“i’m leaving this playground” – harrington hall reflection no.2

Today was the second day Sarah and I volunteered at Harrington Hall in Cranston, Rhode Island, for our project on mental health and incarceration as a part of the RISD/Brown chapter of Design for America. Sarah had suggested that we journal about our reflections on the experience, and because I am considering doing my Unit 17 DS project on community, I figured Harrington Hall could be a compelling topic to subject my project on.

This week we had dinner with the guys and had a brief conversation with Theresa about her thoughts on mental health with regards to homelessness, and her concerns about the future of Harrington Hall.

I suppose it would be best if I recapped last week’s session here as well. 04/07: This was the first time Sarah, Noah and myself went down to Harrington Hall together to volunteer. Knowing little beforehand going into it, the experience was really enlightening. I remember it being a very rainy and dark evening, we pulled up to Harrington Hall around 6pm, it was dark. The building is a classic New England brick building, and the setting reminded me of a mental institution. I distinctly remember the lighting being extremely cinematic throughout that first night; be it our conversations with the people who are homeless who are staying there, our conversation with Theresa in her office, and even the car ride back to Brown reflecting on the day. It felt eerie. The space felt erie. The main room where all the men sleep is a large mess hall with a large stage that is elevated a good 7 feet above the floor. There are 8 rows (labeled A-H) of 6 bunk beds (~96 beds total). The staff and volunteers reside over the men from the stage, which is distinctly marked above and over the men. From the stage, one can see across the entire hall and literally look down on the men when they approach the stage from the opposite side asking for socks and sheets/towels. The whole set up made me feel uncomfortable, but I’d be lying if I said the men themselves didn’t make me feel uncomfortable also.

While we were speaking with Theresa on the stage, a man pretended to be speaking on the phone and motioned me over to talk to him. Separated from Sarah, Noah and the rest of the staff, he told me in confidence that “things aren’t as great as they seem here.” He told me they were good and that the men are grateful for the provisions, but that the staff don’t treat them well. He encouraged me to have someone go “undercover and stay overnight as one of them” and experience what they go through, how they are treated. And implored that this would be helpful for both parties, the staff and the men who stay here overnight. I thanked him for his insight and was happy he sought confidence in me. That interaction made me extra aware of the separation between staff and the guys.

Today, 04/14, Sarah and I went back to Harrington Hall and were able to eat in the dining room with the men and observe how the caseworker and Theresa interact with the men. The caseworker was a bit condescending, Sarah and I reflected on her interactions with Lefty and another man, and how it felt a bit uncomfortable for all parties. I couldn’t help but compare the caseworker’s role with that of Ashley at New Urban Arts, the caseworker made sure to greet all the men by name and ask them how they’re doing. Made conversation with some of them, but rather than sitting down with the men, circulated the floor of the room (which wasn’t large). One of the men told us it felt like “we are in 3rd grade.” He got up and left before we could ask him more questions, though Sarah and I both agreed with his sentiments. That comment in itself, however, is rather condescending. Everything is relative. Theresa, I am warming up to her and her role; I think she genuinely does care. Though I feel as if she is still on her best behavior around us and is making sure to escort us around the space with tasks and encouraging us to “go on home” when there is nothing more todo. (Not that I am implying that she is trying to hide things from us, but one does wonder). I am sure she, just like many other social workers and people who work at nonprofits, is weary of volunteers who are inconsistent and noncommittal. It will take a while to warm up to both her and the men, but these types of relationships take time.

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