Sunday, October 30, 2016

Looking Past Labels

I'm starting this post with some pictures from our trip to Woodburn and Portland, OR. Tons of fun to be tourists for a weekend! I took the picture of the sunrise right outside my service site. Some of the guests and I stood outside for a few minutes just taking in the beauty of that day.      
Last weekend the Boise JV community traveled a total of sixteen hours to visit the JV community in Woodburn, OR. We were able to see Woodburn and we got to see some highlights in Portland on Saturday as well. We went to the Saturday market, Voodoo Donuts, Powell’s Books, and just wandered around the city. I’ve always heard great things about Portland and now I have actually been there, which is really surreal. Community life has been going well and I think we’ve all settled in well to life in Boise.
                Service has been interesting this month in many ways. In the first part of the month things were much slower than usual because some guests who receive pay at that time get hotel rooms or alternatives to shelters when they have the funds to do so. Having funds available also means potential drug or alcohol consumption, occasionally excessively so. At the beginning of the month there weren’t too many people in our eating area, but when I heard shouting I went to check what was going on. There was a man who I see on a regular basis who was slurring, spitting, and yelling at anyone who looked his way. This was very unusual behavior for this man. I tried to calm him down in order to allow him to stay for the rest of the afternoon, but he was so intoxicated that he wasn’t hearing reason and I had to ask him to leave for the rest of the day. As I got him out of the door, another man was making rude comments to other guests so I asked him what was going on. He could barely keep his head up and his only response to my questions was to repeat everything I was saying. Eventually he made rude comments and it was obvious that he was very intoxicated, so I asked him to leave for the rest of the day as well. These things happen in threes, of course, so as I went back to the office I saw that a couple had camped out (literally) with blankets, pillows, and the rest of their belongings in front of our office window. We do not allow people to sleep on our property at night and we never allow people to sleep in front of the building, where this couple was. I went out and asked them to move (politely) and the man could not have been angrier. I heard insults that day I didn’t even know existed, but they moved their things and went on their way within a few minutes. The thing is, I can understand their frustration. I was frustrated right there with them, but I was also doing what my position requires because I have to be fair and provide a safe environment for the guests. When the man wasn’t swearing, he was saying that they had tried to camp in the alley and were told to leave, they tried in the parks too and were asked to move. These situations are frustrating because while the police and business owners are usually pretty forgiving with loitering, sleeping is another situation entirely. We encourage people to utilize the shelters in the area, but if anyone has been kicked out, is excessively using drugs or alcohol, or does not agree with or want to follow the rules at the shelters, they may either not want to go to the shelters or may not be allowed back, at least for the time being. This is a tough position for anyone to be in and there are so many reasons why someone could end up in these situations. We try to be as helpful as we can be but at a certain point there isn’t much we can do immediately.
                On my walks back to the house after service I usually chat with anyone flying a sign down the street from my placement as I wait for the traffic lights to change. Just a few days ago I asked a man about his sign, which said he is a veteran and that he’s died twice, but he’s survived that and become homeless. Guest's signs are always a conversation starter. He told me it’s all true and I said that I believe him, which is one of the most calming things I can say to guests when they are upset or telling me anything, really. He proceeded to slur his words and stumble, almost into the road. When I told him to sit he said he was fine, but when I insisted, he tried to sit down on the curb and fell into the road. I jumped out to stop oncoming traffic and to pull him back to the curb. When he finally got there I called 911 because this man was a danger to himself as he couldn’t stand on his own. While I was on the phone explaining the situation, a woman held out a dollar bill from her car window and the man fell in the road again trying to get to that bill. I was helping him up again while explaining the situation to the police and I brought him to a safe, grassy area. I waited until I saw the police coming to leave. The weird part about all of this was that the thing I felt the worst about in this situation was calling the police. That may have been irrational, but as I’ve been working with the guests, hearing their stories, and hearing about their relationships and past history with the police, I didn’t want to be the one to bring the police to a person who has potentially experienced trauma involving the police or brought the police to someone with a potential record. Long story short, I was very worried about this man after an already long, stressful day. When I saw him the next morning sitting outside of my placement with no memory of the day before, saying hello to me as I walked into service, I was so relieved. I don’t know what the outcome was except that he was okay and wasn’t in jail the next day, and he doesn’t remember anything either. I was told I did the right thing, but it is so much more complicated than that. It is difficult to see clearly in those gray areas where I have power to involve the police or have them protecting me in certain situations, but knowing this is a privilege in these situations and in our society. The police try to work with and protect our guests as much as they possibly can, but there are so many gray areas and that makes their jobs difficult.
                My placement has been part of a program with the local university for years. This program allows students enrolled in undergraduate social work classes to volunteer for a set number of hours at our site, if they choose, while other students from the same classes volunteer at other sites. This volunteering allows the students to interact with our guests, gain perspective for their course, and it provides my placement with more volunteers for a certain amount of time. One of these students asked to interview me for a paper he is writing about homelessness in Boise. Most of the questions were pretty straight forward and it tested my knowledge of the housing situation in Boise and how much I have learned about it in the past couple months. Then he asked, as staff at my placement, how I keep motivated to volunteer for forty hours a week. I am used to being asked this by volunteers, especially the ones from the university who are about my age, but I usually brush it off and say it seemed like this path chose me. But when I was asked directly in a setting where an answer was expected, it really made me think. The guests keep telling me that I’ve remained positive throughout my time so far at my placement, which I guess I take as a compliment, but it’s been a goal of mine to see the positivity in each interaction I have and it’s usually not difficult to do. I take time for self-care and I look forward to the wide variety of things I do each day at service. I never know what the next day will bring and interactions with guests, both joyful and trying at times, keep me motivated to move forward each day and serve in whatever way is needed.  I guess it’s difficult to explain, and some people don’t understand, but even in the trying times there are so many positive experiences I have witnessed and been a part of so far that I can’t imagine not moving forward. My motivation comes from the happiness guests experience when they get a piece of mail they have been waiting for, when they can use the phone or the internet for something important to them, when my placement can pay the copay for a prescription they need. There are so many reasons why making a small difference matters so much.
                This student also asked what I would say about homelessness if I had the whole world’s attention for a minute. (These were not easy questions, by the way.) I said I would try to break stereotypes. I would ask for everyone to look past labels, such as “homeless,” “felon,” “addicted,” “mentally ill.” These labels have prevented guests from getting housing. There are wonderful programs that work with people experiencing homelessness to help renters look past these labels, but sometimes it’s not enough. There are people who were incarcerated over thirty years ago who cannot get into housing because of that period in their lives. There is a woman who has her master’s degree and who has traveled the world, but is flying a sign because things haven’t turned back around in her life. These labels and stereotypes are preventing growth and are preventing other people from getting to know the people behind the labels they are forced to carry with them. So if I could request anything from you all reading this blog, it’s to look past the labels people are forced to carry. Without volunteering at my placement I don’t know if I could have looked past some things, but getting to know people as people, without prior knowledge of their labels, has shown me that we can’t be so quick to judge. To think I would have been joking around about sports with an ex-felon, or interacting daily with people who are mentally ill and who have so much to offer to the world, people who are addicted to drugs, some wanting assistance for their addiction and some who do not right now, but who, overall, stay positive and keep me smiling at service. It’s amazing what can happen when stereotypes are broken long enough to see the individuals behind them. 
Thank you all for your endless support in my journey.

This blog do not reflect the views and beliefs of JVC Northwest or my service site. 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Becoming Aware

This month has been full of highs and lows as I continue to adjust to full time service and living in the Northwest. I have had days when service has left me feeling helpless and mostly hopeless, when I feel like I am not making a difference. There have been days when I have felt truly homesick for my home state and for the college which has become a second home for me over the past three years. Days like these are always tough, but my community and the people I serve remind me each day why I am here and why I know I can continue to make the most of this year.

As I wrote in my last post, one of the highlights in my day is my walk to service, not only because I am fortunate enough to see the sun rise over the mountains as I walk down the hill in the mornings, but also because I get to say hello to some of our guests in the park where they have stayed the night before. These interactions were always positive and it gave me a chance to talk with the guests outside of a busy environment where I don’t usually have a lot of time to simply say hello and ask how they’re doing.

At the start of this month, the guests were no longer visible in the park. For a few mornings I looked and saw no one at the tables where there used to be small groups of guests gathered. When one of these guests finally came into the office I asked where they had been. They said they still saw me walking to service each morning, but they had been asked by the police to move back in the park to a spot that wasn’t by the road. I didn’t have to ask the guest why this was. This interaction has been on my mind ever since. The guests were asked to move to locations in the park where they wouldn’t be as visible- where they wouldn’t be noticed. I have heard that the city receives complaints that people experiencing homelessness are visible, that they cause disturbances on occasion, and other such comments. The fact that these guests were explicitly asked not to be seen deeply saddens me. Since they were asked to move by the police they would be at risk to receive a ticket if they did not oblige; at least this is my understanding of the situation. This happens frequently at the skate park, which is a popular hangout right down the street from my service site. People are ticketed for sleeping on the streets, in their cars, disturbing the peace, etc. and when they can’t pay off the ticket (which they usually are not capable of doing) they are taken to jail after a certain period of time. When I walk by the park each morning now I see the empty space where the tables full of guests used to be. I will never again see parks in the same way. I used to think of parks as a place where there were trees, paths, events, maybe some ponds. A place where kids could learn to ride bikes and where people exercise. I still see them in this way, but now I also see a place some call home. I see past the trees at the entrance of the beautiful park and I see what they’re trying to hide: the people that some don’t want us to see. This is a tough reality to face and one I wrestle with each day.

I talked to a man every day on my walk home from service who would sit by a stop sign with a cardboard sign asking for money. This man is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. He would chat with me about the local news, ask me about my day, and tell me to make sure I walked home safely, as he said the drivers in the city didn’t pay enough attention. This man went missing for a week and a half or so and turned up again asking for clothing from our clothing room. When I asked where he had been he said he had just gotten out of jail. When I said I was sorry to hear that he told me “no, it’s a good thing! Now I have a clean record again because I’ve done my time!” This mindset is a new one to me for sure. Things I never would have thought of as positive I’m being forced realized I must have been mistaken about because to some of our guests they truly seem like positivity, light, and hope.

It hit me at full force one day, when I was hearing another story of how someone had become newly homeless and needed our services, that they were relying on me in that moment. I know that my position involves assisting people experiencing homelessness directly and that many people rely on our services each day, but in that moment (and many moments since) I was very aware that the person sitting across from me was relying on me and my knowledge to get her and her family through the day. This is a privilege each day to be able to interact with people with a vast array of life experiences. It is a lot to process, though, that I have to make decisions, find resources, and assist people with tasks I never thought I would have to know about. A few times a week new guests come into the office and say “I just got out of prison for X number of weeks/months/years and I don’t have anything.” Each time I take a minute to process what that would be like: reentering the world with nothing but some clothes.

One day, a man came into the office and he was very intoxicated. He admitted that he had been drinking that morning but wanted to go to detox to get help for his addiction to alcohol. This seemed like a reasonable request to me, but it was also my first time receiving this specific request. My supervisor and I called the local police department to ask for suggestions as to what to do in this situation, as the guest was, as I mentioned, very intoxicated. The officer we spoke with told us that there wasn’t anything that could be done until the guest sobered up. The officer told the guest that he needed to stop drinking and then seek help getting sober. This didn’t seem to add up to me. We then called a local detox center where the woman who was conducting the guest’s pre-screening to get him admitted to the program asked the guest to hand me the phone. The woman told me that the man was incredibly intoxicated (which I was aware of) and told me that they couldn’t perform a screening or admit him when he was intoxicated. I asked her what to do in this situation. She told me that he needed to get sober and then make an appointment for a screening, at which point they would determine whether he would be eligible for the program. This process couldn’t be started until the next week. I asked what to do in the meantime, for any other resources she could refer me to. There was nothing to do and nowhere to go. I found myself trying to regurgitate this information to this man, slumped in front of me, weary with nowhere to go. I wondered how he was supposed to get sober on his own when he said he had been drinking heavily since the age of seventeen. He was seeking help for a reason and there was none to give him. I gave him water and told him to stay near the day shelter so he could get sober. He didn’t feel like he could attend the AA meetings held at our facility at that time, which I offered information about. He thanked me for taking the time to assist him (which got us nowhere) and he wandered off for the day. I have only seen him a handful of times since. I couldn’t believe how long it took me to go in circles and come up without an answer. I felt absolutely helpless with someone relying on me for an answer and I felt terrible coming up short. This happens fairly often: we can’t fund a full bus ticket for someone trying to leave town, we can’t find a location someone is trying to get to, we can’t provide funds for a lost ID because this is the second one they lost in a short period of time. There’s a lot we can’t do, but there’s also a lot we can do. It’s easy to focus on our shortcomings and to take these home with us. It’s much harder to be satisfied in all that we offer to others.

I am working on being satisfied with all I can do in a day’s time. I am working on understanding the situations that have brought guests to us. I am trying my best to remain positive, even on a few days per month when this is a difficult task. How I react to situations is my own choice and how others react is theirs. This is a tough concept, but it is a relevant one each day. There was one day this month where a guest became so angry that we ran out of sandwiches to serve and just had pasta left (from our donated food supply) that he took pasta that I served him, threw it across the counter, knocked over various things on the counter, and stormed out while yelling. A line of about sixty guests saw this and as I went on serving the long line of guests, many guests from the line told me how rude the guest was, how good the pasta was, and that I was doing a good job that day. This is how service goes on a good day: there can be guests who cause disturbances, who are affected by drugs or alcohol, who cannot control themselves for reasons unknown to volunteers, who have experiences where it is just the last straw, and even through frustrating experiences, there are guests who are so gracious, kind, and appreciative that I know what I am doing each day has a purpose. This is a balance I am continuing to adjust to each day at service.

Thank you again to everyone who continues to read through my thoughts here each month. I hope you all can gain something from these interactions I’m discussing, as I know they are changing me in so many ways. I will continue to update this blog at least monthly.

This blog do not reflect the views and beliefs of JVC Northwest or my service site.