Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Finding a sense of direction

Some mornings technology frosts me!

Yesterday, a reader, Mark, wrote in about my post, "Speak Up!"

This morning I wrote a long response -- and wouldn't you know it, cyberspace stole it!

So, I'll write it here.

Mark suggested that the most effective thing the shelter I work at could do would be to teach our clients how to speak up for themselves and ask for the help they need.

Great idea. Unfortunately, as an example, in the case of the woman I wrote about yesterday, mental health issues dictate a different approach. She is not in a place where she can receive coaching on how to write a letter to her MLA or how to speak to a reporter. Right now, she is acting out. Threatening people in the neighbourhood. Exposing her body in vulgar ways. Vandalizing property. That is not a woman on solid ground. A woman in esteem. This is a woman with a real, tangible, and debilitating disorder. She needs real, tangible and effective help that addresses her immediate needs for safety and stability.

Every day we encounter clients who have these same issues. Often, their MH issues are exacerbated by an addiction that they developed in their attempts to cope with street life and their MH limitations.

People with MH issues and homeless individuals are easy prey for the dealers. Like all of us, they want to belong, to be part of a group. Dealers are smart. They know this. And they know how to lure people into their lair. People who have nothing are pretty easy targets. They're vulnerable. They stand out. They're easy to identify -- and they're easy to con because when you have nothing, you don't think someone will want something from you.

Dealers always want something from you. They want your money, and ultimately, your obedience to the drugs they feed you. Many dealers will give someone a first hit of crack for free. They know the power of the drug. They know that all it takes is one hit and you're hooked. Once hooked, you'll pretty well do anything to get the next and then the next and then the next. Once hooked, you found the place you belong -- to the dealer. The dealer knows this and preys on your needs.

Like any good business man, a dealer knows when their clients are 'in the money'. Hey, it's welfare cheque day. Cool, GST cheques are in today. Let's stand right here, down the street from the entrance to the shelter. Everyone will have to pass us on their way in -- and out. Let's make it easy for them to buy. It's good business.

Oh, you've quit. C'mon. One hit won't hurt. And sobriety's not what it's cracked up to be. You're still struggling to get out of the shelter. Your life is a mess. C'mon, give yourself a break.

It is nice to believe that all it takes to empower someone to help themsleves is to coach them in the art of speaking up for themselves. The reality is, speaking up for yourself is a luxury that only those who live on the right side of the street encounter. On the wrong side of the street where our clients live, the experience of speaking up gets you victimized. It gets you ostracized. It gets you you killed.

Rightly or wrongly, these are people who need more help than others. They lost their voice. Many didn't even know they had one to begin with. Many don't know how to spell it. Or say it. Helping them find their voice requires first helping them get the things they need to stabilize their lives. Like ID. A bank account. Clothing. Food. Shelter. Counselling. Rehab. Health care. Mental health care. Job training. Life skills training. They need somewhere to live that they can afford and that is sustainable. Furniture and accessories to put in that place they might, with luck, actually find in a city where the average cost for a bachelor apartment is beyond their minimum wage earnings. They need food on the table. Many will need ongoing support to stay housed -- not because they don't want to. Their MH issues, their addictions make it difficult for them to retain housing without a little help from their friends.

And those friends become you and me. Co-creators of this society in which we live.

Yup. Writing letters is good. Speaking to media is good. Becoming empowered to do so is good.

I believe it takes everyone of us to write letters. To speak up. To speak out against what is happening on our streets -- and in our homes. Many of those who come to our shelter come from violent pasts. From homes where 'I love you' was expressed with the back of a hand across the face, or a bottle of beer thrown against the wall. Many come from homes where education was not valued. Where MH issues started with the parents and were past down through generations. Where poverty grated against every nickle and scarcity rubbed against the grain of lives lived on the outside looking in.

No one dreams of being homeless. No one dreams of being an addict. This is a life no one ever imagined could happen to them.

Yet here they are. Living the nightmare of their worst imaginings.

Every day I give tours of our facility and speak about homelessness to my fellow citizens. And every day, someone inevitably says, "I had no idea."

Most of us have no idea. Most of us don't want to have an idea of what it's like to live on the street -- and that's important too. By staying off the street, we lead the way back home. By speaking up for those who have lost their voices, we give voice to their pain, their confusion and their turmoil, and we create a voice that those in power can hear.

At street level life is down to the basics. Life is a daily grind. People on the street don't need us to get down with them and live the life. They need us to support the agencies who are giving them help -- real, tangible, effective help that starts at their level and leads them up to a better place to be, a better way to live.

To help, I believe we need to open our minds up to the reality that for those living on the street, becoming empowered to change the course they're on requires a change in our attitudes. We've got to let go of our privileged perspective that says, "Here's what you need to do to change your life," to one that acknowledges that for change to happen, we need to make it possible for them to find their own sense of direction.


Anonymous said...

I agree the person you describe might not be a good self-advocate no matter how much hand-holding she gets; but, generally, would you not agree that a self-advocacy strategy would be potentially very effective, that showing people you wish to help that 'they can do it' with help as opposed to havign someone do it for them?

not engaging mental health clients and homeless people in creating services and programs is a well acknowledged failing of 'the system', so why not change that?


M.L. Gallagher said...

I wasn't disagreeing with you. I was simply pointing out that it doesn't work for everyone.

I'm not sure where you got the statement, "not engaging mental health clients and homeless people in creating services and programs is a well acknowledged failing of 'the system'". I'd love to know the source. The reality I work in every day demonstrates to me that we do engage clients in their own process, every day.

I don't believe the 'system' is failling. I believe the system is people doing the absolute best they can while society steps back and leaves it up to the system to take care of 'it'. In my experience, whenever I said, 'the system is failing' was a cop out. Mostly it was because I didn't understood a situation and its complexities or I didn't have the time to learn about what it was I was criticizing.

I also believe that to understand all we do, people need to come down and have a tour, learn firsthand about the breadth of our services, and how we engage clients in creating their own pathways out of homeless. Every day we work with clients to encourage them to take action, to pick themselves up -- fact is, no one can make me stop doing something that's hurting me. I have to choose to do it -- like quitting drinking. I have to make the choice to quit. We empower people with the place to be safe, the resources they need, and the tools that will help them help themselves. We give them a safe place until they can put up their hand and say, this isn't working any more. And we do it, every day.

Any time you want to visit, give me a call!