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

Continuing on 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 ways in which a person can learn when they are new on the job.  Here, I’m going to offer a few points that may seem obvious but, sadly, are lacking all too often.  I’ll probably have one more post after this one and that’ll wrap up this series.
(4) If you say you’re going to do something, do it promptly and do it well.
People who are clients of social services regularly deal with staff members who say one thing but do another.  This occurs for a lot of reasons: social services are underfunded, workers end up with “case loads” that are absurdly large and so, all to often, workers end up simply prioritizing what they take to be the most “life-and-death” matters and end up in perpetual crisis management (which means the chance of the worker looking up what your rights are with welfare, or helping you work on your resume and train for job interviews, are pretty slim… even though these things can, at times, be “life-and-death” for people).  Other workers are simply burned out.  They avoid clients.  All they want to do is get through the shift and go home.  Other workers didn’t take the time to do the learning I mentioned in the last post, so they don’t know how to help you and — since they didn’t bother learning how to do this in the first place — they probably won’t learn it now.  Instead, they’re going to try and avoid you or say things like “Yeah, I haven’t been able to find out anything about that yet but I’ve been looking around and will get back to you when I do”.  Or they’ll claim that there is no help for your situation, even though they haven’t determined if that is or is not the case.
As for those who are overwhelmed, when they finally do remember that they had committed to doing something, they are probably remembering because you are sitting in front of them or are scheduled to meet with them in the next ten minutes… so they’ll rush through something, do a half-assed job, just to get it done so that they can move on to the next 10,000 items on their to-do lists.
All the clients are very aware of this treatment.  In many ways, it is actually the norm.  That doesn’t mean people are happy about this.  It’s part of the reason why clients conclude that workers are useless fucks who don’t actually care about the people whom they are claiming to serve.  In my opinion, this is actually a pretty valid conclusion.  “Care” isn’t an emotion somebody feels or a story people tell themselves about themselves.  Care is what people do.  If you do nothing, it doesn’t matter what you feel — you don’t actually care.
This means a few things.  First, don’t say you are going to do something and then not do it.  And don’t do a half-assed job when you do it.  You’re supposed to be a professional, right?  Second, if you follow through on what you say you are going to do — if you promptly and professionally follow through and your commitments, you will quickly gain the respect and trust of the clients.  It’s kinda sad that something so basic — that should be taken for granted — ends up being one of the things that sets the really good workers apart from the others but that’s the fact of the matter.
Of course, if you commit to helping with something, doing something, or looking into something and you are not sure how to progress it’s okay to ask for help.  That’s part of the reason why you work on a team.  Maybe you’ve got one team member who knows welfare legislation really well, another team member who knows tenancy rights really well, and so on.  That means that you don’t have to become an expert in all areas (although you should have a working knowledge of all relevant areas and, more importantly, know where you need to go to learn more about specific situations).  This leads to my next point:
(5) Be a team player.
Okay, so this is something of another truism in any work environment but it doesn’t actually translate into practice in a lot of places and when you’re working in an agency where emotions will run high and, at times, crises occur, I need to spell out a bit of what I mean by this.
In my last post, I already talked about the importance of being open to criticism.  This is an important part of being able to work as a team.  Beyond that, you need to be able to disagree with others and have others disagree with you — sometimes passionately, even — without that causing you to lose respect for others and without that causing people to hold back and withdraw from conversations.  For me, vocal passionate disagreement is one of the things I look for in a healthy team.  Some teams are dominated by one or two people.  Some teams are scared to go against management or speak in a way that challenges them.  Both of these scenarios produce an artificial peace and the illusion of cohesion.  True team work is being able to disagree with one another and, even if disagreements still persist after a discussion, being able to respect one another regardless of the final outcome or the positions taken by various members.
Here’s something I needed to realize along the way: the agency actually runs far better because there is a diversity of opinions here.  If everybody thought exactly the same way as me, this place would probably go down in flames.
I think that’s true of any one perspective.  Nobody has this shit figured out perfectly — maybe one person knows how to run a smooth operation but the cost of that is not meeting the identified needs of the clients, maybe another person is actually client-centred (a rare thing to find despite all the contemporary rhetoric being pumped out about this!) but doesn’t know how to make that work in a community setting, and so on and so forth.  We need one another and we need to disagree with one another.  We need to know when we’re wrong and, at times, we need to bow to the opinion of others even when we think we are right (notably, to those older, more experienced, well-respected workers I mentioned earlier — and, for the record, the generally excludes management, so I’m not talking about bowing down to them simply because they’re the bosses).
Essentially, being a team player means treating your team members with the same respect you claim to have for clients.  It means caring for one another.  If somebody is having a hard time, it means taking some of their work on.  If somebody is breaking down, it means pooling together to buy him or her a spa day or a massage or something special.  It means having one another’s backs.  And trusting that others have your back as well.
It also means resolving conflicts amongst yourselves as much as possible.  It means thinking about which team members are best for the clients and prioritizing that, rather than thinking about which team members do or do not follow all the rules (more on that later).
(6)  Show weakness, be vulnerable, admit mistakes. Be human.
Okay, I know that I’ve stressed a need for “professionalism” in some of my earlier points.  You need to know your job and you need to do it well.  However, that doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes along the way.  You will.  Everybody does.  When you do make a mistake, admit it to the client.  Don’t make excuses and don’t avoid the conversation.  You may think this will cause you to lose respect (and, hey, if it happens EVERY time you try to do something, it will produce that result, but maybe you should be looking at another job if that’s the case), but it will actually cause people to respect you more.  It will turn you from a flawless robotic professional (which we all know is an illusion anyway) into a human being.  It will show people you respect them enough to be human with them — and when you show that kind of respect to people it tends to be returned.  Show vulnerability.  Be honest.  For some reason, everybody thinks being a “professional” means lying to clients (“it’s in their own best interest,” blah, blah, blah).  Don’t do that.
That said — if a person responds to your admission of error with anger, don’t lash back and don’t try to take back what you said.  You screwed up.  Own it.  Giving a person a space to be angry (with you in this case), can also be a really wonderful bridge to a better relationship (this was one of the things that surprised me the most when I started in this field — see here for more about that… wow, can’t believe that link is seven years old already…).

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