This has not been an easy couple of days for those who care about the Interactive Resource Center and the people it serves. Starting on Sunday, June 1 Susan Ladd of the Greensboro News & Record published a three-part series on the IRC that painted a picture of a place where verbal abuse and sexual harassment are common and unchecked, where people are humiliated, ignored and mistreated, and where the leadership is irresponsible and out of touch.
Yesterday at the morning meeting, a daily gathering of the IRC clients, volunteers and staff, I asked people if they had seen what had been written in the paper. There were about four dozen clients in the day room at the time, drinking iced tea, conversing, waiting to do their laundry or to see a nurse. One man shook his head. "She talked to the wrong people," he said. "I wish she had talked to me."
A woman on the other side of the room put her hand up. "What she said, it's not the way it is at all," she said. "The IRC helped me get back on my feet a couple of years ago and when things went wrong again I knew just where to come. The IRC is my soft landing." The room broke into applause. Another man stood up to speak. "This isn't just an attack on the IRC," he said. "This feels like an attack on all of us."
The series made some very specific allegations about the IRC that deserve to be addressed directly.
- IRC staff members do not verbally abuse or curse guests. Staff members themselves are sometimes subject to verbal abuse and cursing from clients, but they respond with restraint, firmness and professionalism.
- The IRC Board and I take all allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior very seriously, as should any public place, but especially a place that serves a vulnerable and traumatized population. In only one case has an investigation identified actual wrong-doing. That investigation resulted in a staff member being discharged immediately (this was about a year and a half ago).
- The IRC has protocols in place for distributing bus passes, financial assistance, clothing etc. (a person must, for instance, have a verifiable job interview or other verifiable need before we will issue a bus pass) which means that sometimes people don't get what they want, but that doesn't mean that staff members "play favorites" about who gets services and resources.
- The IRC staff does not maintain "inappropriate relationships" with clients. Susan Ladd chose to take the word of one of her sources over the word of IRC staff members. She was misinformed.
- Much of the criticism in the series centered around Will Howard, who serves as both Employment Specialist and Assistant Executive Director. As gatekeeper to more resources than anyone else on staff-bus passes, work boots, interview clothing, etc., and as the one most responsible for the IRC's daily logistics-he is the staff member who has to say "no" the most often and who has to enforce IRC policy most rigorously. It should not be overlooked that in the first four months of 2014 Will Howard and his volunteers helped 130 people find work, including 39 permanent full-time jobs.
- I do not ignore complaints about problems. I maintain an open-door policy and am always willing to stop and talk to anyone who has a concern. We have a grievance policy posted throughout the building and I recently reviewed it with our clients at a morning meeting. Given the number of people we see daily-200 or more-- the complaints are very few and most are minor things that can be resolved immediately. What didn't make it into Susan's article is the number of people who stop me in the halls of the IRC and out in the community to thank me for what the IRC has done for them.
During a lengthy interview with me Susan maintained that many issues at the IRC go unreported because people are afraid of retaliation and especially of being banned for speaking out. I explained to her that we don't ban people for speaking out (and, in fact, two of the people Susan quoted at length in her articles were at the IRC yesterday getting services). No single staff member can ban a client: that is a decision made by the entire staff and only after every other option has been exhausted. The criteria we use to make that decision are the safety of other clients; the impact someone's behavior has on our ability to serve other clients; and the person's willingness to work towards change. In over five years of operation and nearly 9,000 individuals served only 62 people have been banned, which speaks both to the staff's reluctance to give up on anyone and the respect IRC clients show to the organization and to each other.
I am proud of what the Greensboro community-homeless and housed-has created together at the IRC and frankly, as I finish my final month with the IRC, I am proud of the work I have done here. I am equally excited to see where incoming Executive Director Michelle Kennedy and our excellent staff and Board will be able to take what is still a very young organization.
As one man who came into my office yesterday said: "They say don't bite the hand that feeds you. Well, the IRC is the kind of place where you bite the hand and it feeds you anyway." As long as the need is still there the IRC will still be there, offering a helping hand, meeting people where they are and doing whatever we can to help some of the most vulnerable members of our community reach their goals.