January 13, 2009

One Step at a Time

Several Bread for the City programs rely upon dedicated workers who come to us through faith-based Volunteer Corps. Similar to AmeriCorps, Volunteer Corps place recent graduates in jobs for up to two years of service in low-income areas. Volunteers live together in group houses, work full-time with us, and get paid what amounts to nutrient-enriched dirt. In exchange, they receive an invaluable experience.

Today, Westmoreland Volunteer Deanna Drake shares the story of her first day as a case manager in our Social Services program.

I arrived clean pressed to my first day of work as a social service case manager at Bread for the City. Crisp notebook, newly-hemmed trousers, and smart new pointy shoes. I thought I was ready.

My first lesson was unexpected: one should not break in new shoes on the first day of work. I had blisters on my feet by the start of our long orientation tour, and had to try hard to keep from grimacing as I was swept up in a blur of friendly faces and names, tricky office technology, confusing abbreviations and social policy lingo. And then we hit the stairs. My new pointy shoe caught on my newly-hemmed trousers, and down I went in front of everyone.

This, however, was not the most humbling moment to come that day. I hadn’t yet met my first client.

That would be Mr. D – a middle aged man who brought with him a bundle of belongings. We know clients like Mr. D to be “chronically homeless.” His hair was matted and his beard was scraggly; he slouched with his head in his hands, and when he spoke, he seemed tired and hopeless. But I could tell that he was kind.

After my supervisor made introductions, the three of us talked about Mr. D’s experiences. “It’s just overwhelming,” he said about his efforts to find housing. I was struck by his honesty and the complexity of it all: the nature of his struggle was both personal and systemic.

Over the course of the coming weeks, we laid out some goals for our work together: each individual goal was modest, but in the end it would add up to an opportunity for safety and stability. Out of an alphabet soup of acronyms – SSA? DDS? DHS? DMH? HUD? DCHA? – I learned about benefits that would provide him a steady income, and I found opportunities to receive stable and affordable housing. But each one entailed a different set of appointments and requirements, and I soon found that just because we identified the next step forward didn’t mean that Mr. D would actually take it.

I knew that he had come against very real barriers in his life, and could see how a pattern of failure had become self-reinforcing. He admitted to me that he was afraid of being disappointed again. In fact, it seemed difficult for him to imagine that his situation could ever be different. This made it hard for Mr. D to take positive steps, even small ones, in order to help himself. But I could tell it was possible.

And so I found a new challenge: How could I help someone rebuild a sense of hope?

Fortunately, I have the support of a diverse community here in Bread for the City. And now Mr. D is overcoming barriers step by step.

Among the requirements for affordable housing, Mr. D needed to be tested for tuberculosis. The hospital, however, had always seemed distant and impenetrable to him. So I made an appointment for him to be tested right here in our medical clinic. One step forward!

Mr. D also needed to have his record checked at the police station. His record was clear, but he was wary of the police. Plus there was a $7 fee, a significant amount of money to Mr. D. But Bread for the City – thanks to the generosity of a private donor – is able to issue money orders for record checks. So with a money order in hand, an appointment on the books, and a lot of assurance from me, Mr. D finally made it to the station and was cleared by the police.

When we passed these two hurdles, Mr. D had cause to celebrate for the first time in years. “I hope this makes you happy,” he said to me. He was earnest, but it sounded a bit odd, and I told him so. This was his progress, not mine; it should make him happy. Afterwards, I could see that he felt more confident in himself and more able to focus on the path ahead of him.

Mr. D has not yet attained housing, but he is several steps closer. And that’s how this whole thing works: as relationships are built, we take another step, and then another…just be sure to wear sensible shoes.

1 comment:

Joni said...

This is way overdue, but excellent post! Thank you for your candor and compassion. You rock!