Monday, April 22, 2013

Ending Homelessness: What REALLY Works:

I thought I would put together a collection of things that I think every case planner, outreach worker, shelter worker, and homeless supporter needs to have in their toolbox:

1) Good rapport.  I can't stress this one enough.  If you are not feeling comfortable with your client, chances are they are not feeling comfortable with you either.  Get another worker to help connect, or take the conversation back to basics.  If you feel like you are going around in circles, it could be that the person you are working with is keeping you at bay because they don't trust you.  A couple of questions to ask yourself: Are you actually trustworthy, or are you serving your own ego here? Have you spent enough time getting to know the person you are sitting with?  Is there a different conversation topic that might be better than the one you are having?  Consider getting out of the office with your client, if that is possible.  How about grabbing a coffee somewhere?  Some people like to talk while walking- it breaks tension.

2) Use technology!  At this point, I can walk up to a homeless person on the sidewalk with my tablet, and if they are willing, I can help them apply for social assistance, a birth certificate, or addictions treatment on the spot.  I can also get them in touch with their family.  Heck, if they are willing and lucky enough to have a net savvy family, I might be able to skype someone they haven't seen in 10 years-- right there on the sidewalk.  Every person you work with should have an email address.  If they don't, take 10 minutes and create a gmail account.  They may not know how to use computers, but you can still leave emails for them, and if they need to check that email, there are many drop in centers that can help them do that.  Connecting your clients to technology is a win for them.

3) Support your coworkers.  Half of the work you do will depend on whether you can pull your team together on a case.  If you feel that some of your coworkers stigmatize your clients, all the more reason to connect with them, to understand why they feel the way they do.  Do not operate in a vacuum, it sucks.

4) Be in a service mindset.  I openly tell my clients that I am "at their service." I am paid to do what I do.  I may believe strongly in the cause of homelessness, I may have concern for homeless people, but at the end of the day, I am EMPLOYED by homeless people, and I do it their way.  If you work at a shelter, pretend you work at a five star hotel for a day, and see what the difference is, you'll be surprised at the outcome.

5) Understand that there are cultural components to this.  You're not making hamburgers, you are ending homelessness, and some people have been out there for decades.  This means there are rules that they live by in order to function.  Don't confuse these "street rules" with the individual values of the people you work with, they use this conduct code to function, not to make the world a better place.  For example, there is a fundamental "no ratting" rule that is broadly applied.  This rules does NOT apply when children are at risk, or when lives are in danger.  Expect that your client will not "rat out" his or her peers about drug use, but may come to you if there is an overdose, or if a child is at risk.  The cultural rules of the street are complex, vibrant, and should be learned by anybody who wants to help.

6) See yourself in your client.  This does not mean you say something like "I can relate to your homelessness, I had a bad camping trip last week and blah blah" This means you quietly look at what this person is going through and realize that it could be you, that you are one paycheque away from the stigma, isolation, and suffering of homelessness.  Count your blessings, look past their frustration and seemingly counter-productive behaviours and see yourself-- there you are.

7) Don't for a SECOND believe that a homeless person chooses to suffer.  Yes, they may have made a choice that impacted their housing, got them kicked out of the shelter, or made their health conditions worse, but please realize that every single decision they make is made for a damn good reason.  Your job is to help them find that reason, and connect with it on a new level.

8) Don't "should" on your client.  Don't have an idea about what they should be doing.  Yes, if they fill out that application for addictions treatment, it would seem to be a good choice.  What you don't realize is that they were raped repeatedly by a school counsellor, and going to treatment will trigger all that underlying trauma.  Clients know exactly what they need, and they know WHEN they need it.  Don't add another critical voice to the millions of critical voices that homeless people face every day.  Stop "shoulding" on your clients.

9) Know your resources!  If you can't come up with the names of all the foodbanks and drop-in centres within walking distance of your location before you finish reading this sentence, you have a lot of work to do.  I created a mind map of local resources: consider making one for your community.  You will learn a lot in the process.

10) Always realize that this new client is completely different from every client you have formerly worked with.  Don't fall into the trap of thinking that all homeless people are the same, or that they can be divided into broad groups.  If you have a new person in front of you, realize that this is a new person in front of you.  Be human.  Find out who they are by asking them.

11) Inspire people.  Find out what makes them tick.  Perhaps they used to play music, or perhaps they have a kid somewhere.  Maybe they haven't talked to a long lost sister for years, or they have a hobby that they haven't engaged in since becoming homeless.  If you inspire your client, they will do all the work for you, because they will want to get housed just to follow their passion.  Think about it, the reasons YOU stay housed are related to your dreams.  If you had no dreams, no hopes, and no goals, why would you keep paying rent or mortage fees?  Humans used to be nomadic, they only stopped because the things they wanted were attainable if they planted their feet in settlements.  People who have been homeless for a long time haven't lost hope, they have just buried it inside somewhere, waiting for someone like you to help them find it again.

There are more ways to help homeless people, of course.  This topic is endless and deep, but I wanted to give a quick summary of the most helpful attitudes and tools I use every day.  I hope they help you, please feel free to share them where you can.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Those Awful Homeless People

Once again, we see a story about how "those homeless people" are.  The headline reads "Homeless man convicted for Victoria teen death."  It's a story of how a man stabbed a teen at a bus stop unprovoked, apparently under the paranoid delusion that this teen was part of a gang who was stalking him.  Once again, the media seized on the homeless card, adding it in to stir things up.  This time, however, the story implies that homeless people are violent and mentally ill, rather than good honest folks who return lost rings.  The media just can't get enough of the homeless.

Now I'm pretty certain the author of this story was not trying to associate violence with homeless people, but why mention homelessness at all?  As a case planner who has met hundreds and hundreds of homeless people from every walk of life, this is the equivalent of saying "bearded man convicted for stabbing."  Cory's homelessness was the least of his worries, and could perhaps be seen as a symptom of his mental illness, but to put homeless and stabbing in the same headline is nothing short of fear-mongering sensationalism.  Here's another example of media-perpetuated stigma involving homeless people:

Homelessness is a CIRCUMSTANCE, not a characteristic.  How many times do we have to explain it to you?  I don't need to point out that the majority of headline-making tragedies involving violence and mental illness involve housed people, do I?  If the person in this story had been housed, the topic might have been more relevant, mentioning perhaps how broken our mental health care system is right now.  I wonder how many times Cory tried to access the health care system, only to find he didn't fit their "criteria?"

As it is, the talk of the town will be "That guy got stabbed by a homeless person."  Is that what the author wanted?  More suffering, more fear, and another excuse to say "those people deserve what they get."

I am writing a letter to the CBC.  I hope you will too.  The link for contacting them is here: