As we have all been reflecting on 9/11 in our own way, I often think of the Mr. Rogers quote on “Helpers” and I see it make its rounds on Facebook. I am happy that in times of disaster we can pull together and thank our troops and emergency responders for selflessly serving strangers. But there are smaller scale personal disasters that regularly affect one person or family and they are served by some amazing helpers, too. Call them social workers or caseworkers or navigators, these are some of the most helpful and least thanked people in the world and I am in awe of what they do.
A year ago, I was reading an article Steve Lopez of the LA Times wrote on getting real help for mentally ill people and I got stuck on the first paragraph about a person the writer knows:
There is little in Andy’s appearance or manner that offers a clue as to what he’s been through. The arrests, the jailhouse beatings, the commitments. He’s soft-spoken and unassuming, so much so that the story of his life doesn’t seem to go with the man who tells it.
And suddenly, reading that, I knew Andy. I have met many people that fit this description; that have experienced horrors and trauma that I cannot begin to understand and would never have guessed from interacting with them. I have never been a case manager. I have worked with people experiencing homeless or formerly homeless; I have gotten to know them, and worked with them to help them tell their story. But I have never had to be the one to try to convince someone to seek shelter or to guide them through that long and difficult process to employment or housing. I don’t know if I could. Walking the line between getting to know someone and showing the tough love that might be necessary is such a fine skill.
Last year, I escorted a woman that I think is wonderful to Capitol Hill to meet with our Congressman as part of the National Alliance to End Homelessness Advocacy Day. She was very nervous to talk about her past but as I had told her before, you don’t have to tell him everything that has happened to you or everything you have done. Focus on what you did to succeed and the programs that helped you along the way. I wanted her to share how strong that she has been because I wanted her to know.
A few months before that she had told me two things about herself that had left me with my mind racing. She had been an addict and had been “not really living anywhere” for a period of about ten years all around North Carolina. I know some pretty horrific stats about homelessness. About what can happen to addicts and especially women who are homeless. The likelihood of assault against a homeless person is startling. Life expectancy for a person experiencing homelessness can be cut short by 20 years or more due to poor health, disease, and assault. Focusing daily on sheer survival pushes hopes, dreams, and goals to the very back burner. You can forget who you are.
It’s up to the case managers and outreach workers to make connections with people and tell them there might be a way out. These are the helpers who seek out people that others walk by. I don’t know how to express my appreciation for what you do. I hope that I can help tell stories of people that you have helped so that you hear, in their stories, that most important role that you play. Thank you.
Post by Jan-Michael Sacharko, Director of Development