Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How to Help the Homeless? Start with "Welcome."

Picture "the homeless." What comes to mind? A panhandler on the city streets, with a cardboard sign? With a weathered face, and disheveled clothing? That's what most of us picture.

Now picture the salesman you met the other day who sold you your new PDA. He was a neatly groomed professional, in a suit jacket, self-assured and confident as he made his pitch. Michael was his name. Would you believe Michael is homeless? How about Marshall, an energetic, proud father of three in an Old Navy T-shirt?

1,479 people were homeless in Delaware at last count. By definition, “homeless” includes someone living on the street or in a shelter. It also includes residents of transitional or supportive housing, like Michael, and Marshall. They are the invisible homeless. But their challenges are no less severe, and their needs no less urgent. Now, with help, they are on their way to self-sufficiency.

Michael’s drinking problem began during his fraternity days, but continued into his thirties. As part owner of a liquor store, he found himself entrenched in a daily routine. “Basically it was, go to work, come home, drink, go to sleep, get up in the morning, maybe have a drink, maybe not, go to work.” Relations with his family suffered. He embarrassed himself at their get-togethers, borrowed their money to support his drinking, and generally felt like a disappointment. Finally, at 41, his landlord had police remove him from his apartment for a continuing pattern of drunkenness. Suicidal, Michael entered the hospital at his mother’s urging, and then drug treatment at Hudson Health Services.

Marshall, at 42, had also lost a place to live and his family’s trust due to years of addiction. His drug money was coming out of the budget for rent and the children’s clothes. “I would say that I was going out to the bar just for a beer, and then I’d get a couple drinks. Then, I’d run into somebody, I’d get a snort, and I was out till 2 or 3 in the morning.” Last year, after several unsuccessful attempts at treatment, he entered the Crisis House shelter in Georgetown.
Recently, both men were referred to the Brandywine Counseling Georgetown Center for further treatment. They were stable for the moment, but they needed help to sustain it. Without a permanent place to live, or a job, self-sufficiency seemed out of reach. Or so they thought. That was before they walked in the door to BCI.

“I was greeted warmly,” Michael recalls. “You don’t know anybody. They don’t know you. They don’t owe you anything, but they immediately go to work for you.” The diverse team of counselors and case managers began by creating a welcoming environment, crucial in earning the trust of a clientele that has often lost all hope. Basic needs were met first. Concerns were listened to, and responded to. Extra time and assistance was given wherever they could. It wasn’t long before Michael started to see real results.

His transitional housing was not working out; in fact, it was putting his recovery at risk. He needed another place fast. Counselor Kelle Paynter found him one. Vocational Counselor Tammy Williams helped him find temporary work, gave him referrals to social services, and drove him places he needed to go. “They did all the leg work. They gave me the options and helped me choose which ones to follow up on.” Soon, his new job-seeking skills helped him land his sales job. On his first day of work, Michael stopped by to visit in his suit and tie, beaming with pride.

Marshall’s first impression was positive as well. “My counselor, Rachel [Eaton], gave me a lot of hope. She devoted all her time to getting me a roof over my head. When a lot of places turned me down or didn’t have room, she kept calling and calling and calling, and she got me in. When people show you how they really care, it just really makes you want to do better.” Now staying in recovery housing, Marshall is also working with Kelle on finding a part time job and wants to go to school for computer engineering.

Both men benefited from newly expanded services at BCI Georgetown, thanks to a new 5 year federal CSAT homeless grant. The program aims to admit 120 people a year, and help 75% become drug free, 60% find improved housing, and 50% improve their employment status within 6 months. In addition, there’s a new vocational training program, funded by a First State Community Action grant.

The biggest change for Michael and Marshall is in their outlook. “I’m more focused, very confident, very proud of how far I’ve come in just three months time,” says Michael. “There are times still when I feel like I’m almost juggling beach balls, but these folks are always here to keep me focused. The joy that I feel, these guys share it. It’s like a shared enthusiasm. That’s probably the single best thing I can say about this place and the people.” With over 90 days clean, he hopes to soon have a career, a place to call his own, and a long-lasting personal relationship.

Likewise, with 7 months clean, Marshall no longer has to spend his energy looking for shelters, or drugs, and can instead focus on his health. “I’m a below the knee amputee, so I have to do certain things to take care of myself. If I was doing drugs and alcohol, I would neglect that, ” he says. “The alcohol and drugs puts you in a spin, like you don’t care. [Recovery] makes you want to push more. It makes me want to work, makes me want to be productive in society. It feels wonderful, it really does.”

Most of all, Marshall looks forward to setting things right with his family. “Someday I want to raise my children. I’ve got this dream to get a house, and I always tell my children that one day they’re gonna have their own room. I just want to be the best dad I can be, take them places, buy them clothes, take them to amusement parks, and just do the quality time. I realized that you can’t buy children love, just quality time. That’s all they really want. So that’s really what I want to give them.”

Family is foremost in Michael’s mind as well. “When I told my parents I was doing this interview, my mother said, ‘All they need to do is call me!’ So, call my mom if you want! I’m very proud of myself. I’m not the kind of person that talks about myself at all or seeks help. This time I put my pride aside and did all that, and things are working out for me, so I’m very proud.”

The question is often debated, “How can we help the homeless?” Giving a hand-out? Donating to charity? Can one person even make a difference? For Marshall and Michael, the services they received at BCI got them back on their feet. But more importantly, the welcoming environment restored their hope and their positive thinking. A warm greeting, a sympathetic ear, a shared enthusiasm. Just our being there, more than what we give, sometimes makes all the difference.

BCI Georgetown services are funded by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, SAMHSA/CSAT; and the Community Services Block Grant through the Recovery Act. To learn more, please call Kris Hutchison at 302-856-4700.


Krystal Cooper said...

Georgetown Rocks!!!! Keep up the great work everybody!

heather said...

good job i had pictured a panhandler on the street corner