Sharing below a new article of mine published in the New Social Worker Magazine today. Enjoy and check out the rest of the magazine for some great content! Be sure to comment and let me know your thoughts!
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
I want to highlight this fact: It is possible to end homelessness.
In the meantime, there are people in your community who may die on the street this year. It happens , all the time. That means we have to capitalize on the solutions we know work.
One of the most proven tools to ending long-term homelessness is the Housing First idea-basically an apartment, no strings attached.
60 minutes has a must watch video if you want to understand how this idea works. Here is a clip of the most essential footage.
“We are paying more as tax payers to walk past that person on the street and do nothing than to just give them an apartment.”
I have worked in the homelessness field for about four years. I have seen this idea work and I am convinced that it is the most successful model to end long-term homelessness.
The most surprising part about working in this field was the anger from communtity members I would encounter when I explain this idea. The anger is stemming from the idea that persons in these programs are receiving an apartment that they haven’t earned or somehow don’t deserve. To my constant surprise, I’ve been harrassed and called names for advocating this model.
But at the end of the day, I think about those persons experiencing long-term homelessness that I was with on their move-in day. Many have the same reaction. They stare at the key to their new apartment. They remark how strange it is to have a key and how long it has been since they had something that required a lock, something that belonged to them. Many that do have challenges with mental illness, addiction, or other issues are motivated, sometimes for the first time ever to seek help.
They are motivated because now they have something worth keeping.
P.S. I will be posting ways to support Housing First services and funding in coming days. Keep an eye out!
I was thinking back about my first few weeks officially “doing social work.” Specifically, I was remembering back to the first time I hit THE perimeter-the place when you realize as a helper that you cannot “make it okay” for everyone experiencing suffering that comes into your life.
I was 23. I was halfway through completing my MSW degree at Jane Addams College of Social Work. Of course that meant I was also completing my practicum hours. Working at a grassroots community center on the Westside of the city was a phenomenally eye opening experience. Coming from the culturally homogenous rural area of Eastern Oregon to practicing social work in a minority-majority community in Chicago, I obviously learned a lot of lessons and skills that contributed to a more well rounded practice experience. I also got a lot of practice bumping up against the edge of help I could provide and was left, almost every day, feeling that what I could provide was so inadequate to what I wanted to be able to do.
I wanted to make magic happen for people, and while sometimes magical moments did happen, I had to come to terms with being ok with saying “I did my best today, if nothing more.”
It was in this context, that I experienced one of the major differences between rural and urban poverty. Urban poverty is exposed. It’s in your face. The sheer density of persons means there is literally less space to experience poverty in privacy. For a social worker, rural poverty is actually very difficult for this reason, because to engage with someone you must first find them-out in that secluded encampment or on the riverbank covered in dense brush-but mostly if a person in a rural area doesn’t want to be found by a social services worker, they won’t be. You have to develop eyes to see poverty in a rural community.
Coming from this background, it was jarring to live in Chicago. I felt at times that I was surrounded by suffering- on my walk to work, at work, at my internship,in my neighborhood, going to class, coming home from class…I had to find my perimeter. I had to learn that I couldn’t react to every situation of suffering I encountered. There was just too much.
On my way home from class around 11 one night, I was bundled against a frigid wind waiting at the blue line stop for my “L” train. I began a conversation with a women sitting on the platform. I was 23. She was 22. We were both fairly new to the city and we both talked about our boyfriends, we were similar in a lot of ways-except that she was pregnant. And, she was living under that “L” train platform. Sure, I had a crap apartment-with sporadic heat, no hot water, and some infestation problems (still can’t help but cringe at cockroaches) but our lives were night and day.
Unlike me, she didn’t have friends or family. She didn’t have safety, stability, food, warmth and 1,000 other things she needed. When my train pulled up and I left her there, I felt so low. What was the point of an MSW degree if I couldn’t help Megan?
After that, I always came prepared with something for Megan. Snacks, socks, gloves… we also had a conversation about getting WIC, nearby shelters and getting on the city’s master housing waitlist-the Chicago Central Referral System (CRS). But, it never felt like enough. I had to wrestle with my perimeter every time I saw her. To be honest, I still do most days.
I think the discomfort of hitting up against your perimeter as a helper is both something one has to come to terms with to remain in the social work profession, and it is also a gift. It is a reminder of a vision – what we as a community (whatever community you live in) need to be doing better. In my vision for community, Megan has a safe place to have her baby and live her life to the fullest. I strive for that while learning not to be paralyzed by suffering.
If you have mastered this, you’re already my hero-drop me a line.
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?