I have been trying to figure out how to make the most of my career these days, because I think that we need more people from the front lines to step up and tell society how to help the homeless. It seems daunting, with so much information out there on the web, and so many organizations pulling in so many directions, but I just want to be one guy who talks about how things are out there, as a case planner, as a strategist, and as a formerly homeless person.
You know, I was inspired to get off the street by a handful of people. Every now and then I would meet a counsellor or outreach worker who emulated what I thought a person should be: happy, centered, present, and actively fighting for the best. I try to be that person every day, I try to remember what it was like, and what inspired me and helped me when I was lost out there. Here are some principles I live by to be that inspirational person:
1) No Bullshit - I will not feed a line to a client, or make things seems wonderful when they are not. I will not give them fake sympathy or pretend I am interested if I am not. I will give them a realistic idea of how people make it off the street.
2) Avoid "should-ing"- I don't think about what homeless people "should" do (otherwise known as "shoulding on your client"). If people get caught up in thinking that homeless people should work harder, or "make better decisions," they get lost in judgment and become ineffective.
3) Transparency - I tell clients exactly what they can expect from a program or service, to the best of my ability. This empowers them. I tell them the ins and outs, the back doors, and the people who are the best to talk to.
4) I expect honesty - If I am not getting honesty from a client, I re-evaluate what I am doing to contribute to mistrust. For the most part, I expect clients to tell me exactly where they are at, and I find they disclose more to me as a result.
5) I am ok with uncomfortable moments - There can be lots of awkward silence when you are trying to listen, and I am ok with that.
6) I try to see the person beneath the circumstances -- Who were they before they were homeless? If I can find that person, and inspire them, my work is done.
7) I let people rip me off sometimes -- I know, it sounds counter-productive, but for those who are caught up in manipulating and conning, I will allow them to take a few resources here and there for the sake of building rapport.
8) The client must ALWAYS save face ESPECIALLY in public places, or in front of their peers.
9) I use humour-- Sometimes, when I register someone's keycard in the shelter, I ask them with a very serious face: "And how will you be paying sir?" I bond with my clients through this kind of tension-release. Humour keeps you alive out there.
There are many more, I could go on all night, but the point is that we need to be respectful, honest, and clear if we are to help people who are in crisis. We need to see the circumstances, to hear the story, to be brave enough to ask about it, and bold enough to sit with the client in those hard moments. Keep up the fight!