the prison system. Yes, rape happens; and yes, it is horrific. As horrific as the “blanket parties,” the stabbings, and the fear of not just death but mutilation. As horrific as solitary confinement. But not as horrific as the behavior of the guards: their unrelenting acts of humiliation, the pleasure they derive from treating you like a dog, and their refined ability to degrade you to the point that you really begin to wonder, “Perhaps I’m not a human being after all.”

There are ways to walk into the shower room prepared, and ways to protect your body from violation. But the guard has tremendous power over you, and tremendous discretion in how he uses it. And if you disobey, there will be consequences. In the past, when guests in the Church Shelter Program would talk to me about discipline within the prison system, they said: “The guards have all the power — and if you’re around them, you better watch out.”

Then, when they would talk about discipline within the Philadelphia shelter system, they said: “The staff have all the power—and if you’re around them, you better watch out.” Over and over, guests made this same comparison.

At Bethesda Project, we began to talk openly about the parallels between emergency shelter power structures, their disciplinary processes, and the experience of incarceration. We realized that these parallels were not just unsettling, but actually intolerable because of the way they harmed our guests. This realization led to a pilot initiative in the Church Shelter Program that involved a wholesale change in the way we approach discipline.

We began with a commitment to do no harm. When an incident occurs in the shelter, we see our power as the power to restore safety, dignity, and trust, rather than the power to punish, threaten punishment, or instill fear of punishment. We accept that serious consequences, perhaps including discharge to the streets, may be necessary and appropriate — but we deny that punishment is necessary and appropriate to achieve social order. We deny that domination, intimidation, and fear are necessary and appropriate to achieve social order.

We also committed to giving our shelter guests a voice at every stage of the disciplinary process and some influence over the final outcome. We did this to counteract the ways that incarceration in the United States relies on disempowerment and silencing.

In the Church Shelter Program, we are having conversations with shelter guests and staff involved in incidents, so we can decide together, as a community, how to respond to wrongdoing. Staff members ultimately make the final decision, but not without asking all involved the same questions: How have you been impacted by what happened here? How do you understand what happened? What do you think would be a fair outcome? What would feel unfair?

We treat our shelter guests like adults who are capable of self-reflection, accountability, growth, and change — because they are.

What we do challenges the so-called “prison mentality.” A man may physically leave prison, but that doesn’t mean he has psychologically left prison. Our new approach to discipline disproves a formerly incarcerated shelter guest’s belief that he is worthy of punishment, that staff want to inflict punishment, and that “power” means “abuse of power.”

This matters because, as Rupert Ross has written: “If you are dealing with people whose relationships have been built on power and abuse, you must actually show them, then give them the experience of, relationships built on respect.”

As an emergency shelter staff member, I have responded to many incidents of harm and wrongdoing over the years. I have discharged men to the streets — and let me tell you, the only thing worse than discharging a man to the streets when he has nowhere else to go is waking up the next morning and realizing, “I could have handled that differently.”

I can imagine how, after so many experiences of that kind, after so many years participating in a one-dimensional system of justice, you might really begin to wonder, “Perhaps I’m not a human being after all, if I’m treating people this way.”

I believe there are decent women and men working within the prison system and the shelter system.

I also believe that having tremendous power and discretion tends to corrupt otherwise decent people. When I think about the prison guards from the stories I have heard, I recognize there is a sense in which they have been victimized themselves — by a power structure that permits, perhaps even encourages, cruelty. If you ask me, it is as heartbreaking to think of a man being tormented by a prison guard as it is heartbreaking to think of what has become of that guard.

Unless emergency shelters evolve their disciplinary processes beyond models of incarceration, we as staff run a very serious risk of becoming that guard. In the Church Shelter Program, I can tell our guests, “This shelter is not a prison” — and mean it.

This matters, to them and to me.

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