Road to the Poorhouse

updated 03/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Douglas Donovan's story would be easy for Homer to explain: The ancient Greeks had the Furies, gruesome deities who hounded humans to their doom. But Donovan's fate in the America of 1983 is plainly not the handiwork of an angry god. Five years ago Donovan was a middle-level ITT executive in Santa Ana, Calif. Then he fractured his skull playing basketball for a company team. There followed a year and a half of recuperation, he says, a diagnosis of epilepsy, a doctor's order to find a less stressful career, and—when the bills were taken care of—about $15,000 in settlement money to start a new life. He found a low-paying job as a Salvation Army supervisor, but was let go late last year. Then the woman he lived with was hospitalized, his savings ran out, and last month, when he applied for welfare, the local authorities sent him off to an institution instead. Donovan was placed in a dormitory with 55 other men and awakened at 6 every morning to stand in a chow line. He was told that he would be put to work on a public works crew where he would do a day's labor for no money. He was made to ask for toothpaste every time he needed it, and when he required toilet paper, he was given an amount the attendant thought sufficient. Every night at 9, he stood by his bunk for a bed check. The county of Sacramento, Calif. had not declared him a criminal or a mental incompetent. It had found him to be employable but indigent, and sent him to its shelter at 470 Bannon Street—apparently the only functioning public poorhouse in the United States.

Poorhouse. The word itself evokes a mythic fear. When Queen Elizabeth's government established the first poor-houses in the 1600s they seemed a humane alternative to leaving the honest poor to starve in the streets of London. But over the years the poorhouse became a symbol of horror: Not just the able-bodied poor, but also children, the old, the sick, the feebleminded and the insane were thrown into a vile institution from which few ever escaped. In this country, under the Social Security Act of 1935, a system of federal grants-in-aid began to provide relief to many inmates, and the specter of the poorhouse faded. In the modern world, the concept of the poorhouse has been no more than a terror for children, a watchword in family squabbles. "You're sending me to the poorhouse," a spouse will complain to a free-spending mate, and the hyperbole is always evident.

But for Douglas Donovan, 45, there was no exaggeration. Since October, Sacramento County has been sending able-bodied single people who are new applicants for welfare to Bannon Street, the county's shelter for transients. They are given no money, no employment counseling and no medical help at the building, and they are expected to put in seven days a month at county labor to pay for their room and board.

A Sacramento judge may soon decide on a motion to enjoin the county from sending welfare clients to the shelter; Douglas Donovan is one of the plaintiffs. "When I went to the Welfare Department last month," he recalls, "they told me I would be referred to Bannon Street. All I wanted was help with my rent—$120 a month, with utilities—but they told me I couldn't get cash. I had to abandon my furniture. My clothing is at the bus station in storage. At least, I hope it's still at the bus station. I can't afford to get it out, and there's no place to keep it here. It would be stolen if I kept it here."

The Sacramento poorhouse is a low-slung, single-story ochre building with exterior lines reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright and a bare, brutal interior that betrays its origins as a flophouse. Bannon Street is in a grim industrial district. The poorhouse stands across the street from an electronics company that protects its property from Bannon Street residents with a brace of snarling dogs. Next door is a gospel mission where derelicts trade attendance at prayer meetings for a hot meal and a place to sleep. Behind the poorhouse is the Sacramento River, swollen by the winter torrents and now lapping up a few feet from the building's back door.

"The California Welfare and Institutions Code says only that the county will 'provide for the indigent,' " Sacramento County Social Welfare Director Dennis Hart explains. "It doesn't say how." With only 3.3 percent of the state's population, Hart says, the county has 9 percent of California's general assistance caseload. It helps to care for 3,000 refugees from Indochina who have exhausted their federal aid, and a rising number of former Social Security recipients who no longer meet tightened eligibility requirements for disability. Welfare costs last year shot up 55 percent. The almshouse, Hart argues, was the county's only option. "We're using our limited resources for those most in need. People who apply for aid who are single and employable are referred to Bannon Street rather than receiving a cash grant. It's clean, it's supervised, it's inspected by our people and by county health officials. From my point of view, it's the best alternative for these people."

Two of the "single and employable" people for whom the county decided Bannon Street would be the best alternative are Mark Whittaker and Lorie Martinez. Both 18, they look young for their age. Lorie got as far as 12th grade, Mark only to 11th before they dropped out and began living together last year. They lived at a friend's apartment in Sacramento until the friend moved out of town. Then last month they came to Bannon Street. "We went to the welfare people to see if we could get an apartment," Mark recalls. "They sent us here."

Now the two adolescents spend their days idly, mostly in Bannon Street's large lobby. Sometimes they cuddle and touch each other playfully, drawing angry stares from many of the older residents. (Drugs, liquor and sex are technically forbidden at the shelter.) Sometimes they act like every other resident of Bannon Street, wandering pointlessly, with a look of bored detachment in their eyes. By day, the lobby fills with drifters and derelicts attracted by the free lunch the shelter offers all comers. Mark and Lorie, their faces still unlined, stand out among these scarred veterans of the hard life.

The shelter's managers—hardworking, dedicated and compassionate members of the Volunteers of America who run Bannon Street under contract for the county—regularly confiscate knives from newcomers. Even the cue from the lobby's scruffy pool table has been used as a weapon. And, as Mark discovered, violence is always in residence. One day last month he and Lorie had a lovers' spat on the concrete slab terrace behind the poor-house. Thinking that he was abusing his girlfriend, eight drifters, in a perverse act of chivalry, jumped Mark and began to kick and beat him. He escaped by throwing himself into the river.

"This place is the pits," Mark complains. "Everyone knows when you go to the bathroom, when you brush your teeth, if you don't brush your teeth. We have to sell blood twice a week for $8 to get any money—and the food here is terrible." For Mark, that may be the worst part. As Lorie observes solicitously: "He eats for five people. He used to eat a package of wieners at every meal. He ate wieners at breakfast, lunch and dinner."

At Bannon Street, Mark's appetite goes largely unfulfilled. Like everyone else, he eats cereal in the morning, mostly sandwiches at lunch, and whatever hot meal the county puts before him in the evening. The shelter doesn't stock newspapers, so residents have no access to the classified employment ads. Bannon Street life has certainly made Mark eager to find work. "I've got to get out of this place," he vows. "Once you find a job these days it's as good as gold and you've got to hang on to it. When I find one I'm going to keep it and stay out of here."

There are 72 beds in Bannon Street—64 for men and eight for women—and on an average night 61 are filled with welfare clients. Every night the remaining beds are given out to the transients who haunt the shelter's doorway, huddling against the cold and rain. Everything about the building bespeaks its origin: the pine bunks with cheap, foamy mattresses, the bare common shower room with its adjacent "hot room" for delousing, the toilet stalls without doors and, most of all, the fetid stench that infects the poorly ventilated bunk rooms by Monday morning, when the week's bedsheets are changed. Welfare recipients eat, sleep and live every day with alcoholics, drug abusers and drifters, and their anxiety is evident. "In this place," says one, "you always have to worry about some drunk hitting you alongside the head with a wine bottle."

The same $118,624.80 annual county grant that covered Bannon Street's function as a flophouse must pay for its new expenses as well. "Since the program started, we have seen a decrease in donations from charitable organizations," says director Rex Rapier. "We have to purchase just about everything we get." Every morning, two hours before dawn, Rapier drives to a North Sacramento doughnut shop to pick up a handout of day-old baked goods. Three days a week a Catholic group brings in hot lunches for the residents. Rapier says that the Volunteers of America have contributed about $5,500 of their own funds, which he hopes will be reimbursed when the contract is renegotiated next month. For everything else, Rapier and his staff of seven must make the county's money do.

The social life of Bannon Street is defined by three television sets in the dining hall, where men and women stare with dead eyes at whatever the tube offers. The one deck of playing cards is jealously guarded and locked up at the attendant's desk when not in use. The pool table is opened when the day's transients are ushered out, just before dinner. Those who do not find beds later at Bannon Street must seek housing in one of the city's two other shelters or spend the night outdoors. Apart from daily Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, twice-weekly Bible sessions and a Sunday nondenominational church service, there are no organized activities at Bannon Street.

None, that is, but work. On their seven assigned days, residents walk a mile to the nearest bus stop and, using a county-issued pass, ride a bus downtown to the welfare office, where they are assigned to a variety of jobs, mostly outdoors. The disastrous weather this month rained out most outdoor work, but one welfare crew did make it out to the Sacramento airport to prettify the soggy ground before Queen Elizabeth's arrival. Residents who go out to work are given bag lunches. A tank of water is provided at the work site. Says Douglas Donovan: "It's the old-fashioned chain gang without the chain."

One of the legal arguments being made against the poorhouse is that it causes irreparable harm to the inmates by violating their privacy. Case in point: Jack Collins, a construction worker caught by the depression in his industry. "I've only had piecework for the last eight or nine months," Collins reports. "I haven't worked at all since December." For Collins, unemployment has meant not only losing his apartment, but losing touch with his children, who live with his estranged wife. "I can't bring the kids here," he says. "It's too hard on them. I used to see them every weekend, and now they think I've abandoned them. My boys are 5 and 6."

County authorities say they do their best to keep families together: Married couples, Hart insists, are not sent to Bannon Street. That came as news to Patti and Doug Morrison, who say they were never told they had an option before they were sent to the shelter and placed in separate dormitories. "The first person we talked to at the welfare office sent us here," says Doug, 34, an unemployed mechanic. "They told us there was no place available for married couples." Bannon Street residents told the Morrisons that, as a married couple, they were eligible for cash assistance, and welfare officials were expected to resolve their case.

In one sense, at least, Bannon Street is a success. Since the poorhouse was opened, new applications for welfare have fallen by 37 percent. "When they heard about Bannon Street, some people apparently decided that they had other resources, or that they had families or friends they could go to. Some younger people decided that living at home wasn't so bad after all."

That may be true, but the specter of the poorhouse has also kept some homeless people on the streets. Jeff, a 27-year-old unemployed caulker, was one of them. "Bannon Street reminds me of a psychiatric ward or the day-room of a prison," he said one afternoon when the downpour forced him to take shelter in the building's lobby. "They're saying, 'Like it or leave it, this is all we're gonna offer you.' I won't take it." County officials are frankly delighted that the stigma of the poorhouse has scared people away. "There's an incentive, whether it's the right incentive or not," says Dennis Hart. "It may be negative reinforcement to make them find a job—people might think that any kind of employment is better than this."

Douglas Donovan, Jack Collins and their three co-plaintiffs have been freed from the threat of Bannon Street and given the county's normal $184-a-month cash grants under a judge's temporary order. The court may soon extend such grants to all new indigents. Whatever happens, both sides are determined to bring the poorhouse concept to a full trial, probably next month. Each party believes that the issue is simple. "Bannon Street is meeting basic needs," says Hart. "That's what's important." To Jeff Ogata, the 29-year-old legal services lawyer who will argue for the indigents, the question is equally clear: "If this is allowed to continue, there'll be places like Bannon Street in every county in California and probably in a lot of other states." When they bring their argument to court, the judicial system will be forced to decide the most basic question of all: whether the poorhouse will be consigned again to dark memory—or take its place in the nation's store of real fears.

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