Jul. 30, 2020 7:49 am

Restorative justice still matters

Bethesda Project's Church Shelter Program has been rethinking its approach to disciplinary action since before COVID-19. But the pandemic represents an important opportunity to revisit these changes and reflect on why they still matter. 

"We need the essence of the truth and reconciliation process — a way of collectively acknowledging the harm that has occurred and finding a way to move forward together," says columnist Andrew Huff.

(Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash)

In Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Program (CSP), the bulk of our attention this year has been directed at safeguarding the health and wellbeing of our guests. But here’s the thing: theft still happens; conflict still happens; arguments, threats, and fights still happen — which means decisions about discipline and punishment still need to be made.

COVID-19 has raised the stakes of these decisions. On the one hand, the severity of the pandemic has lowered everyone’s tolerance for nonsense in shelter, because properly implementing health and safety guidelines requires a higher level of social order and cohesion than usual. On the other hand, discharging a person from shelter has become even more serious given the way the pandemic has compromised access to meal services, hygiene facilities, and indoor spaces.

As I wrote about in a previous column, the CSP has been rethinking its approach to disciplinary action since well before COVID-19. However, the pandemic represents an important opportunity to revisit these changes and reflect on why they still matter.

In response to wrongdoing in shelter during the pandemic, it can be tempting to use swift, decisive, and punitive force to maintain social order. For example, let’s say we require all guests to wear face masks while in the shelter, yet one guest consistently walks around with no mask. It is tempting to summarily inform him: “You are persistently violating public health guidelines and putting our lives at risk. You need to pack your things and leave.”

This response identifies an “offender” and punishes him, while the punishment itself intimidates the other guests into continued compliance. But what if instead of discharging the guest, the staff member asked him, “Why don’t you like wearing a mask inside the shelter?”

She might learn that the guest doesn’t like the surgical face masks provided to everyone, but would readily wear a bandana. She might learn that the guest also has emphysema and is afraid to obstruct his airway. She might learn that he and other guests don’t see the point of wearing a mask because the shelter feels crowded.

So rather than discharge the guest, the staff member might instead provide him with cloth bandanas to wear. She might also submit a SPACE referral to the Office of Homeless Services to transfer him to a non-congregate setting. Then, she might convene a meeting with staff and guests to rearrange sleeping spots in a way that creates more room in between cots.

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This is a real example from the CSP, by the way. Let’s consider another one.

Justice is more complex than simply determining which rule was broken and by whom.

After residing in our shelter for several months, a guest named Eli had earned a reputation for being an extremely disruptive alpha male. Several guests complained that — among other things — he took the most sleeping mats, controlled the TV remote, and bullied people. Within a traditional approach to disciplinary action in shelter, Eli could have been discharged for various reasons: theft, persistent abusive language, threatening language, threatening behavior — take your pick.

However, rather than discharge Eli, we approached the situation by trying to restore balance to the community. We validated Eli’s desire to be a leader and then purposefully created opportunities for him to be a better one. When volunteers offered to bring dinner to the shelter, we asked Eli to consult with all the guests about what kind of food they wanted. In advance of a clothing donation, we asked Eli to go around and record what size garments everyone needed. During our weekly meetings, we gave Eli the task of gathering the other guests and making sure everyone had a chance to speak.

After several weeks, Eli took it upon himself to buy ground coffee for the guests to prepare in the mornings. He still took the most sleeping mats and controlled the TV remote, but the other guests respected and appreciated him enough that they weren’t bothered by it anymore.

As for Eli, he learned that he could be an alpha male by providing social support for his peers instead of intimidating them. Discharging him might have temporarily liberated the community from a bully, but it would have failed in other regards.

First, it would have caused significant harm to Eli by revoking his access to shelter. Second, it would have reinforced to the shelter community that the best way to resolve conflict is by banishing someone, rather than trying to transform the situation and help people grow. Lastly, it would have wasted Eli’s potential as a peer leader at a time when we need people like him with a natural ability to direct others, delegate tasks, and reinforce new norms.

Restorative justice offers us a way of responding to wrongdoing through person-centered and personalized interventions, which is quite different than traditional conceptualizations of justice as neutral or impersonal.

When I was initially formulating the CSP’s restorative justice framework, I resolved this discrepancy by drawing on the example of El Salvador’s 1992 Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Such commissions have been used across cultures to respond to massive human rights abuses, re-establish governmental legitimacy after dictatorship, and facilitate national reconciliation after civil war. El Salvador’s commission is unique, however, because it was established by the United Nations and all the commissioners (and their staff) were foreigners.

According to restorative justice scholar Agata Fijalkowski (in An Introduction to Transitional Justice), “the Commission tried to avoid hiring anyone with previous experience of working on El Salvadoran human rights issues, as such familiarity might have suggested a bias that could have affected the neutrality of the commission. Importantly, most El Salvadorans agreed that a Salvadoran-staffed truth commission was not possible. They insisted that there were no Salvadorans with the authority and political neutrality needed for the job.”

This concept of “political neutrality” is important. In shelter, part of a staff-member’s job is to develop meaningful connections and camaraderie with guests — the exact opposite of neutrality.

However, we are neutral in the sense that we do not make disciplinary decisions influenced by alliances, bribes, or factions among shelter guests, although we do take into account their needs, vulnerabilities, life histories, and perspectives. For us, justice is more complex than simply determining which rule was broken and by whom.

If our goal is to reestablish safety, repair harm, restore trust, and work towards some kind of reconciliation, then we need a personal and personalized process. We need the essence of the truth and reconciliation process — a way of collectively acknowledging the harm that has occurred and finding a way to move forward together.

Across cultures, communities have used this guiding principle in response to war, dictatorship, and genocide — which means it is not unreasonable for us to use it during a pandemic.

I’d like to close by sharing one more example of restorative justice in shelter as a reminder of why this practice matters, and how it can be both more compassionate and more skillful than punitive practices.

One evening, a guest named William arrived at the shelter intoxicated and shouting. Gary, another guest, asked him to stop so he could go back to sleep. Instead, William responded with several racial slurs, which deeply upset Gary. At this point, the shelter’s overnight supervisor intervened and asked William to step outside to cool off. Yet even after he exited the shelter, William continued to scream at Gary from the church parking lot. Eventually, the pastor of the church came outside from his office and asked William to leave the property, which he did.

In a traditional approach to shelter discipline, William’s actions could have warranted discharge. However, in consulting with the other shelter guests, we learned several important things that led us to make a different decision.

First, we learned that William and Gary had a longstanding friendship of over 15 years. Second, we learned that Gary — the person primarily targeted and impacted in this incident — did not want William punished, although he did feel hurt by his words. Third, all the shelter guests thought William’s behavior was due to his intoxication that night, and they all agreed that his usual behavior in the shelter was very calm. Fourth, all of the guests still felt safe around William. Fifth, the pastor himself thought that William deserved a second chance.

In summary: for this community, justice was best served through mercy.

In debriefing about the incident with William himself, we learned that he felt extremely embarrassed by his behavior. We also learned that he had been consuming more alcohol because he had run out of psychiatric medication and felt anxious about his upcoming move into permanent supportive housing.

So rather than discharging him, we agreed on an alternative resolution. First, William apologized to Gary as part of a conversation I facilitated to help repair their friendship. Second, William apologized directly to the church pastor. Third, we helped William make a new appointment with his psychiatrist, and completed a referral for additional support services to help with his transition into housing.

A few weeks later, he successfully moved out of the shelter.

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