A shelter at the crossroads

“Neighborhoods are more than a collection of homes and shops, more than uneven sidewalks or winding roads. Some communities protect us from hurt, harm and danger. Others provide no respite at all,” writes Anthony Abraham Jack, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in an essay published this month by The New York Times.

Jack was writing about being a low-income college student, leaving his family in Miami to study at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Classes weren’t the hard part, he writes. Rather, he writes that schools have to provide more than financial support to students who come from poverty.

We found his story compelling and agree with his assessment about the consequences of historical patterns of exclusion and racism. Contrasting it with life in privileged communities, Jack writes, “Life in distressed communities can mean learning to distinguish between firecrackers and gunshots.”

What stuck with us was Jack’s use of the word “respite.”

It applies to two stories The Enterprise published last week: one on the sheriff’s plan to fill empty cells at the county jail with homeless people and parolees, and the other on an Albany minister’s plan for a house his church bought in Guilderland to offer respite for children in foster families.

We support both ideas.

We wrote here in 2014, after a young heroin addict had asphyxiated himself in his jail cell, how the county jail’s superintendent was frustrated to watch addicts treated in his jail on methadone leave only to return again. “The cycle goes on and we need to break it,” we wrote then.

Sheriff Craig Apple is to be commended for a number of programs he has initiated at the county jail — to help addicts, to help veterans, and to help inmates in general, starting work crews, planting a garden, and having some inmates train dogs that would otherwise be killed.

Several years ago, as we sat, waiting for admission to the jail to write about the dog training, we saw an inmate, who had just been discharged, making calls at the payphone, trying futilely to reach someone who would pick him up. He had no place to go.

It would be easy for a sheriff to figure that, once inmates leave the jail, it is not his concern. But how much wiser to realize that inmates who are discharged with no place to go often end up back in jail.

That’s not good for the inmate, and it’s not good for the public, which is subjected to more crime and has to pay for further incarceration.

The sheriff’s plan, as detailed in Sean Mulkerrin’s front-page story last week, would offer parolees as well as homeless people a place to stabilize and restart their lives.

The number of inmates in Albany County’s jail has dropped by 45 percent in the last year. Cells are likely to stay empty with jail reform on the horizon, with the state’s Raise the Age law keeping youth out of jails, and with Albany County no longer detaining undocumented immigrants — a decision we support.

That’s good news, but why let the space languish?

At the same time, Albany County has a high rate of homelessness — 27 homeless people for every 10,000 residents, with 835 people homeless on any given night.

The Prison Policy Initiative found that, among the country’s 5 million formerly incarcerated residents, homelessness was 10 times more likely than with the general populace.

The sheriff’s office has partnered with the Homeless and Travelers Aid Society of Albany, which is applying for a grant to fund the program’s administrative costs and is expected to take over management duties if a grant were to be awarded.

So far, 25 beds are ready to go in cells we pictured last week where bars have been replaced with doors opening to spaces outfitted like bedrooms with comforters and TVs — all donated. At capacity, the shelter would have 100 beds in a section sealed off from the rest of the jail where, outside, trees will be planted and razor wire removed.

The jail is ready to offer its services — parenting, mental-health, and addiction-care programs — to inmates transitioning back into society as well as to other people in the county who don’t have homes.

This plan is good for the parolees, good for homeless people, and good for society at large.

Also on our front page last week was a story by Elizabeth Floyd Mair about Pastor Charlie Muller’s plan for a foster-care respite home in Guilderland.

Muller has bought a six-bedroom house in the country that he and his Victory Christian Church are outfitting — with rustic log bunk beds in the Adirondack Room and a curtained bed that looks like a dollhouse in the white-and-pink Princess Room — to provide respite care for foster children.

A full-time staffer, Rob Monroe, is already living at the house. “We want to have adventures,” Muller said. “We want to say, ‘OK, kids, we’re going to England,’ and then show them a movie” and follow up with related activities.

The families who care for foster children sometimes need — perhaps because of an emergency or simply because of the strain of continual child care — a break from their responsibilities.

How wonderful it would be for children who often feel marginalized to have a special place to go to with luxuries they may not have in their foster homes — a swimming pool, basketball hoop, and trampoline are already in place, and a playground with a rock-climbing wall is planned along with a greenhouse and theater room.

More important still, there would be a reliable adult they could turn to for guidance. Rob Monroe, 38, worked for 15 years with the city of Los Angeles in youth and recreation programming, he said. Muller, who has worked with Monroe for several years, described him as “a real solid guy.”

Muller purposely chose a house with land around it but for neighbors who may object to his plan, he has this to say: “They are not bad kids. They are kids who are hurting.”

If we, as a society, take care now of kids who are hurting, we’ll have fewer problems when they grow up. “It’s easier to build strong children than repair broken men,” as the great abolitionist, author, and orator Frederick Douglass put it.

In the same way that the sheriff’s plan now lacks the grant that would make it possible to administer his program, Muller’s plan, too, lacks what it needs to move forward — the approval the town believes it needs from the state’s Office of Children and Family Services.

Muller hasn’t applied to OCFS because he says that what he is doing is no different than an individual or family who wants to foster children in their home.

We urge Muller to go through whatever process is required to make his great plan a reality.

“Life in privileged communities,” Jack wrote in his essay on education, “means that children traverse safer streets, have access to good schools and interact with neighbors who can supply more than the proverbial cup of sugar.”

In both cases — a splendid Guilderland home for foster children on a break, and a remade wing of county jail for parolees and people without a home — we can see the importance of respite.

“Respite” has Latin roots in the word respectus, which comes from a verb meaning, both literally and figuratively, “to turn around to look at” or “to regard,” according to Merriam-Webster. In English, beginning in the 13th Century, a respite was a delay or extension asked for or granted for a specific reason — for instance, to give someone time to deliberate on a proposal.

People recently released from jail or people living on the streets need a foundation, a place to rest, to turn around and look at their lives, to truly regard themselves, to get their bearings so they can head off in a new direction.

And, families who have taken on the worthwhile commitment to raise foster children sometimes, too, need a respite, a chance, with their children not underfoot, to turn around and look at both themselves and their foster children, to move forward in a good way.

At the same time, those foster children, who have often felt shunted from one place to the next, need respite, too, to regard themselves, to turn around and see where they have come from and how they want to go forward in life.

As the chasm in our country between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen, we’d do well to support these two new innovative programs in our midst.

Consider this editorial a respite, your chance to turn around and look at what have been persistent problems in our society — homelesness, parolees who return to jail, foster families and foster children who need support. Now that you’ve had a chance to regard the problem, what do you think would be the best way forward?

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