A New Asylum for our Communities

The Weeks School Girls’ Dorm

When I was young growing up in Morrisville, there were certain institutions that were invoked largely in an effort to ensure that we behaved. One was the Vermont State Asylum for the Insane founded in 1890 in Waterbury. In its Wikipedia entry Vermont State Asylum for the Insane, the following paragraph occurs: “The word, “Waterbury,” used in a derogatory sense, was intended to convey to the listener that someone was either insane or was acting or talking in a manner disagreeable to the speaker (e.g. “Keep that up, and we’ll be sending you to Waterbury.”)

Another implicit and conveyed threat to us as young people was the Weeks School in Vergennes, a “reform school” called initially the “Vermont Industrial School” and built in 1874 for wayward youngsters. It later became associated with UVM Professor Perkins’s work in eugenics. In 1915, “juvenile delinquency” was legally defined to include such offenses as school truancy, associating with “disreputable persons,” using vulgar language, and “wandering around the streets at night.”

We were also reminded of the Morristown poor farm and how we would end up there if we were not industrious in our habits.

For those of us wrestling with youthful hormones, the Lund Home was often invoked, although mostly for young girls. The Lund Home was originally conceived by the ladies of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Burlington in 1890 who raised money for and ultimately opened it as a “refuge and maternity home for women on the edges of society.” Girls and young women who found themselves pregnant but unmarried would simply disappear for months. The community usually surmised the reason. The concept, not unlike the Irish Magdalene Laundries, was considerably more benign. Young women were not stigmatized or mistreated but were cared for during their pregnancies and deliveries. Typically, the child was given up for adoption.

The “Lund Home” was invoked as a threat to the excessively randy.

These institutional allusions played a definite role in our youthful behavior. They’re gone now or transposed into more benign and less moralistic institutions. But as implied threats they played an important part in setting limits on our juvenile behavior.

Like other institutions that have outlived their time, they were not all as bad as the visions they invoked. The community benefit that inspired many were often correctives for other bad influences or events in our society, such as alcohol dependency, physical and sexual abuse, and suicide.

I remember a revered Waterbury friend, even older than I, telling me of seeing the male patients in the Waterbury Hospital eagerly lining up to board buses to go and care for pigs at the nearby pig farm, which was the largest in Vermont. This was a source of fulfillment for many, calling to mind today’s modern practice of canine or equine therapy. The hospital also had a massive dairy barn and elaborate gardens to feed its population in which patients worked.

So let us imagine for a moment a new institution… an asylum, a refuge, a sanctuary, a commons   ̶   each word carries its own confusing baggage  ̶   a dignified temporary communal home for the many Vermonters struggling with mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction disorders, extreme poverty, or who are simply unhoused.

Our failure to create adequate public housing could be temporarily mitigated by repurposing open spaces that offering access to primary care, trauma-informed counseling, support-systems navigation, addiction recovery, and the dignity of a private place to live until, and if, we solve the housing crisis. I have no desire to bring back traditional asylums, nor do I believe motel rooms are the answers.

Such a commons would be staffed by addiction counsellors, mental-health care counsellors, primary care nurses, and healthcare, welfare and education system navigators. Helping people at the earliest stages may save both heartbreak and the dollars we spend downstream trying to help Vermonters who have fallen out of the system.

As much as we like to believe ourselves progressive pioneers on social values, those esteemed values are often compromised by the “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) complex. In our efforts to screen these neighbors from our view, we use emergency rooms, jails, shelters, and the few specialized residential-care facilities inadequate to the current need.

As a former resident of Burlington, I hear from well-meaning friends that the city is less livable, with petty thefts, assaults, begging, shop-lifting, nudity, and more and more people living in make-shift shelters on the streets. They’re voluble about the impact on their own lives but less vocal about the socio-economic reasons so many people live this way and what we as a society must do about it.

Christians often invoke the biblical term, “The poor you will always have with you,” and infer from it the ineffectiveness of antipoverty work and investment, even as that is not at all what Christ meant.

In order to justify housing the unhoused in jails, we’ve criminalized poverty and drug possession. We keep people in jail past their release date who have no place to go or family to care for them. Others remain in jail as they have no functional pathway back to family, shelter or community or are subject to technical violations driven by poverty.

We must reimagine solutions. What would a benign community house look like, what it would cost, and who would staff it in a way that offers hope of recovery and re-entry to its tenants?

On July 21st, the Wall Street Journal published a guest essay entitled “It’s Time to Bring Back Asylums.”

“On an average night, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, close to 600,000 people in the country will be homeless—a figure seen by many as an undercount. More than 40% will be “unsheltered,” or “living in places not suitable for human habitation,” and about 20% will be dealing with severe mental illness.”

As more and more education moves online and college admissions falter emptying out our college dorms and work at home expands leaving vacant commercial spaces, might we reconsider some of these spaces as a new temporary place to live for those in need? Currently in the U.S., close to a trillion square feet of office space is vacant and at risk of loan defaults which could account for a $65B bank loss.

While those pushing the “affordability agenda” block new social investments that might require more taxes, what if our considerable investments remediating the endgame of bad social policy were moved upstream to education, prevention, intervention, treatment, and charting a path to re-entry? I have made this case before.

In the U.S., opioid-use disorder accounts for almost half a trillion dollars The value of life lost due to overdose deaths has been pegged at $480.7 billion.

  • Opioid-use disorder accounted for $471.0 billion.
  • Almost $35 billion was spent on healthcare and treatment.
    • Healthcare costs were $31.3 billion
    • Opioid-use disorder treatment was $3.5 billion
  • Criminal-justice spending accounted for $14.8 billion.

In Vermont, we currently spend $95,000 per person in jail, or $6.1M on corrections.

Vermont data show a 19% increase in unsheltered Vermonters over last year and, according to the State Auditor, we spent $455M from  FY2016 to through FY 2022 or roughly $75M a year on this problem.

Vermonters spend $203M annually in the treatment of mental-health disorders. The State also spends $292 per Vermonter or $17M on government-funded mental health services. Our emergency rooms are crowded with young people presenting with mental-health issues such as suicide attempts or suicidal ideation, depression, alcohol or opiate-use disorders, eating disorders and more. They may stay for days sleeping on gurneys in paper clothing, as the few resources to treat them are inadequate.

As to poverty, Vermont spent $3200 per person on public welfare or $19M, though that did not meet the need.

These efforts at remediation total some $117M. Might an investment of that size not be better spent repurposing vacant communal housing or commercial space with residential treatment options to meet the needs for our dispossessed?

And as to our young people, in 1945 there were some 200,000 U.S. children orphaned by the War. I was one. In Europe, the number was closer to six million.

Hermann Gmeiner and his colleagues started the SOS Children’s Village movement, which today cares for children in 130 countries around the world, supporting 100,000 families and 70,000 children. It remains an international model for how to care for children in a family setting, as opposed to an institutional one that’s more appropriate for adults. Our family had a close friend who was a colleague of Gmeiner’s, so as children we were very familiar with the model.

Might we consider this model for our many children in need here in Vermont? Illinois has done so very effectively, replacing an outdated foster-care system, in which children may be shuttled through multiple families to their further detriment. We actually considered starting an SOS Children’s Village in Morrisville in the early ‘60s, but didn’t follow through.

Were we to revert back to the “asylum” system in the classic sense of the word   ̶  “a place of refuge”   ̶  might we not remove those in need from our downtowns and place them in dignified quarters where they could be housed, fed, counselled and treated in a way that enables them to return to family and society?

Until we do something constructive, their continuing presence on our streets and parks should be a reminder to us that we are not fulfilling our human obligation to our neighbors who lack our privilege.

I’ve said it before: Our socio-economic failures can be measured in our emergency rooms, our jails, and on our streets. We can meet this challenge.

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