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Tips for Those Wanting to Work with People Experiencing Homelessness (Part One)

Bit of a digression from the usual mix of topics I write about but some recent happenings have made me want to jot this down.  What follows are a few tips for those wanting to work with people experiencing homelessness in some sort of charitable institution or social service agency.  This will be the first in a short series of post.
(1)  Don’t pretend to be somebody you are not.
Maybe you haven’t been street-involved, maybe you’re just a kind person, a religious do-gooder, a social work student just coming out of school, or a person who got tired of the rat race and wanted to switch to a job that felt more “meaningful.”  That’s okay.  Don’t feel intimidated by co-workers that have way more professional experience, relevant knowledge, or who have had life experiences that are similar to those of the people whom you desire to serve.  You may feel like you need to put on a front and pretend that you’re “harder” or have more “street smarts” than you actually have.  Maybe you’ll even start talking all the street or prison argot like you know what you’re talking about.  Don’t do that.
Faking who you are is one of the worst things you can do.  A lot of the folks you are wanting to serve have learned to read people really well — when you’re on the street, in and out of jail, have spent a lot of time interacting with various social services and their staff members, or coming from various experiences of violence, marginality, and vulnerability, you can develop a good instinct about who is sincere and who is not.  If you’re a faker, you’re going to lose the respect of the people whom you are trying to serve and they’ll put up with you but they won’t want to be around you (and your co-workers might feel the same way, depending on their patience level).
(2) Don’t remain who you are or have been.
Change.  This is different than faking things.  This is learning to be a different kind of person.  Learn to be in relationships with people who are different than you and who (previously) may have made you feel awkward, annoyed, or scared.  In fact, seek out the people who scare you and prioritize getting to know them.  Doing that, you’ll learn about stereotypes that are embedded within you, even though you think you’re a wonderfully open-minded person.  For example, I remember when I first started working with street-involved young people in Toronto — I realized that I was “naturally” gravitating towards the white gutter punk kids, and was more standoffish with the Jamaican soldiers or the aboriginal gang-bangers.  I realized that I felt intimidated by them… and I realized that there were some race-related fears I carried within me even though I always thought I had no prejudices or anything like that related to race.
[A bit off topic but here’s a thought experiment for you: if you’re walking down a lonely street late at night and you see two white boys dressed in preppy clothing walking down the sidewalk towards you would you have a different internal reaction than if you saw two black fellas dressed in hip-hop clothing walking down the sidewalk towards you?  What about two aboriginal guys covered in tattoos?  Notice that the only basis for having a different reaction would be the appearance of the guys — their skin and clothing — and nothing else.  Hmmmm…]
Also, there’s every chance that you don’t really know how to care about people and serve them in the ways in which they truly want to be served and in the ways that would really help them to attain the goals they have set for themselves.  A lot of people will tell you what’s wrong with “the poor” or “addicts” or “juvenile delinquents” — from social service schools, to charitable organizations, to churches — and a lot of people will think they have “the answers” or “the solutions”… and a lot of those people will be wrong.  This means that even if you don’t hold a lot of negative stereotypes about people who experience homelessness, you still might adhere to a model of service or of care that does a lot of harm.  So, you may think you’re helping people but you’re actually hurting them.
This means that, if you get into this work, you’re going to have to be open to asking hard questions of yourself about yourself.  You’ll have to be open to the criticisms of others.  If somebody you are trying to serve flips out on you ask yourself: am I doing what is best?  How can I do this different?  Don’t just retreat to excuses like “Oh, he’s in psychosis” or “Oh, she’s mad but I’m just doing things by the book.” Step back and examine yourself.  Same goes from criticisms you receive from co-workers — and you really need to invite those criticisms (I know I still need to do that… it’s probably a life-long thing).  Don’t just think: “Oh, he’s burnt out” or “Oh, she just had a bad day.”  Step back and think.
(3) Learn everything you can from everybody you can and apply it in your own way.
Listen, first and foremost, to the people whom you are claiming to serve.  Listen to them as people.  Like you would listen to your friends.  Or family.  Or teachers.  Or anybody else.  If you’re listening to somebody like she is a problem you are going to help solve, you’re not listening very well.  If you’re listening to somebody like he is a charity case and you are doing him a favour, you’re not listening very well.  Learn to be a good listener.  Don’t just think about the next thing you’re going to say or how you’re going to fix everything up.  Think about if things were reversed and you were doing the talking.
One of the most helpful initial things you can learn from the folks whom you claim to serve is who the good workers are (learn this from observation more than anything).  What staff members are respected by the clients?  Who do people go to when they really need to talk?  Who do people go to for help with solving a problem?  Why do they go to these people?  Watch these workers.  Learn from them.  Ask them lots of questions.  Questions are good and there is nothing wrong with asking them.  Don’t feel shy — it’s massively refreshing to meet new workers who ask good questions (and if you are listening and watching like this, you will be asking good questions).  Ask if you can join them in some of their conversations or in some of their tasks, projects or groups.  Don’t feel offended if they say no.  As they get to know you more, and as you demonstrate your caliber and character, you’ll receive more and more invitations to join various things.
Also watch and see what staff members are not respected by the clients?  Who do they “put up with”?  Who do they dislike?  Why?  Don’t be like them.  By saying these things — I’m not saying that this is some sort of popularity contest.  Respect is a deeper thing than popularity.  Some people will say “Oh, the residents/clients/whomever don’t like me because I enforce the rules” or “because I tell it like it is.”  Bullshit.  I know people who enforce rules but whom are well respected (because of how they go about doing that) and people who enforce rules that are despised (because of how they go about doing that).  And there are plenty of different ways to “tell it like it is.”
Same goes, by the way, for the staff members who are respected by the people whom we claim to serve.  Some people will say: “Oh, they just like that worker because she’s hot.”  Bullshit.  I’ve known plenty of hot workers and some were loved and some were hated.
One point of clarification: when I say that you should learn to be like certain co-workers and not like others, I’m not saying you should try to be somebody else or somebody you are not (i.e. I’m not saying you need to be a faker).  What I am saying is that you can learn basic characteristics or skills to apply or avoid and then find your own way to apply those things and your own niche.
So learn from the folks you want to serve and learn from your-coworkers.  But you also learn about where you work.  Learn what you can and cannot do there.  Learn what other people do there.  Know what is expected of you.  Learn what other services are available in town and learn how to network with them.  Learn the relevant legislation and learn about the broader socioeconomic, political, and cultural dynamics that are relevant to your work.  In other words, learn to do your job and learn to do it well.  You are getting paid because people are homeless — so everything you buy is bought with money you gained from being in a situation wherein homelessness exists.  This means that, out of everybody in society, you’ve got a massive debt to people who are homeless (this is why some folks refer to social services as poverty pimps — people and agencies who have learned to exploit the context of homelessness for their own advantage and comfort… but more on that later).
Of course, all this learning takes time.  And that’s okay.  Just dive right in.  The water is warm, and you will very quickly gain respect from your co-workers and from the people whom you desire to serve if they see you learning everything you can.

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  1. I loved this piece Dan. Any chance you could write about alcohol and drug use? Sadly I remain fairly prejudiced about someone who turns up on the rectory’s doorstep drunk and shaking and wanting money. It freaks me out and scares me and I become massively defensive, like hang on I’m on my own with a baby I don’t want anything to do with you. Would love your insight.

  2. This is very good. A friend and I have been eating and hanging out with some homeless folks near a shelter. My friend has been doing this for a while, and has spent time voluntarily living on the street. This has been my first real experience with homeless folks. Though still new to this, many things you are speaking about here resonate as true. Thanks for sharing this.


  • Tips for Those Wanting to Work with People Experiencing Homelessness (Part Two) « On Journeying with those in Exile February 10, 2013

    […] with further tips for those who want to work with people who are experiencing homelessness.  In my last post I talked about topics related to personal transformation (faking it versus working on changing) and […]