Sunday, October 28, 2012

Depression is Real

It's nice to see a mental health condition being treated for what it is:

Depression is very real, as any current or former sufferer will tell you.  The symptoms are unfortunately damaging to one's social circles, close relationships, and employment positions.  Perhaps this damage is more rooted in our insatiable need to punish, correct, discipline, or exile those who make seemingly bad social choices.  Ditto for those with addictions-- rather than see the reality of the circumstances that led to the illness, it is much easier to sit back, play armchair jury, and sentence the "wrongdoer" to whatever consequences we see will fit in the moment.  Not a lot of thought goes into this process usually.  Once the depressed or ill person has been labelled a "jerk" or "lazy," the job of punishing them is met with little resistance from any party.  It's so nice to see at least one depressed woman stand up and say "No! I am ill, not some mean, useless, or malicious person."  It's even nicer to see the courts respect that position and rule in her favour. 

There is a powerful analogy I read somewhere, I wish I could remember the source, but the gist of it is as follows:

Think of the best friend you have, a person you greatly respect the opinion of, and in whom you would place a good deal of trust.  Once you have the friend in mind, consider the image of them screaming and cursing at you out a window as you're walking down the street.  Imagine they are upset about a disagreement you had with them over something insignificant.  Imagine your feelings in this scenario... do you feel hurt? Angry? What do you want to do?  Perhaps write down your thoughts and feelings, and erase the image. 
Now replace it with an image of the same friend saying the same things for the same reasons under a different context.  In this second scenario, imagine the window that your friend is screaming from is at a residential mental health facility, where he/she has been placed for acute depression.  What are your feelings now?  Are they different? How might you react now?

This awareness-raising exercise should demonstrate clearly how you can feel and react to situations with different levels of understanding.  I take a flexible attitude to work with me every day, because I have seen over and over that even the most malicious-looking person has a deeper story if I care to investigate.  It takes more patience and dilligence, but in the end, understanding reality for what it is pays off.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


A lot of the homeless folks I work with—especially those who have been homeless for a long time, are older, or come from extreme poverty—cannot navigate the web in a way that they need to.  Everything is web-driven now; apartment searching, job hunting, and applying for basic assistance -- all require rudimentary websurfing abilities, yet it seems so many clients I meet do not have a current email address.  I’ve made it a point to ask people about their email understanding now, and if they don’t have an email, we go over to a web-based email site, and we create one together(I would suggest this to ANY case manager or outreach worker).  This way, I can send email reminders about appointments, update people, and ask them how they are doing if I want to follow up.  Sure, they may need assistance to retrieve the emails I send them, but at least we have basic reliable communication set up.

When I think about the essential nature of technology in today’s world, I can’t help but be curious as to what service providers are doing to bridge this growing technological gap.  Basically, if you want to have people transition from street life, they need access to computers, and they need the skills to use them. Check out this story by Tech Vibes:

 I definitely utilized my net skills to get off the street, but I was an exception to the rule, because I have always been on the geeky side. In the early nineties I used to go down to our local library and use what was called “Freenet.”  These were green-screened, text-based portals to the early web—it was GOPHER and USENET at that time.  I knew more about the Internet than a large part of the public then, and I capitalized on it:
 One day I was out on the corner with some nice clothes on and a stack of resumes in my hand, carrying a sign that said "Ask me for a resume."  A fellow came up and asked  if I knew about the Internet.  I said yes, and he asked if I wanted to help his company get online.  I agreed, and began to work as a contractor for a new company called “Carmanah Technologies." I went to their computers and set up Eudora mail, introduced them to USENET, and showed them how to link themselves with the fledgling network of engineers, scientists, and business people who were working on the same problems they were.  Readers that are from around here will laugh because that company went on to become a wildly successful publicly traded corporation:

  I worked for them for about a month, and the president at the time asked me “so, are you going to school or anything?”  I said I wasn’t(of course, now I wish I had said yes, lol). 

But I digress.  The point is, my technological savvy has allowed me to far exceed the expected success for somebody coming from the background I came from, and the people that currently suffer in extreme poverty are no different.  Many homeless people are untapped sources of ideas, inspirations, and new perspectives.  When this culture (that is, mainstream North American culture) comes to realize this potential, we will ALL be a lot further ahead.  I have often said that the thinkers, the poets, and the dreamers of today have been pushed to the margins through crisis circumstances. 

Not only have homeless people been intellectually discarded, they are having a harder time getting basic needs met. Many are so far behind that it will take a year to get back on the techno-bandwagon.  Computers were essential tools 20 years ago, they are life and death now, and if service providers want to help, they need to realize this growing need.  All shelters need to be WIFI, and supportive housing units should come with a built in PC, not a TV as I so often see.  If clients want to use their PC to watch movies, they can do that, but let them also have a window to the world.  Even if the only thing a client ever does is talk to their family on a social network site, at least they are addressing their loneliness, which is one of the biggest hurdles in transitional recovery.  It’s time that the service providers step up and employ the tools that are out there: see technological development as an essential service for homeless clients.  Check out my new wellness wheel, incorporating technological development as an essential area of personal growth:
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Friday, October 12, 2012

Tips for Communication

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!