Reflections on a Year of Working at UNITY

Today’s Post is by Cynthia Mitchell, Director of Referral and Shelter Outreach at UNITY

Working at UNITY of Greater New Orleans shed a very specific light in my heart and mind on the human price of homelessness and of the need for assistance in being housed. For the most vulnerable people, it is impossible to become housed without a team of people to help make it happen.

I think of one of the first people I helped to become housed. She showed up terrified because she was squatting in abandoned houses hiding from being arrested for trespass, hiding from men who were (and still are) sexually assaulting women in abandoned homes. She was emaciated and missing teeth, suffering from hallucinations, truly at the end of her rope. Now she is housed in a humble apartment of her choosing. Her case manager says she has friends over to play cards. I witnessed her self esteem returning as she swept her one bedroom place and began to decorate it with donated items. She was so relieved to be housed that she began making plans to return to school. The point is, she began making plans—something one cannot do when merely fighting to stay alive and well.

I recall the man who came to me who had been living in an abandoned garage since Katrina, living on wages from a very part-time janitorial job but spending every last dime on transportation to and from it and on food because he did not want to apply for assistance. He suffered from untreated depression as well as from developmental disabilities that had gone undiagnosed all his life. His pride had been at first his saving grace and then his barrier to seeking services. One day when he’d had enough and couldn’t stand the freezing cold in his drafty building with no heat, he sought services. He is now housed. Others are as well. Too many are not. That is our greatest challenge and greatest failure.

I met Bill (I refer to him by this name to protect his privacy) while conducting outreach at some of the city’s homeless shelters. Bill would have been the schoolyard bully, at best. He cursed like a possessed soul at the drop of a hat. He roared at others trying to get them to help him stand up or sit down. He had uncontrollable anger. I met him while trying to talk to another client when Bill came up and rudely interrupted our session—to put it politely. He hovered over us long after I had explained that I would be right with him.

With his size and intimidating bouts of pure fury, he had alienated most others around whom he had to live every day. He wanted only a much-needed knee surgery, and he let everyone know it. This was not a simple knee surgery such as others might get to better help them jog or work out. No, Bill’s knee gave him constant searing pain. Somewhere along the line he’d gotten a walker, but he really needed a wheelchair. To get up to a standing position, he had to talk someone into holding his knee in place while he screamed from pain and took several minutes to stand up from a chair. His breathing was so labored, and his cursing got mixed with praying and calling out the name of his savior repeatedly as he agonized his way up out of a chair. The same process was repeated each time he sat down again or got back up. I couldn’t imagine how painful it must be for him to bathe or change clothes or undergo a medical exam.

In talking with one of his elderly relatives one day when I needed to reach Bill, I heard that he had suffered with developmental disabilities throughout his childhood, something he was too proud to admit. I discovered he could not always get to the doctor to refill his pain medications. Every other time I met with him, he’d had a cell phone stolen, phones that he had qualified for for free from cell phone companies kind enough to send these out. He would be in a rant about this or something similar or something less identifiable each time I saw him those first few times. Often, he was confused about where he’d put his ID and vital documents. He had a pattern of having to replace them constantly, for without them, he could not get access to his limited funds, his prescriptions, or his money required with the shelter rules to charge occupants every night for overnight beds. And he was in constant pain.

He was not going to win any awards for charming anyone into assisting him. He yelled and cursed at anyone who tried. He exhausted people and had become someone to be dealt with. Bill and people like him remind us too much of what we want to forget, that in a society we like to think of as so advanced, leading the world, we have in fact forgotten our own most vulnerable citizens.

As I began to put myself in his place, I began to see the world the way he experienced it—cold, hard, without respite from pain, without understanding and sustained supports. I thought of the story from my childhood that parents told us as a way to caution us away from being too needy, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Bill was like a grownup version of this tale with one huge exception. He was crying from real pain at every level of his life. It’s just that his environment was not responding.

Most of us who work in nonprofits have our own financial trouble. Like some of my coworkers, my checkbook was overdrawn. I was late on bills. From a recent automobile accident, I was in pain. But I had friends who greeted me at the ER and gave me a ride home, friends who helped me with my rehabilitation. I suffered in the comfort of my own home. Bill just suffered on the streets, often alone. I had full medical coverage and plenty of ice and ibuprofen as well as a comfortable couch to lie on while I elevated my swollen foot. Bill sat in the hard pews or metal chairs during a few afternoon hours and then on the pavement when the day hours were over and before he could come in for the night to secure a cot, on nights when he was not banned from the shelter.

A few weeks later and with a team of case managers and housing specialists, Bill moved into his own place in his childhood neighborhood where he knew some of the returning neighbors. His case manager treats him as tenderly as she would an older relative, and he responds. He was so happy to have his own place with his own living room for guests that he began thinking of relatives he had alienated, thinking of inviting them over so he could cook for them. His faith in his own future is restored, and he is looking forward to the knee surgery so that his mobility will improve. What made him happiest was the fact that the bus stop is just steps away from his door.

At UNITY, we believe that housing is not a reward for good behavior or a symbol of one’s worth. It is a basic human right, a need, and without it, not one of us can reach our life’s goals and live a secure existence. Let’s stop blaming people or thinking that they somehow can pull themselves out of these situations without assistance. It could easily be you or I in that situation, and it’s time we acknowledge that.

What I do believe is that we are all in this together.

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