Reaching Out In Your Community
The Mindset (and Heartset)
Meeting Someone Where they Are
When first sitting down to talk with someone, listen with open ears-not for the purpose of immediately imposing your own agenda. Although you may think you see what needs to be done in the moment, allow their pace. Your timing may not be their timing. Humble yourself and listen-you may learn a few things. Listening also allows for an accurate assessment of someone's needs. Start where the person is asking to start. Trust is built over time-not by your words of persuasion. After trust begins, you may be able to suggest a few things, but do so with respect always validating the other's concerns. All behavior, even unhealthy, has a functional purpose. Remember that healthy, long-lasting change does not come overnight. We are often bridge builders in this work. One trusting relationship can facilitate connection to another-and eventually connection to the greater community.
We Cannot See the Hand of Cards Another Holds
Attempt to refrain from judgment-good or bad and see the person (as much as possible) and see others for who they really are. Simply put, each of us is dealt a "hand of cards" very early on in life, before we ever had a choice that created our initial experience of life. Some of these "cards" are positive and some are negative. In the writing the negative will be addressed, since these are the things which tend to create clear challenges to overcome. Each card has a face: poverty, domestic violence (whether witnessed or direct recipient), sexual abuse, mental illness (self or family member), substance abuse (usually a form of "self-medication"), incarceration of a family member, poor parenting techniques, foster care, etc.
This early experience creates a "filter" that shapes our perception of the world around us. When a person holds more than one of the above listed unhealthy "cards"-or a number of them, it takes a great deal of effort (sometimes a lifetime) to "reshape" that filter. This "fracture" in the initial trust of one's environment can create a great deal to be overcome once one begins a healing path in life.
See the person as your brother or sister, and not someone to be pitied. This is a person with unique strengths and wisdom who has been doing their best to survive in this life to the best of their ability. They have dignity as a unique creation of God. If one can overcome the (darkness) they have been born into imagine what they can potentially offer this would with their tremendous insight. A mucician named Lenard Cohen once referred to the place of brokenness saying, "That's how the light gets in".
Our suffering often unites us as human beings. We can never exactly know another's experience, and should not assume we do, no matter how similar things may seem on the surface, but we can always at least relate to an element of emotion in their experience. Look for these "connection points". They will help you connect more accurately with what that individual is experiencing in the moment. The question should always be to the other, "How can we figure this out together?" not "How can I fix you?"
- Survey the Need:
Walk around with your eyes open, talk with people, sit and spend time with them. Are there any meals provided by volunteer groups? Is clothing very easy to come by? Are there "emergency shelters" in the area that can be accessed in cold weather? Are people having difficulty accessing medical care?
Survey the Existing Resources: Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood? What County agencies, non-profits or volunteers provide services to these people? There may already be an organization providing a meal or food hand out on a particular day. If so it would be good to coordinate with this group and cover a different day.
- What Can Be Done:
Hosting a meal
This can consist of something as simple as simple as handing out sack lunches in a park. A different parish family may want to prepare a meal, a cook be assigned to each month, or a potluck can be organized. Any of these methods require a coordinator to assure that dinner is consistently provided when people are planning to come. A short simple prayer before eating is suggested, rather than requiring people to listen a long "sermon" before they are served. By our observations preaching at people while they are waiting to eat does not seem to be a kind tactic and can build resentment rather than unity. It is suggested to sit down if you are able and eat with the people you are feeding. Communing in a meal can be a powerful force in bringing people together and building trust.
We have discovered that a pot of coffee is one of the greatest bridges to crossing the threshold of St. Brigid's. By sitting and having a cup of coffee with someone conversations begin, greater needs begin to be revealed, and working relationships are built. This has been a beautiful process for all of us to watch.
Someone is needed to staff the space, whether it be a paid staff or a series of volunteers to take shifts. Not much space is needed at all-in fact after losing our orininal office space, St Brigid's has functioned out of a large portable "box" rented from a dumpster company. It is actually affectionately referred to by some of us as "St. Brigid's dumpster". We have expanded a bit to the sidewalk outside where we place chairs and magazines to create a "waiting room" area. As a mental health professional I need to comment that it is good if possible to have a second room or confidential space to discuss issues others may want to keep private. If no separate space is available appointments can be set up to meet with an individual apart from set office hours.
As you get to know local providers you may find an interest in having a bit of posted office time, whether this is voluntary or as an extension of their regular job duties. In our parish we found a natural fit in a parishioner being an employee of County mental health. Perhaps there is a therapist, case worker, or doctor who has a heart for the homeless and is simply in need of a space to connect with people.
Parks, beaches, libraries, and streets can be good places to meet people. Do not go into secluded areas alone. When you first make contact with someone, if you do not think they want to engage discussion, or you do not have time to talk, make eye contact and smile-these are simple (and often powerful) actions. By making eye contact and calling a person by their name, you are acknowledging the person as a worthy human being. Often time people do not look when passing someone on the streets because in doing so they may have to face their own fears and insecurities.
A past fear of mine, and also reported by others I have spoken with, is a fear of being asked for money. There is often a concern the individual may be abusing drugs or alcohol and a desire to not condone this habit. In this case it can simply be said to the individual, "I'm sorry I can't do that right now". If you wish to hand out something, gift certificates, water, or snacks are usually welcome. We have a group of students from a local university who handout nutrition bars and socks to the folks on the street on a weekly basis. This can be a great way to initially connect with people who would not come in an office setting.
This is one of the simplest things you can do to connect people on the street with the whole of society. "In our society, you do not exist if you do not have address", Fr. Jon-Stephen. Giving someone one the streets a tangible mailing address to receive medical appointment information, income checks, letters from family, etc. is incredibly useful.
This simple service can also be a bridge to discussion of pursuing other services. Many on the streets do not trust easily. This is a survival instinct that has developed as a result of feeling abused by the system and others in the past. One mentally ill man we work with picked up mail at St. Brigid's for over a year before he allowed us to begin helping him with an SSI application which he desperately needed help with.
A phone number can be given to people to use as a call back number. Be careful to respect people's privacy with this.
Clothing and Toiletries Closet
Can be stocked with jackets, pants, sweatshirts, socks (these are gold), raingear, etc. Also toothpaste, toothbrushes, combs, deodorant can be kept here. Donations can be requested from generous parish members or local businesses. We found it was necessary to designate someone in charge of giving out these items as the need arises. If this closet were to kept open for all, it could be easily raided or be difficult to keep neat.
A stash of blankets and sleeping bags can be kept in the office. Tarps are also nice to have in stock in wet weather.
Protein rich low sugar foods, water bottles, portable foods (not canned goods), etc. can be handed out as able when people come in.
A significant problem with people on the streets is keeping track of belongings and avoiding others making use of what they find unattended. It is suggested these be kept inside so that access can be at limited times to avoid possible drug deals, loitering problems outside, etc.
Rides can be given or bus tokens handed out. Useful to get people to medical appointments, social services, etc.
Time can be allotted for people to use a computer in a designated area. Useful for typing resumes, researching resources, or searching for family members.
Emergency Cash Aid or Revolving Fund
To be used for things like paying tickets, insurance on vehicles, and obtaining birth certificates.
Comfortable chairs, sink, lockers for belongings, laundry facilities, and shower are all possibilities.
- Common providers of homeless services (a Rolodex is useful):
- Social Services
- Public Health
- County Mental Health
- Recovery programs (inpatient and outpatient)
- Catholic Charities
- Parking programs
- Social Security
- Veterans services
- General Relief and food stamps
- Useful info for your file drawer
- info on the above services
- birth certificate applications
- County and City low income housing applications (for those who may have some income
Hosting a Providers Meeting
On a regular basis various providers from the community that have contact with the homeless can meet as a multi-disciplinary team to review cases to determine the best way to meet the individual's needs with the existing resources and sometimes create new services where there may be gaps.
Hosting a Homeless Discussion Group
Providing a space where people can gather to brainstorm issues affecting the community can be an empowering way to begin to give a voice to this "voiceless" population. This can initially be facilitated by a service provider who can fade into the background as the group takes on its own identity and a leader surfaces.
- Common providers of homeless services (a Rolodex is useful):
Never do Outreach in secluded areas alone. Even when with others, always be aware of your surroundings. Many on the streets struggle with various forms of mental illness. Symptoms like those of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can cause a person to be easily startled and reactive (sometimes physically). If in an office alone, make sure to allow easy access to the door. Do not ever position the other person's chair in between you and the door.
Many homeless have been given a "street name" by their community. These names might be entertaining, but they serve at least a couple of functions which may not be healthy in the long term: First the name someone is given on the street may be connected to a person's substance abuse or a crime they have committed. Second, it can be an added blessing using someone's Christian name. We have had people form relationships with their patron saint through this. For these reasons we prefer not to use street names, but the person should always be asked first before you begin using their given name. "What did your mama call you?" Father Jon Stephan would often ask.
Every human being needs touch, but many on the street long term have been physically or sexually traumatized at least once in their lifetime. The beauty of healing human touch has often been seriously distorted. Sex is often used as currency on the street and the incidents of rape is extremely high. As a social service worker, healthy verbal and physical boundaries can be modeled as a relationship of trust is slowly built. Be conscious of all physical contact you exert. Side hugs, a hand on a shoulder, taking someone's hand (at times) can be meaningful ways of showing empathy.
On the flip side, set your boundaries when you need to. Some people are so hungry for affection, they take what they can get. It is never inappropriate to say, "I'm not comfortable with _____." This also models good communication for the individual you are addressing.
Anxiety disorders are quite prevalent among the homeless population-most severe cases taking the form of PTSD. The need to constantly survey and be aware of ones environment-even while sleeping is extremely stressful. Most of those living in this environment have been robed, beaten, and raped. Re-traumatization is common when these incidents are left untreated by professionals.
As can be imagined, depression is almost inevitable on the street. Many people are dealing with issues of grief and loss of family, friends, job, home, etc. Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness can in their extreme lead to self-harm behaviors including suicidality. If ever there is a serious suspicion that this that a person's life is in danger, 911 or the police should be called. Most counties in the US have a mental health assessment team that can be sent out for this type of emergency.
This being said, a word of caution against opening "Pandora's Box". Care needs to be taken when the issue of past or present trauma arises if you do not have the proper training to deal with what you uncover. You may expose a well of pain and leave the person a crumpled heap, unable to cope with life on the streets. Defense mechanisms, even those that seem unhealthy, are there in the moment for a reason. Know when to stop and refer someone to a mental health professional.
Substance use is very common on the streets. Some addicts have landed on the street due to their use. Others use drugs in an attempt to cope with the harshness of this reality. Depressants, like alcohol, are often used functionally to lessen anxiety and relax a person in order to sleep-for some this develops into addiction. People attempting to cope by these means do not need judgment or to be "preached" at. They have most likely heard enough of this. This does not mean the subject should not be discussed, but only after a trusting relationship has been built.
Education (of self and the community)
Read, talk with your heroes who are already doing some element of this work, attend local homeless activist meetings, discuss issues facing the homeless when talking with friends and family, write articles in local periodicals, ask questions (of homeless and providers) about their experience, connect with local politicians and business owners, etc. Never would I have sought out opportunities to speak out in a public setting, but God has given me strength to say what needs to be said regarding this issue I feel so passionately about. It is usually much easier for others to hear someone initially who does not have a major stigma of appearance to overcome.
Prayer (individual and communal)
Those of us who work through Saint Brigid's pray for those we care for. We have memorials for individuals in our community who pass away to honor their life. We also remember those by name who have died on the streets (by sickness, overdose, and other homeless related hardships) during an annual international all night vigil held December 21st.