Turn-Away

I knew there was a good possibility that when I walked home I might see him wandering the neighborhood. Setting a boundary was hard enough in this case, without having to see it first hand, on my way home, when I was supposed to be “letting work go.” A healthy goal, not always so easily achieved.

He was a smart, good-natured, 19 year old kid. He had been hanging around the Community Center I worked at during that time on the West side of Chicago. The younger kids loved when he came by. I got to know him when I heard drums playing upstairs and saw that he was playing alone in the music room. After talking awhile, he asked “So are you the social worker here?”

After explaining my role as the MSW intern, he said ” so can you help me find a place to sleep tonight?”

He had been sleeping in an abandoned building down the street. I knew the house well- it was on my route home. It looked liked a house that had been condemned for good reason. He couldn’t go back. Last night he had a close call with the police and a trespassing charge was the last thing he needed.

Over the next hour, he outlined the neighborhoods that would be dangerous for him to be seen in, which left us with only a handful of shelter options. After some calls, we were in the Community Center van driving to a shelter on the Westside. I waited in the van as he stood in line waiting to be checked. A few people before him, the shelter reached capacity and he had become a “turn-away,” the name given to those who there is no room to shelter each night.

I drove him back. We had reached the end of our options. I knew there were certain police stations one could sleep at until shelter could be located. We talked about it, but he refused due to violent experiences he had with people in those neighborhoods. By that time it was after 8. I was supposed to go home a few hours ago. I gave him a blanket and asked him to come see me again tomorrow.

I’ll admit, I wanted to let him sleep on my couch. It was one of the most difficult times I had to set a boundary.

But I did have an important take-away from this turn-away. It made youth homelessness a real, living, issue to me. I hope this post makes it more real to you too.

Who serves homeless youth in your neighborhood? How can you support them? #NoMoreTurnAways

Mandy

Hull House: Inspiration and Warning

Hello Friends- whether active in social work or considering the profession, I hope we can use the internet for it’s best purpose-to connect and share meaningful ideas.

Now it is only fitting that the first post on this blog should center around Jane Addams, the mother of Social Work and the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Like Jane Addams, and many of you I am sure, I am driven by an idealism which imagines a world in which “the good” is “secured for all of us.”

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”
― Jane Addams (Twenty Years at Hull House)

I would often reflect on the  life and work of Jane Addams as I was working towards my MSW at University of Illinois in Chicago, Jane Addams College of Social Work (more on my experiences of social work in Chicago to come). As I would exit the blue line train at the UIC stop, I would pass the historic Hull House each day on my way to class. I would think about how every inch of that street was saturated with the history that has made social work what it is today.

In my curiosity, I pulled Addam’s book Twenty Years at Hull House from the library. While I recommend the full read, I’ll tell you that I felt an immediate kinship with this woman who passed out of the world more than 50 years before my time. We had a similar origin story into the social work world. Addams witnessed a scene of grueling poverty as burned and scarred women carried boiling brew down the streets of London, being scalded as they worked for a beer brewer. The injustice of the scene awoke the spirit of social work. For me, it was when I first witnessed homelessness in my small, rural, town in Eastern Oregon. The scene of the man I met sleeping along the Umatilla River, shocked something inside of me awake.

Do any of you have a moment that awoke the spirit of social work for you?

The second element of kinship was the call to give myself to an usual degree (measured by the norms of society at the time) to rectify or make better the situation that caused the awakening. For Addams, it was the conditions of Chicago tenements. For me, homelessness, along with the isolation and detrimental life effects that come with lacking the basic need of safe housing. I say to an unusual degree, because one looks around and sees that mainstream society has accepted these issues as a given. Therefore, if one steps out to drastically improve the living conditions of a Chicago tenement or end homelessness to a degree that may effect “the good” one is able to have for oneself, one will often be alone and told that one has simply not accepted the facts about life yet.

Addam’s book still remains so strongly in my thoughts because she demonstrates that social workers should not forget that at it’s birth social work was a revolution. It was  revolutionary because Addams chose to do something with her life that did not compute with the realities of her time. Are social worker’s today committed to this same revolutionary spirit or are we more interested in maintenance and compliance of current systems even when they may not serve those most vulnerable in the best way?

The hard truth that Addams shows us through her example, is that to produce extraordinary change, one must be willing to break with what is expected and may be expected to give of self to an extraordinary degree.

 

The warning of Hull  House is that our work must also be tempered and grounded in the reality that often times we are outsiders, with no personal contact, to the  social issues that awaken our spirit. I was awoken by homelessness, yet I have never experienced a night on the streets. Addams was awoken by the hunger and poverty she saw on the streets of London, yet she was a wealthy white woman of education and privilege. As one of my favorite feminists, Eleanor Humes Haney wrote, “charity is a luxury.” Social worker’s should take care to understand that their role as a “giver” should be understood as a luxury and not touted as a something pointing to our own personal goodness.

How do we remain true to our own experience and simultaneously to the service called for by the realities that awaken us to the change we seek. I believe this is one of the central questions social workers must wrestle with. Have you found a path to walk between these two equally important truths?

Read Twenty Years at Hull House Here