A Message from Maria Coutant Skinner, President & CEO
Much has been discussed and written about Litchfield County’s efforts to shelter our unhoused community members this winter. I won’t go into the details, as those are well documented, but in reflecting on this process which unfolded concurrently to our Empathy conference, I’m hopeful there are some valuable takeaways.
On November 30, nearly 700 people gathered at the Warner Theatre for the Litchfield County Opiate Task Force’s conference, “Reimagining Empathy: A Decade of Unity and Resilience.” We marked ten years of our community’s efforts to connect and heal the root causes of addiction and suffering. The event was a true triumph, a beautiful example of how each of us, if we do our own work of healing, has the capacity, and indeed the calling, to care for our fellow citizens.
World and locally renowned speakers shared stories of the value of celebrating and respecting the humanity of each and every person we encounter – and the remarkable results that can follow. Johann Hari reminded us of Millicent Fawcett’s call to action in the women’s suffrage movement, “courage calls to courage everywhere,” and how empathy must be accompanied by courage or else it’s an empty concept.
Optimism without feasibility is cruelty.
As for our homeless neighbors, the calendar pages kept turning without an acceptable space, this despite the Herculean efforts of many. I watched as the concerns and urgency grew to a groundswell that dominated every local conversation. I know this community to be an accepting and compassionate place so it’s not surprising that folks were responding with suggestions, research, advocacy, and offers of buildings for consideration.
There were many collections of blankets and tents, as well as outreach efforts to those impacted. But, as time marched on with no solution, I noticed something else: anger and blame. It felt terribly unjust that this issue persisted when clearly there was the will, the resources, and even the space to house people and keep them safe and warm. I am not exempt from these feelings!
Now, there will be many who will find fault in some of the players who put barriers to viable solutions in place, and I understand that. However, I observed that in our attempts to do the right thing for the vulnerable populations we all care about (namely, the unhoused and children), we found villains on “the other side,” and our ability to find solutions was stymied. Ultimately, it wasn’t just the homeless we needed to view as fully human, with flaws and strengths and gifts to offer; it was those of us on opposing sides of the issue.
As of this writing, the shelter has not opened and close to 100 people remain outdoors. We are in a humanitarian crisis, and only the recognition of one another’s humanity can solve it. In order to demonstrate our empathy, we are called to work together, shoulder to shoulder, to resolve the final hurdles and bring our neighbors inside.
My best to you always,
Maria Coutant Skinner
President & CEO