Community exclusion and ‘difficult’ patrons


In her first guest post, Sara started to discuss the relationship between well-being and community inclusion (or not), and the ‘reality’ that many non-profits feel under-equipped to deal some of their patrons who are experiencing mental health issues or are using drugs or alcohol. Today she continues her earlier thoughtful discussion, jumping into a Toronto organization’s survey of folks who have been refused service or have been banned from certain agencies.

In 2013, an organization called Rittenhouse completed a survey of 10 Toronto community organizations that work with these populations and found that 90% of the agencies used barring practices or restricted services as a response to client conflict. Restricting services or barring can involve asking someone to leave or preventing them from entering or accessing the service for any amount of time. Agency staff highlighted the issue that barring practices and service restrictions actually replicate punitive, exclusionary and stigmatizing approaches faced by marginalized individuals in other areas of their lives. However, data gathered through focus groups and workshops with these community organizations demonstrates that staff feel under-qualified to deal with the conflicts that arise in their spaces in non-discriminatory and supportive ways, while balancing the health, safety, and comfort of other clients and staff.

Frank Cotham at The New Yorker

Exclusion negatively affects health

Rittenhouse conducted interviews with another 30 people who identify as current or past drug users and have been barred from a community organization. Many participants reported that the service limitation impacted their access to support services, harm reduction services, and physical health services: 40% of participants reported feeling like the bar resulted in an increase in their risk of violence; 53% felt the bar resulted in an increase in their risk of contact with police; 40%  like they did not get enough chance to talk about what happened; 53% that agency staff did not understand them or their situation; and 53% reported feeling embarrassment, shame, and/or humiliation, among other findings.

Supporting until we exclude?

These results point out a very basic tension in many social service agencies’ work. On the one hand, many agencies have a mandate to provide essential services, like food or shelter or community, often to people who are using drugs or alcohol, or struggling with their mental health. On the other hand, those persons’ substance use or mental health struggles make them prone to behaviour likely to be deemed ‘difficult’ or “undesirable.” If agencies respond to conflict by barring or restricting service, then they are obviously unable to fulfill their mandate.

Source: Exclusion Bullying Prezi presentation

I understand the challenge that working with limited resources presents to community agencies, who often have to provide the best services they can with the means they have–or can convince their donors to share. Staff of the Toronto agencies that Rittenhouse worked with explained that they, too, understand these limitations. Surveyed agency staff describe the less than ideal solutions it may lead them to when it comes to addressing conflict, or “undesirable behavior” that can occur in their place of employment. Maintaining the safety of staff and other service users is also important to building and sustaining a secure sense of community, and some days staff just don’t have the resources–or, we could say energy–to support unwell community members.


The limits of community?

Reflecting on McMillan and Chavis’ theory, which asserts that needs of community members are met by mutual commitment to one another, I wonder where this commitment ends? It appears that many community agencies draw a line just before conflict and substance abuse issues, even agencies whose purpose is to work with these precise situations. When does uncomfortable behavior become threatening? Communities, by nature, seem to have an exclusionary component, whereby the benefits of membership are denied to non-members. There are boundaries or limits to community membership, but banning people from communities should not be a first resort. There is a clear need for exploring, implementing and evaluating alternative methods for resolving conflict involving service users who are marginalized on the basis of drug use and/or are homeless or under-housed in community agency settings.

Rogelio López Cuenca

There’s another interesting point here, too, I think: the justification agencies often use is more or less that one bad apple spoils the bunch. People who are using, or experiencing serious mental health issues, or are ‘sufficiently’ disruptive just need to go, because they are toxic. Their continued presence makes it that much more difficult for the rest of the people at the shelter/addiction program/food bank who are trying their best to ‘get back on track.’ This is an entirely different way of looking at community, and our basic commitments to living with each other, and it certainly makes it easier to justify excluding a few for the benefit of the many. And I think that this way of thinking about community makes a lot of sense in the working environments many non-profits operate in: understaffed, underfunded, frustratingly busy pulling babies out of the river and unable to proactively build relationships with ‘difficult’ patrons. (I will let someone else write a blog post about whether this is a natural consequence of the way most non-profits are organized and funded…)

But there are other ways! Alternative solutions could help increase staff’s capacity and sense of efficacy in addressing conflict or difficult behavior. It could also help strengthen the sense of community that these organizations are trying to foster. By seeking to reinforce a commitment to fellow community members, and by promoting effective conflict resolution, understanding, and inclusion rather than exclusion, people who may feel misunderstood, isolated, and marginalized as a result of being banned from community organizations, maintain access to important services and possible benefits that a sense of community can provide.

Stay tuned for more creative visioning from Sarah!

*Rittenhouse. (2013). The impact of being barred on people who use drugs. Unpublished raw data.



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