Failure can hide in what passes for “success” stories.
Like the story Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk told recently about a graduate of Drug Court.
Speaking to the Portland City Club, Schrunk described how a man holding a baby, and accompanied by an attractive woman and an older couple, approached him at a Drug Court graduation.
“I want you to meet my parents … and this is the woman I’m going to marry,” said the man, a former heroin addict. And then he blurted out to Schrunk, “I haven’t committed any real crimes for almost six months now.”
Schrunk punctuated the story with a laugh.
“OK, if the police would have gotten him, he would have been booted from the program. OK, we didn’t catch him … and he was six months crime free… .”
Not quite. The man said he hadn’t committed any “real crimes.” It would have been revealing to know what this man didn’t consider a real crime. Stealing somebody’s wallet? Shoplifting? Joyriding? (Sounds almost playful compared to grand theft auto, doesn’t it?)
Perhaps the subject of Schrunk’s success story thinks “real crime” is only when one person physically abuses another, euphemistically referred to as “violent crime.” It’s almost as if “non-violent crimes” are not really crimes at all.
That’s one way to create a success story out of a failure – shift the standards. It works in many areas.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the fifth-year senior trend in Portland, Ore. Being a fifth-year senior in high school has lost its stigma. In some California school districts, these students are known as “super seniors.” Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
In Maine, they’re looking at making five-year high schools the norm. It will give an additional year so struggling students can graduate and give other students an extra year in high school to earn college credits.
Some four-year high schools in the nation already allow students to earn college credit. But permanently combining high school and college could run the risk of devaluing college — not elevating high school. (Where will it stop? Why not six-year high schools?)
Another curious success story: Six months ago, the $47 million Bud Clark Commons opened in Old Town Portland to provide resources and housing for the homeless. Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish has already declared it a “success.” Others have joined him in a rush to praise.
It’s too early to call the Bud Clark Commons a success. As a “wet” building, residents at the Commons can drink and use drugs in their rooms, a departure from homeless shelters that require abstinence and/or treatment. There’s nothing wrong with the concept of a “wet” building since some homeless people would rather stay on the streets than give up drugs or drink.
But are we so hard up for a success that we treat this as good news: We’re spending millions of dollars to get people off the street and enticing them – even providing them – with alcohol and drugs.
If you were homeless in Seattle, or homeless in Spokane, or homeless in San Francisco, Portland might sound like nirvana.
At least two men have admitted moving to Portland after hearing about all the services for the homeless. Jack Alexander, who lives at the Commons, told the Portland Tribune he moved from Sacramento in October: “I hit Portland, I’m in heaven,” he said.
According to the Portland Mercury, another man identified only as Jeff said he had been homeless in two other towns but “Portland stands out just by offering some place to go.” He uses the lockers and facilities at the Commons.
It would be cruel to begrudge housing for the homeless, but the success stories at the Bud Clark Commons should be measured individually. There will undoubtedly be some, just as there will be failures. (There have been two drug overdoses, but Fish found a positive spin: They died with dignity.)
I understand the need for optimism when you’re involved in the tricky business of trying to save people from themselves.
When I volunteered as a court-appointed special advocate for abused and neglected children, there was a tradition in Dependency Court of applauding and offering lots of atta-girls and atta-boys whenever parents were reunited with their children. The idea was to encourage them in hopes that they would continue to be successful.
The problem was, some of them weren’t all that successful. The state’s goal is to “reunify families,” and the majority are – even if it’s just letting a meth-addled mother with no job skills have her kids back after she has completed parenting classes and delivered clean UAs.
Even if we knew she was likely to get involved with another abusive man, we would applaud. What did our applause tell her about success?
After one of these rounds of applause, I asked a supervisor, “Do you ever feel like some of these people don’t deserve to be applauded?”
“I have a lot of doubts about some of these people,” she said.
At least we didn’t give them standing ovations.
– Pamela Fitzsimmons