Monday, March 28, 2005

Being Straight Up

Sometimes, when we in front-line social work decide to refuse services, we make excuses, or try to present a reasonable explanation for our decision. This may come in the form of "That's the rules," a way of diffusing the blame into a large organization or list of policies. It's easy, and it allows us to connect with the person in need while still refusing the service. Sometimes, it is hard to admit the real reason. Perhaps the person smells of alcohol, and services are being denied for the safety of other clients and staff. It is uncomfortable for those of us who wish to be "non-judgemental" to accuse somebody of drinking. We may have a gut feeling about the client, or we may in fact be dealing with a policy or funding issue, and unable to work around it. Whatever the case may be, we are there, having a difficult position, and wanting to explain it without having any confrontation.

It is important to keep in mind that any "behind the scenes" thoughts or judgments are likely to be picked up by the person we are working with. People who ask for help a lot are quite experienced with the different ways of saying no, and they have an uncanny ability to spot bullshit. Sometimes, the social worker may use a non-confrontational approach, be as nice as possible, and still find him/herself in a verbal conflict, because there are un-said things in the conversation. Of course, the loser in a conflict will usually be the street person, who may end up talking to the police or getting a ban as a result of not taking no for an answer.

Therefore, those of us who help professionally have a big responsibilty to be clear and honest about why services are being denied. We need to develop the skill of owning our decisions. Obviously, we can't use these skills in every situation. For example, a drunk person in a state of rage is hardly a receptive candidate for honesty. Still, we can follow a few simple principles to make sure we are not pulling the wool over the eyes of the people we are trying to help:

1) Take time to answer. Too often, confrontations happen because the two people are rushing to come to resolution without listening, or thinking about what is being said.

2) Speak with the classic "I" language. Avoid accusations, and try to replace "You're not allowed to..." with "I am not willing to let you..."

3) Trust your gut, and listen to your gut. If you have a suspicion about substance abuse, don't be afraid to say "I suspect you're high right now..."

4) Listen and reflect the frustration of the client. This is a simple-to-understand-yet-impossible-to-master type of skill.

5) Make sure your decision is clear. Are you saying no instinctively, or do you have a really good reason? Be clear to yourself about why you are saying no, it will help you communicate it.

6) Move slowly. Breathe. Relax.

I am not going to claim I have made much progress in the area of saying no, but I am aware that when I use some of the ideas above, outcomes are better. I would be interested to hear some other ideas on this topic. If you are lurking out there, please post, ok? Not only would it appease my ego to know that others are reading this stuff, it would create a collective understanding of the issue.

Derek Out...

Saturday, March 19, 2005

On Needs

Marshall B Rosenberg says that every person, every second, and in every place is trying to meet their basic needs with the best tools available. This simple idea lies at the heart of the Non-violent Communication theory. It reminds me of asking for help at a Salvation Army one day when I was about 17. They turned me away, but in a way which I found insulting. I got angry, and slammed the door on my way out, cursing and swearing at the staff. Perhaps at that point they simply put me into a "troubled" category. I know if someone storms out of our shelter despite my attempts to help, my first reaction is to judge them as "unhappy" or "ill." If I take a second, however, and think about the underlying need presented, I may have another option. Quite often when I was on the street, I would ask for things that I perhaps didn't need, but there was an underlying need to be heard, or empathized with.

For example, if I was bumming change, or a smoke, I took serious offence to people ignoring me. I would rather have a stern "No!" then averted eyes. Why? Perhaps because my underlying mode is to see if anyone cares. Really, the whole idea that "people don't care" tormented to no end when I was out there. I couldn't believe that people could walk by a 15 year old sleeping in a parkade without asking if I was ok. You know what would have been nice? Somebody saying "I see you, and I can't help you right now because I am busy with my life, but I do care..." Would that take much time? Not really. So why do we cross the street, or ignore those who make us feel uncomfortable? Well, I can speak for myself and say that I am afraid I will get lost in helping, that I will get "trapped" in a long-winded story about how hard someone's life is. I have stopped to help before, and found that the need is so great, I have to eventually detach myself to carry on with my day.

Yet couldn't I just take the time to be honest and validate a need for 3 seconds (the amount of time it would take to be honest)? Chances are it would take less energy, I would feel better about what I did, and I just may share a real awareness with another human. It doesn't seem so bad, but maybe a bit scary.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Maslow, Teleporting, and How to Get Beyond the Basics...

Maybe the current social work paradigm is Maslow-sick. Maslow revolutionized the ideas around personal growth, but the linear nature of his model is perhaps misunderstood, or over-applied. Case in point: I work in an emergency shelter, on the night shift, and I hand out tons of blankets and sandwiches to people who come to the door after the shelter has filled. It seems that in the Maslow model, the folks at the door are struggling to make ends meet, somewhere at the bottom of the pyramid of needs. Is self-actualization possible at this moment, when I am handing the sandwich over? I think most would say no, we have to focus on what is needed; look after the client's basic needs, and they MAY have the opportunity to explore life choices at some undefinable point in the future. Yet I notice a difference when I hand out a blanket with a smile instead of indifference. If I am tired and I plop the blanket in their arms, they don't seem to make much eye contact. I wouldn't either, were I receiving a blanket from someone who didn't seem to care.

If, on the other hand, I express my genuine concern and say "that is the best I can do tonight" the response is one of appreciation and connection, even with those who have been judged as typically unresponsive. I would like to note that "connection" is found a little higher up on Maslow's hierarchy, somewhere after self-esteem and a sense of belonging. It is as though the client and I have been "teleported" through the hierarchy.

The current models of motivational interviewing seem to have the same directional growth ideas, as a person is said to move through different levels of awareness and action, from pre-cognition to awareness to cessation. Yet, a drug user can stop doing drugs without thinking about why. Motivational interviewers would say that a sudden halting of drug use is an example of a person moving through the cycle REALLY quickly, but I wonder if there is something more to be said about this phenomenon. Of course we are limited by our capacities, and time constraints, but I believe we might be able to think "outside the pyramid." Thoughts?

Non-Diagnostic Listening

I just read a really cool article on the net at

It is so easy to slip into diagnosis when you work with people. I believe we diagnose when we fear-- diagnosis gives us a sense of "stability" in a chaotic situation. We talk with the client (the word "client" is interesting in itself), and we cannot get the response that we hope for. Perhaps we are looking for something like "I guess you are right, I am thinking stupid... I am going to change myself and be happy." When we don't get this response, or if we get a response that is outside of what we perceive as logic, we peer over the brink of sanity; we worry that this person will pull us both over the edge. Humans seem to naturally fear non-connection with other humans. At this point we need a reason, and "bipolar," or "schizophrenia," or "depression" seem to fit so well. Once we have the word, we can plunk all the previous behaviour into the mindframe. It explains everything... This person is mentally ill, so it's not my fault. In the healthcare system, it is so much easier to deal with people in "channels." bipolars over here, FASD over there, etc.

Some who read this will say "This is nothing new, non-judgmental philosophies have always been around." While I agree that the cast-the-first-stone speech is quite old, I would say that social workers need to speak about and process judgment frequently. I think when we begin to see our fear in the situation, we can start to get to questions like "What is the WORST thing that will happen if I just forget the labels and listen to this guy?" Truly see the fear and you will watch it melt away.

I am also aware that I judge out of survival. I have no apologies for being judgmental, though our society has labeled "judgment" as "bad." I see little use in judging MYSELF for being judgmental (!). Boy, this just gets silly at some points!

Anyhow, I would like to see people looking more closely at how they view the people who come to them for help. Do you sit with your co-workers and say "That woman is blah blah..."? Do you think of blah blah when you talk to her? Are you closed down as a result? What would an alternative look like? Is the alternative scary? Hmmm....


Monday, March 07, 2005

Deep Living Activities

Naturally, the question of why I made it off the street, or what motivates me has come up, both in my mind and the minds of those who know me. I just want to cut a tiny way into this topic by talking about what I call "Deep Living Activities." These are activities which transcend your daily existence, and can potentially and spontaneously propel you into a new awareness. There are a few criteria to be met in the search for a "Deep Living Activity"
1) There has to be no agenda, or thought that this activity will help your life
2) The activity has to engage on many levels, Physically, Emotionally, Mentally, etc
3) The activity has to a be a rarity, or somewhat rare, in your life
4) It is fun, enjoyable, and attractive
5) It helps if it is simple, and easy to understand, but impossible to master.

For example, canoeing met the criteria in my own life. As a street kid of say, 18 or so, I was talking to this guy who wanted to help me. I remember lamenting my situation, and talking about the overwhelming qualities of poverty. He helped me focus by asking me what I would like to do, if I could do anything (something small). Now, he was a fairly well-off fellow, who had mentioned the canoe he had in his backyard at some point. I said "canoeing would be fun." He asked me to do one thing, and to forget about my situation. He said I could borrow his canoe, I just had to get to his backyard by myself, and take the canoe for a spin (he had lakefront property). The next day I spent the first part of the morning and early afternoon hitch hiking to his place. I Learned a lot in the process. I learned that a rich experience like canoeing on a beautiful lake can be very motivating.

We see these kinds of activities put to use with youth all the time, mostly with young offenders, because we believe it fosters "teamwork" and other corporate buzzwords like "Leadership," and "social networking." Whatever. As long as we see the underlying qualities that allow for success in a project, we are ahead.

I could not have changed my life, or become a rich individual without some fun stuff happening, I know that. While there are quite a few other things that have helped me, this one sticks out right now.

I realize that it's tough to budget in "fun," or "activity," but I truly believe it separates a successful program from an unsuccessful one. When I say "success" by the way, I mean people choosing consciously, deliberately living the way they actually want to.


Saturday, March 05, 2005

Defining Street Culture (Loosely)

It occurs to me that there are some general values and beliefs running through the culture of the street. Not that everybody on the street is the same. Homelessness is a situation, not an ethnicity. Nevertheless, if you live there, you will find lots of similar ideas in discussions at the drop in centers, soup kitchens, and shelters:

1) Materialism is bad, people should share what they have.
2) Don't ask too many questions of others
3) Be attached to people-- don't be a detached snob
4) Systems, buracracies, and highly developed social networks damage people
5) Police, politicians, government workers, professionals and business people can't be trusted
6) Don't involve others in your conflicts... resolve them yourself -- don't ever "rat" on people.
7) Help those less fortunate.

There are a host of others. Please feel free to post if you can think of any. Many of these ideas are progressive and, in my opinion, useful to society in general. It makes sense that those who are impacted by greed would oppose it, but anti-materialism is a sentiment that is also found in many major religions. North America is money-sick, and the cure is generosity.

The distaste of detachment is interesting. When I lived on the street, one person would bum a smoke, and they would be obligated to share it. This is generosity, but it is also attachment to community. There is a sense on the street that we are all in this together, and we should not abandon our buds in times of trouble. Emotional rescuing and what some people would call "co-dependence" are the rule on the street. If someone is feeling suicidal, for example, there are many around who will "come and get you."

For some in the homeless culture, systems are equivalent to evil. Again, this makes sense if you consider the systematic oppression of the poor. Even the right to use the washroom involves money and therefore a subscription to our current social system. Think about this: If you did not have a cent, were in the downtown area late at night (say, after 11pm) and needed a drink of water, where would you go? Maybe to a coffee shop where you could ask for one, but if your clothes are dirty you will most like get the "Our policy is not to do that..." You learn to hate "policy" when you run up against it time and time again.

You learn to hate questions on the street too. Something I have noticed: questions about work, income, and lifestyle are often asked by those who are dying to have somebody ask them about THEIR lifestyle, because THEY are doing quite well. Hence, poor people tend to keep their nose out of others' business. Even "How are you doing?" can be problematic when asked to a person who has not slept or eaten properly for 2 days.

Anyway, I am ranting here, I hope somebody finds this useful.

The Homeless in Canada: Street People in a Wealthy Nation: Welcome

The Homeless in Canada: Street People in a Wealthy Nation: Welcome

Marching through March

Formerly Homeless Post #2

Funny, I started this blog with the idea that I could somehow chronicle my work and experiences with homeless people, but I realize that such blogs would be far too revealing for the general Internet population. I think I will broaden my approach, and give you some tidbits of information instead. The first thing I would like to talk about is "homeless counts." A good homeless count should be a starting place for the network of agencies hoping to make a dent in the suffering of shelterless Canadians.

But how do you count those who may not want to be counted? Certainly when I was on the street, I didn't want anybody to know where I was sleeping, because a good sleeping spot was hard to come by. In order to count ANY group of people accurately, you need to find them where they live. There are several methods for finding street people. You could just comb the city, pulling back branches in public parks and shining flashlights in dark alleys, but you will undermine your helpful intentions if you upset the folks out there. During the Victoria homeless count, an experienced street outreach worker compared this method with kicking open somebodys bedroom door with a flashlight and a clipboard in your hands... not very helpful! Optionally, you could just make an approximation of homeless people by counting how many use local resources like soup kitchens and shelters. This is a popular method, because it's cheap and quick. However, not all homeless use resources, and not all people who use resources are homeless.

This second method, like the first, does not factor in "couch surfers." Couch surfers are seldom counted, but I suspect they make up the largest homeless population in Canada. Any means used to assess homelessness MUST MUST MUST consider couch surfing! We could define a couch surfer as any person living at an address where they are not listed as a tenant. I suggest an anonymous survey, carried door to door to a random sample of the population. These couch surfers may include families who hit hard times, and are staying with relatives.

To be effective, a homeless count must be carefully planned, and the counters well trained. Our homeless count began with a series of interviews of key community figures. These were people working directly with homeless clients, such as street nurses and shelter workers. We also interviewed those from street population who were willing to spend some time with us. In these interviews, we asked two things: Where to look, and how to be respectful. Then we walked around those areas during daylight hours. We created routes for the counters to walk, and used computer mapping programs (ArcView) to make maps for the counters. We did some training sessions, and revamped our methodology as we received feedback. It was complicated, but we pulled it off...

I can answer more questions about Victoria's homeless count, if you take the time to email me. I hope Canadians can get to the point where we have a rough scope of the problem. Right now, we distribute random bits of resources, mostly around Christmas time, and hope for the best. Hence, we all miss the productivity of some of the most creative minds in the country. Invest in the homeless, understand the homeless, and you will find the soul of Canada...


Formerly Homeless Post #1

Well, this is the first post in my Blog about homelessness in Canada. I live in Victoria B.C., and I work at a homeless shelter. I started my adult life at 15 (1985) by hitting the streets in places like Toronto, Calgary, Kelowna, Vancouver, Winnipeg, and all points in between. I spent about 6 years on and off the street before putting my life somewhat together (in about 1991). I went to the University of Victoria when I turned 26 (1996) , and spent a good 6 years getting a social sciences degree (psychology and geography) I have since volunteered at several places in the Victoria area, including the Crisis Line, The Citizen's Counselling Center, The Alano Club, and The Victoria Cool Aid Society. I recently used my geography skills to map out the city, and create routes for Victoria's first homeless count. At 35, I have spent enough time on both sides of the issue-- as both client and professional -- to be able to offer a lot to those interested.

Derek M Book