Friday, October 30, 2015

Big Girls Don't Cry

When you work with people experiencing poverty, you hear many stories that make you want to go home, curl up into a ball, hug your nearest pillow or teddy bear and cry your brains out. But you don't cry in the office. It's a rule. As a trained social worker, I hold it right up there with sharing too much personal information. You just don't do it.

Well...I don't always comply with the rules...

Sometimes something strikes you as so horribly unfair that you can't help but cry. Last week, a woman and her husband came asking for help with a deposit for a new apartment. They had been homeless for several months after the husband lost his construction job. He just got hired at a local factory and was now making some income, but the family was struggling to get together enough money to make a deposit and first month's rent payment.  They were living in a tent, with a few scatterings of hotel nights paid for by family.

And did I mention the wife had terminal cancer? And no insurance?

Homeless with cancer.

I was still holding it together at this point until the husband started crying. He was crying because he was unable to provide for his wife. He was crying because he didn't have a comfortable bed for her to lie in, to ease the deep pain she always felt. He was crying because he was ashamed to ask for help. He was crying...and by then, I was also.

We were able to allocate them funds for a deposit and with a friend's help, the couple got enough money together for the first month's rent. I called the landlord to make a strong case for them in the hopes he would work quickly. We also talked about Medicaid, applying under the compassionate allowance for disability, and other resources.

After they left S, my BSW intern, sat in my office to decompress. Like usual, I had let her sit in on the conversation to observe how to assess and intervene in these types of situations. She had been stronger than me and remained stoic during the interview, but now started to cry herself.

"I feel so bad. I feel guilty," S said.

"Guilty because you feel...lucky?" I asked, making sure I understood the source of sadness.

"Yes...I feel like it's not fair that it's so hard for them. I've never experienced anything like that."

I understood her feelings. I reassured her that it was normal to feel that way, but also okay to know that she was not to blame or responsible for what's happened to them or what's not happened to her.

However, I continued, we are responsible for being their advocate. Our main job is to know their story. When others disbelieve that life can be so unfair; when others think that it's just a matter of good living or hard work that keeps you from homelessness; when others think there is plenty of shelter out there if you currently have and I will know better.

My student has heard stories and witnessed hardships that she has never experienced before. These stories are making powerful images for her that she will carry with her for a lifetime of service and gratitude. I'm humbled to be present in these moments.

And by the way S, it's okay to cry every now and then.