Mother Superior

The terrible compassion of Mary Jo Copeland.

Welcome to the world of privatized welfare. Minnesota's Little Calcutta.

"That's the problem with charity," says Tom Logeland, director of Alliance of the Streets. "With a government agency there's a check and a balance. You have rights. At a charity, people fall through the cracks for no good reason. In the end, whether you get any meaningful help has more to do with luck than anything else."

Gale, a 33-year-old single mother of three, thinks women get treated a little better than men at Sharing and Caring Hands, especially if they have kids. Still, she equates her experiences with Copeland to shooting craps. "It's just how she sees fit. It's not based on need. It's not prejudice, either. I can't put my finger on it. It's more of how the day flows, or how much credibility she will get for this or that. It's not a black or white thing. It's a saint thing. Y'know? If I help this humble person then people will see me as good. If I turn out this smart ass, people will feel it's justified."

Christopher Peters

Andrew, a 41-year-old homeless man, only makes his way to Mary Jo's when he's exhausted every other avenue. He says it's an exercise in pride-swallowing: "You have to be crazy to want to go down there. You have to act like a goddamn slave to get her to help. She just wants people to worship her. It's bullshit."

Of course, no one says the self-sufficient Copeland has to help anybody. For all practical purposes, she's a volunteer. And as Bruce Harstad, one of Copeland's paid employees, says, for every 10 people you help, someone will be unhappy. "You'll hear a lot of different things from a lot of different people. But she's trying. She's doing the best she can," he says.

"Very, very few people who deserve help can't get it here," Copeland says. "But I do what I do, and it's for the moment. I don't worry about it. I can't. You make the decision, right or wrong, and you move on. It's a waste of time to dwell on the mistakes."

In fact, few welfare advocates dispute Copeland's success rate or energy. She's helped countless people, saved countless lives. They do, however, worry about the saintly image she's so carefully crafted. They worry her good deeds will always eclipse real, long-term needs. They worry she's starting to believe the hype.

"She's the envy of public-policy people because of her ability to garner attention. And she may be getting that attention because she's consciously de-politicized herself," says Kris Jacobs, director of JOBS NOW. "But unfortunately her image is built on this mentality that the poor will always be with us, as if poverty were genetic. And it fits into the media's need to cover the lower-income community. The can say they're covering the issues when they go see what happening at Mary Jo's. I think she's shrewdly advanced the grandmotherly thing to get what she wants. But, as of yet, she hasn't used her bully pulpit to advance the cause of the impoverished."

Mark Thisius, director of the local homeless activist group Up and Out of Poverty, takes a more cynical view. Universally seen as a loudmouth radical by those who work at Sharing and Caring Hands, Thisius believes Copeland is particularly dangerous in the current political environment. "By and large she knows the score on the streets, and she's been totally, totally silent," Thisius says. "She says she's doing enough. But she's not doing it all. And she's selling herself as the answer. It's just too simplistic to say the thing that needs to change is the behavior of these people."

If middle Americans think there's a saint watching over the downtrodden, Thisius worries, the last remnants of the social safety net will be that much easier to shred. If corporate America can write a check to Mary Jo, they'll feel absolved of responsibility. Because unlike the do-gooders at the welfare office, Copeland can discern who's been naughty and nice. "All they have to do is let go of their anger," as Copeland frequently says about her clients. "All they have to do is forget yesterday and live life for today."

All they have to do is believe.

Privately, nonprofit directors, social workers, and welfare advocates are quick to criticize Copeland's procedural inconsistencies. They also wonder out loud about her ethereal motives. But few are comfortable speaking out. They fear that if Copeland perceives them as uncooperative or unappreciative they'll be cut off.

Their fears seem justified. In the spring of 1996, director Patrick Hennessey unveiled his locally produced documentary, The Homeless Home Movie. The film is a street diary focusing on seven protagonists, a raw, first-person account of what it takes to survive without an address. It's a unique approach at a time when media tend to cover poverty by covering the caregivers. In Hennessey's movie, people standing in line at Sharing and Caring Hands are asked to evaluate Copeland's saintly demeanor. Activists such as Thisius are given a chance to challenge her politics. And while the criticisms of Copeland are framed with heavy doses of praise, she and her loyalists are still fuming about the project.

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