Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Pet Friendly Supportive Housing

Considering the people we serve in the "homelessness industry," it is shocking that ANY supportive housing project gets the green light while remaining "no pets."  How does this happen? I think it may be a lack of awareness on the part of program developers, or the complications of insurance, animal control, and the intersection of these issues. 
I want to spell it out clearly, once and for all.  If your organization is in the process of building supportive housing, and you havent figured out how to accommodate the dogs, cats, birds, and rats, you'd better start again.  The last thing street peeps need is another resource designed for somebody else. Here are some things to keep in mind when talking about housing people with pets:

1) They will die before they give up on their loved ones.  Why? Because despite the fact that teachers, judges, parents, and even outreach workers give up on people in crisis, most people who have been given up on have sworn to themselves that they will not do that. To anybody. Ever.
2) Asking them to give up their pets is the opposite of a client-centered approach.  Homeless people love their pets for a reason, we need to get behind them on that.
3) Anti-pet policies lack a trauma-informed approach.  You simply need to see how wonderful support animals are when it comes to trauma- they are incredibly therapeutic.
4) One of the biggest challenges to transitioning from the street is dealing with loneliness.  I dont think this point needs elaboration
5) Pets build community.  I am not a dog owner, but if I borrow one and go for a walk, I talk to more people, and more people talk to me.  Housing providers who want community engagement should consider pets as a catalyst (dog walking clubs, etc)
6) Pets take responsibility, which builds capacity.  When I was new in recovery, and complaining about my loneliness to a wise mentor, he said this: "Derek, why dont you get a goldfish? If its still alive after a year, try a dog... if the dog is still alive and well after another year, THEN you can try a relationship"   :)

I know some people will say "what about people with allergies, huh?"  While it is true that some people have such severe allergies that even being in the same apartment building as a cat will involve a trip to the hospital, this argument is as weak as saying "white people experience racism too!"  Yes there are people who cannot tolerate animals, but they are a small group, and much easier to accommodate.  For example, you could have ONE small "no pets" building in each town for these rare cases.
Insurance issues? Who doesnt have them? Pets are the LEAST of your liability concerns as a housing provider.  As long as your resident follows local bylaw requirements(and you support them to do so) you will be fine.
Housing providers: who are you building these units for? Look at the homeless population, and ask them.  Talk to your local animal control people, and start to understand this crucial issue.  No city can EVER hope to end homelessness without factoring in the intense love for animals many street people have.  We do this TOGETHER, doggies and all...

Monday, March 16, 2015

Poor People are Built for Generosity

A new short film shows that sometimes, people who have less give more.  (link)The idea that people who experience extreme poverty are more generous is not new.  To me, its part of the culture of poverty.  I grew up in poverty, and my mother was always clear that we should help those less fortunate, and never think of our lives as more valuable than the next.
I would say that out of the hundreds of homeless I have worked with over the years, at least 60% of them said they want to help others once they recover, by working in the field, talking in schools, etc.

It's also not a stretch to think that those who save their pennies carefully are less likely to reach out to the poor.  I watched a video of Paul McCartney walking through New York, chatting with people, signing autographs, etc.  When a man who looked homeless approached him, and shook his hand, he seemed happy to see him.  But when the man pulled him in a little closer, asking him to help him with a personal crisis, Paul backed off, walking away saying "I cant help you with that, take care." Now we absolutely know that Paul has a ton of cash, but we also know him as a man who knows how to hold on to his wealth, as most wealthy people do. This scene is absolutely normal.  Rich people are rich for a reason.

Of course, we've now reached the end game of the wealth-generation experiment, as though we were in the last round of a giant monopoly game.  It hardly seems worth it to pass go and get the $200.00 when every property on the board has a little red motel on it, but we are going through the motions.

In this next chapter, I believe we will see the hope, optimism, and generosity of those with experience of poverty shine through.  The money managers served their purpose and brought stability to the world, but now that the wealth is so concentrated, most of the world is paralyzed, waiting for the billionaires to get bored enough to change things.

Friday, March 13, 2015

ADHD May be One of the Largest Causes of Homelessness

Undiagnosed ADHD may be one of the largest causes of homelessness.  This may seem like a stretch of logic to you, but lets consider ADHD and ADD for a second. NIMH says that ADHD has been shown to be a developmental condition in which the brain maturation is delayed (link).  The delay is most pronounced in brain regions involved in thinking, paying attention, and planning.

Essentially, Johnny doesn't do his homework.  He signs up for the course, amazes people in the classroom with his thoughtful and creative ideas, and becomes a class favourite, but he fails the course-- why? Because 60% of the course mark is based on weekly assignments, and he has missed 80% of the deadlines.  He has also been late or absent for more than 40% of the classes.That's because Johnny doesn't track time very well, and he always figures he has a bit more time.
Planning is a frontal lobe activity, and it is what some argue separates us from animals.  We see the deadline approach, and we prepare, using intellectual analysis of environmental factors to make a prediction about what will happen.  If we time it right, we do exactly what is expected at exactly the right time.
This mental ballet elludes the ADHD brain.  People with ADHD may say that they understand when the deadline is- you can look them in the eye and ask them if they understand what is expected of them, and they will assure you that they will be there.  When it comes time to rely on them, however, you may be disappointed with the result.

ADD is an invisible disability.  As a person struggling with this invisible demon, I frequently find myself in awful situations with no real good reason why.  I am articulate, thoughtful, and I care SO much about others, but success eludes me, because I dont seem to follow through when it matters.  If I talk about this with others, they simply say things like "do better," or "yeah, Im lazy too sometimes, but I learned to pull my socks up and get things done."  Its as though my disability doesn't exist... Im just lazy, or manipulative.

Today, everything is tracked. Every late payment you make for a bill goes into some database that will affect your ability to aquire resources down the road.  A poor attendance record is one of the worst things you can have on your profile, and it's possible that I am damning my ability to ever get a job again by publicly stating that I have struggled with attendance my entire life.

Yet I want us to talk about this, because I am having some success with my brain these days, but I am struck by how many homeless I have worked with who share my experiences.  In order to apply for welfare in my city, an applicant must first go online, and register.  Then they have to show up for a phone interview at the office, in which they will be given a list of documents they will have to supply to gain eligibility(a 60 day bank statement, income tax assessment, identification, etc).  They are given a second appointment, the social assistance worker reviews the material and books an "Intake interview."

Anybody with ADHD is probably laughing (or crying) as they read this, because they realize that us folks have a very slim chance of even having current ID and a current tax assessment, let alone being able to show up on time to three appointments in a row.  Most of us ADHD folks will put off gathering the required docs until the last day, thinking it will be easy.  Then we will stress ourselves out trying to get banks and tax centers to give us the info in too little time.  We will stay up the night before, trying to cover up our delayed response-- only to miss the first appointment because we slept in (got distracted by a phone call and forgot to set the alarm).

I have so many people on my caseload who play this scenario out over and over again.  They cant rent anywhere, because when the landlord checks references, the old landlords always mention how the rent was late, etc.  People with ADHD or ADD can be brilliant, but their attendance record stops them from gaining entrance to most school programs.

Have you ever seen an employment job description that did NOT include "careful attention to details?" I haven't.  We are all expected to plan, to show up, to "take our time and do it right."  It is like a fundamental pillar of our society, and on all of it, we ADHD people fall down.  Over the years, I have found myself hated for what Ive done (or not done).  People react with disgust, anger, frustration, and thus, as Dr Gabor Mate points out, the most frequent phrase used by people with ADHD is "Im sorry."

For many of us, homelessness is the only way to find peace from the relentless demands of systems and institutions.  Some of us end up in jail, because its actually a crime to not show up for court.  We will house a homeless person who is dependable, who shows up to group therapy on time, who is predictable in behaviour, but who can help the guy who "made his own bed?"  Most programs which help the homeless are merit-based, and ADD folks will never make the cut when so many others are competing for resources.

So how am I coping?  I have a pretty awesome career, am widely respected, and I show up when it seems to matter.  While my ADHD is fairly mild compared to some, I use a number of techniques to get by.  I surround myself with people who remind me where to be and when, I medicate occasionally (ADHD meds are usually stimulants that wake the brain up so I can focus at crucial times), and I talk openly about my condition with people I care about, so they know that when I show up late, its not personal, or out of a lack of concern.  When I set an appointment, I usually set up frequent email and text reminders leading up to the event, and I tell friends if I need their help to remember.  It actually takes me three times the effort to show up on time, but it can be done.

To help homeless people with ADHD, I have one strategy: I do it all for them.  I cannot count on them to be there, so I focus on getting them to sign consent forms so I can show up in their place if need be.  Oddly enough, I seldom drop balls with my homeless clients, though I drop balls in my own life like crazy.  As it turns out, outreach worker is a fabulous job for people like me, because the diversity and depth of the work works well with a creative mind. 

Ok world, decide: is the ability to plan, show up on time, and stay focused required to gain access to basic human resources like housing, food, and love?