Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Choice, Every Day

I've been working with the homeless nearly every day for twenty years. After a while, after so many stories, and tragedies and heartaches and disappointments, you get worn out. You let the few people who are taking advantage of things get you down. And emotionally you become scarred, because the more that you take into your heart, the more pain you are experiencing. And that pain affects you-- not as much as the person who had the experience, but all the different people gives you a little bit of their pain, which eases their pain and increases your burden. We can become overwhelmed and blame those who have pain. I know that for many I seem more callused than I used to be.

But a couple things keeps my compassion alive. First of all, remembering that the homeless only sometimes cause their own pain. I think, if this person were doing this (drinking a beer, having sex with their girlfriend, sleeping on their bed) in an apartment, would they be blamed or harassed? And how would I feel if I didn't know when someone would attack or command me to move, anytime day or night? What kind of stress would I be under? And I remember that the main problem of the homeless isn't their personal "issues" but the oppression they are under.

Compassion, I remember, is a choice. A choice I can make everyday. Some days I'm better at compassion than others. Some days I want to ignore my compassionate impulses and just get some rest. But I realize that compassion-- even compassion that overwhelms me-- makes me a better person. I want to be the compassionate person, and that requires discipline.

Presence When You Can't Understand

No one could comprehend Melisa.  Her sentences were complete non sequiturs,  without context, even though she looked straight at her questioner, and seemed to be a clear answer.  She always knew where she was.  She had a regular schedule.  The AA meeting every morning, to get some coffee.  The soup kitchen most afternoons, except on Saturday when she ate at the church. She would sleep with a male friend who wanted to keep her safe.  There was no hanky-panky, she wouldn’t allow that.  But despite her regularity, she was a mystery.

Rachel, a member of a local church, couldn’t understand Melisa any better than anyone else.  But she took a shine to the homeless woman, and invited her to church.  She wasn’t sure if Melisa wanted to go or not, but arranged to pick her up at the morning AA meeting anyway and brought her along.  Melisa didn’t seem to mind, nor did she seem to get anything out of it.  She sat in her chair, next to Rachel, looking around, everywhere but up front.

The next week, Rachel picked Melisa up at the Saturday church meal and took her to get some clothes.  Melisa at first didn’t seem to know what was going on, but when Rachel gave her options, Melisa chose what she wanted and tried them on.  It took a couple hours, but Melisa had a new outfit. 

Every week Rachel met Melisa at the AA meeting and took her to church.  Sometimes she took the homeless woman out to eat at a fast food place.  Occasionally Melisa would wander off, but she was always at the AA meeting, every Sunday morning, and Melisa never objected to Rachel picking her up.

One day, Rachel asked other homeless folk where Melisa camped.  She met the friend who she camped with and said that she’d like to movie Melisa into her home.  Michael, the homeless man, was surprised, but glad that someone took an interest in her friend.  He encouraged Melisa to stay with Rachel, and he and Melisa gathered up her things and put them in Rachel’s car.  Rachel then put Melisa’s things next to her living room couch in her apartment, and Melisa spent the night there.
The next day, Rachel drove Melisa to the social security office, where they spent hours helping Melisa apply for Disability.  Eventually, the agency sent Melisa to a psychiatrist for an evaluation and she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  The psychiatrist also gave her a prescription, which neither she nor Rachel could pay to fill.   After a couple months, her insurance kicked in, and the medication was obtained.

And Melisa started to change.  It took time, but eventually she began to answer questions directly.  She understood what was happening around her.  She stopped looking up, and could focus on a person’s face, or the front of the church.  She was able to tell the story of her family, how her disability check was taken every month by her sister, who made her sleep in the backyard.   How she went to the AA meeting every morning, not because she was an alcoholic, but because she liked the coffee they served.

Melisa stayed on Rachel’s couch for years.  She became more able to make her own decisions and eventually moved out into her own place.  One day, Melisa decided that she was doing well enough that she didn’t need her medications anymore.  After a couple weeks, when she met George Washington at the door, she decided that she needed her medications after all.  

Lords of the Poor

I wonder how social workers and advocates could be considered defenders of the helpless when they have never been helpless themselves. It is like the wolf feeling empathy for the sheep. Even if a tamed wolf makes a good sheepdog, he will never understand how the sheep feel. The one who has understood helplessness, who has experienced the bitterness that feeling brings, they are the only ones who know what evil the helpless experience.

-A revised quote from Elizabeth Moon, Deed of Pakssinarion