Thursday, June 30, 2011

homelessness shouldn't be hopelessness

I'm saddened by the number of homeless people I've seen here in D.C. and I wish I understood more about homelessness. 

I try to talk to the people who, I assume, are homeless that ask for money and just kind of see where they're coming from and today I had a really sad conversation with a man. I'm trying to understand that there is a good chance that he had some kind of mental illness and that is why he holds the opinions that he shared, but it's just really sad and upsetting to not know how to help. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, "around 20-25% of single adult homeless people suffer from some form of severe and persistent mental illness" which is a really high number, especially since it is probably (I'm just guessing) really difficult for them to get treatment or understand that they are in need of treatment.

I've been doing some Googleing since I had the sad encounter with the man earlier and these are some interesting facts I have found:


  • nearly 1 in 5 DC residents live in poverty
  • 1 in 3 children in DC live in poverty- much higher than the national average
  • 1 in 5 workers in DC has a job that won't lift a family of four out of poverty

A study done in the UK yielded this conclusion: "Our homeless sample displayed relatively low IQ with high levels of neurobehavioural impairment. Our evidence suggests that these neuropsychological factors may, in part, constitute a long-term consequence of childhood trauma."

which, in all of my vast 20 year old scientific wisdom, take to mean that many homeless people are just sad kids that never really experienced much love. I wish there was this great surplus of volunteer mental health professionals that could just wander the streets and counsel all these people who probably have so much hurt in their lives.

Back to the story about the man I met earlier. It was a frustrating conversation. He was playing banjo when my friend and I approched but once we engaged him in conversation he quit playing the sweet song and started spouting out bitterness and angry things. Granted, were I homeless I would most likely be bitter and angry also, but he just really was hurting and mad; the fact that Hannah and I were nice girls who stopped to see how he was doing and potentially try to help him out didn't seem to cross his mind as an opportunity to take advantage of. 

Being an aspiring social worker ("aspiring" makes the career sound glamorous or something) I asked the man I met near the metro station earlier whether he had considered talking with a social worker. He proceeded to tell me that social work is "a load of bull***t" and that "social workers don't do nothing." I told him I was studying social work and we'd actually learned about different ways the social work profession can help the homeless but he cut me off and basically told me that I didn't know what I was talking about. I understand that he may feel that way and may be justified in that opinion because it is very likely that he had a negative experience with a "bad" social worker, I don't know the circumstances, but it was frustrating to hear his complaints.

He was upset that he couldn't get a job because he is homeless, but he doesn't want to go to a shelter because he doesn't like being around all those people.
He can't get an apartment because he doesn't have a job, but he doesn't want to stay in a homeless shelter because it has as many rules as prison and he hates the ministries that give him meals and wash his clothes for him because that isn't stable enough for him.
He doesn't want the help of a social worker or any sort of federal assistance program because he had 1 bad experience with that, but he has no means to even start getting on his feet.
He doesn't want any help from anyone and claims "he is doing just fine on his own," but he was venting about how unfair life was that the government isn't taking care of him.
He wouldn't admit he needed help, but when he hinted at it he blamed the situation on not getting enough assistance.
It was just really sad and I can see why he would be so angry, but I couldn't think of anything to say to him or any sort of words that would inspire him to keep trying. He was using really foul language with us and admitted to "being in a violent mood" when a government worker didn't meet his needs regarding a federal assistance program, so we left as soon as he was done venting and we realized that it really didn't matter what we had to say because his pride had already made an appearance and he would be unable to talk with us at a civil level.

The only word I can think of is sad which is pathetic word choice, but it broke my heart to have to leave him. He, regardless of his reasoning or experiences that may have led him to this unhappy mood, was really mean to us and I have to wonder how many people actually stop and talk to him and how long it takes people who aren't patient and willing to listen to walk away. THEN the sympathetic and compassionate voice in my head reminds me of the statistics on homelessness and poverty/mental illness and I feel bad for being so judgmental about his attitude. 

I wish there was something I could do besides give them money, which I don't do. I offered 2 homeless folks food yesterday and they both were really picky when I said granola bar and cashews and they said "no" and then looked to the next person to give them money.

I'm trying to help people and I'm trying to have faith in people and I'm trying to love and serve, but it's hard when people don't want to receive the assistance and help, no matter how tiny it is. Sigh!

"Give something, however small, to the one in need. For it is not small to one who has nothing. Neither is it small to God, if we have given what we could." -St. Gregory Nazianzen



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