Nonprofits Not Place for Political Gamesmanship

MEME PROVIDED BY BOB GORMAN Watertown City Council candidate created this meme in his opposition to ACR Health’s syringe exchange office. In it he also falsely accused City Councilman Steve Jennings of selecting the location.

By: Bob Gorman

Years ago while visiting a colleague, I walked out onto the balcony of a six-story building in Washington, D.C., just off Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

    I walked to the right, looked around the corner toward George Washington University and could see a gathering of robes and the peculiar headwear issued along with doctorates collected from major educational institutions around the world.

    I then walked back to the left of the balcony and looked out over a small park with benches and trees, a small day-time oasis amidst the bustle generated by being just four blocks from the White House.

    Of course, the park was a more perfect nighttime venue for homeless men.  I noticed one who had just arisen from under his scraps of cardboard. He was standing next to a tree relieving himself, a mere block away from the pomp and circumstance of graduation week at GWU.

    Well, ain’t that America, observed John Mellencamp.  That’s just the way it is, replied Bruce Hornsby. It’s just another day in paradise, added Phil Collins.

    All cities face the similar image battle between power and powerlessness, between vibrancy and despair. Two film directors with equal staff, equipment and money – but different missions – could produce award winning, but polar opposite films of the same city, one of promise and one of pestilence.

    On paper no society wants to turn its back on the mentally ill, chronically ill and financially ill. But in reality few of us want to serve the least among us in the midst of where we are trying to grow our economy.

     And yet the easiest place to do both things is generally the same place. 

    Smaller cities such as Watertown and Ogdensburg face just as much pressure. There is only so much real estate to go around. And thus it is impossible to zone any part of a city to be a “crisis-care free” zone where only the gainfully employed and upwardly mobile may trod.

    When Watertown City Council Candidate Cliff Olney recently made a case against allowing ACR Health, a United Way partner agency, to open a syringe exchange program in the Franklin Building, he resurrected the fear that has been used in the past to limit the options our nonprofits have in providing services in a convenient way to the people who need those services most.

    (In a meme Olney created for his Facebook page, he also used the old “Our Children Will Die!” gimmick and wrote a bald-face lie about City Councilman Steve Jennings involvement, matters the electorate may wish to take into consideration in November).

    Over the years in Watertown neighbors have opposed proposed half-way houses for sexual abuse victims and those transitioning out of chemical dependency, citing fears of declining property values and the public’s safety. Such concerns were legitimate to express, but in time they were generally alleviated once the half-way homes opened.

    While politicians over the years have listened to such concerns from constituents, it was never a political candidate using a nonprofit’s location to create a wedge issue to rattle cages and attack other candidates.

    The syringe exchange program has always been controversial to those who believe passing out clean needles will encourage more bad behavior. ACR Health, formerly known as AIDS Community Resources, counters that 20 years ago an average of 14,600 New Yorkers a year were contracting AIDS, half of them through the use of dirty needles. Since the exchange program was created, the number is now under 3,000 new AIDS cases a year. The state’s goal is to have the number reduced to 750 a year by 2020.

    And, of course, there is this: for illegal drug users – of which there are more every day – coming into ACR Health means far more than just getting a clean needle; it means developing a relationship with health care professionals who have one mission in life — guiding these souls from the land of the lost into counseling that will help them escape their dependency.

    Life is messy in every community. At a low-priced rental unit on one street there lives a convicted pedophile who was released from prison two years ago. A block away there is a church day-care center where the innocent play outside every day. And in every downtown in America there are children in dance studios and YMCAs with adults in the vicinity saddled with every disease, addiction and human flaw known to mankind.

    Asking questions about the proximity of bars, casinos, addiction services – even residential stone walls – and how they will affect public health is a legitimate practice that all conscientious communities should encourage.

    But bomb throwing for the sake of gaining political office is a practice that should always be challenged.