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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Happy 81st Birthday, Henry Shelton!

At age 81, after more than 50 years as a community organizer, 30 of them as coordinator of the George Wiley Center, Henry Shelton got a truly wonderful birthday present last week.


Henry Shelton is one of the most dedicated, selfless people Rhode Island has ever produced. I’ve known Henry for almost 40 years when he directed one of the very first community organizations in Rhode Island. Working out of South Providence, Henry organized low-income people, senior citizens, the disabled and disenfranchised to fight for dignity, their rights and basic survival.

He also trained a couple of generations of community organizers who have tried to live up to the role model he represented. Henry founded the George Wiley Center to continue that work, particularly in the area of heat and utilities. He has been a relentless advocate for the simple concept that in a country as wealthy as ours, nobody should have to freeze to death.

A year and a half ago, Henry suffered a serious stroke that curtailed his ability to put in his usual 16 hour days. But he never gave up.

A few days ago, on the occasion of his 81st birthday, Henry received a truly wonderful birthday present.

The General Assembly enacted, and sent to Governor Chafee for his certain signature, S-412A, the “Henry Shelton Law.” This law is the result of Henry’s seven year effort to create a safety net to protect low-income households from utility shut-offs.

Ratepayers – you and me – will be charged a surcharge that will average about $20 a year per customer for a fund to supplement the endangered federal LIHEAP (Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program) with a steady income projected at $7.5 million a year.

Yes, I know this will make some people grumble. Compulsory charity. More taxes! Why should we help these bums? Get a job! Test them for drugs. And so on.

The one on-going argument I have had with Henry over the years is over Henry’s abiding faith in the goodness of people. He loved the poor, as if he was a male, left-wing radical version of Mother Theresa. And he trusted that he could convince the rest of the public, the non-poor, that the poor were good and decent people who deserved a helping hand.

I used to say to Henry that people actually HATE the poor. While I admired his efforts to get people to share his love for the poor, it just wasn’t going to happen. Charlestown could well be used as a case in point, although we too have our local heroes. Aid for the poor would come from other motivations, such as fear or shame, but not love.

Generally, this has been a bad year – a bad decade – to be poor in Rhode Island, with regular annual cut-backs in social programs and benefits. The General Assembly chose to put the burden of balancing this year’s budget on low-income families who will have to pay more for medical assistance. They could have passed (but didn’t) legislation sponsored by Charlestown’s reps Larry Valencia and Donna Walsh to take back the unproductive tax breaks we have granted to the richest Rhode Islanders.

I hope the enactment of the “Henry Shelton Law” is not just a gesture but perhaps the sign of a sea-change in Rhode Island public policy.

Author: Will Collette

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