Homelessness and ping-pong

… and wicked situations. In my early days as a community worker, back in the early 2000’s, I was impressed by those organisations that proudly claimed that they would signpost people they couldn’t help to those organisations that could. Being impressed soon got replaced by being decidedly unimpressed when I discovered the organisation the person was referred to couldn’t help either (sometimes they didn’t even exist and what we saw was a fobbing off exercise and a failure to go the extra mile, which should be at the heart of community work) and often they were then signposted somewhere else and eventually back to where it all began, and so the game of ping pong started, got going and stopped, and there were several in fact. Sometimes the poor client gave up disillusioned. It got me wondering why there were not more “can doers” in the world that could accompany the person in need to where he/she needed to go and become that much needed advocate / friend / mentor figure.

Some fourteen years on, I have mellowed slightly, realising nothing is as simple as it seems, including the client’s version of events that often fails to share those important details that are needed to get a result and their failure to take the necessary actions. Often the proverb to do with leading a horse to water but not being able to make it drink comes to mind. There may be all sorts of reasons for this but the biggest barriers I have found are alcohol addiction and mental health issues, and things like human pride and low self esteem. While my dream remains to set up a one stop shop manned by like minded can doers, to cover all the needs, I fear age and health is not on my side and I must focus on what I can do and hope and pray others will be raised up that will do the things I can’t. What I do find is help comes in many guises from all sorts of people. The trick is to get them working together. Community activist I may be, but case worker I am not, although often it is case workers who truly act in the best interest of their clients that are most needed.

But case working cannot be avoided if we are to be more than mere sign posters to inadequate or nonexistent services, even though there is a need to get wised up, recognise our limitations and work with those we can who can complement our efforts. As always a few things have happened in the very recent past that trigger the above articulated line of thought, although in truth it is nothing new and it is only the events that spark such thinking off that changed. Two days back I got into a conversation with a lady where I soon found myself quickly out of my comfort zone, not an unusual occurrence I would add. I had spoken to her three weeks earlier when she visited the soup kitchen I am involved with and when she told me some of her story. While not purporting to have the answers, I did suggest things she could do including organisations she could engage with. When we spoke last, and I was brought up to speed, it turned out she had engaged with those organisations and none could help. We spoke further and while mindful I must not give inappropriate advice or make promises I can’t keep, the way is open for more engagement and this is something I am committed to following up.

I have written about homelessness several times in my blog, my last and relevant here was on the subject of “Policing homelessness” which also points to my earlier posts. Why the subject of the police’s role has cropped up today is because of two disturbing stories that were posted on the bit of Facebook I get to see. The first carried the title “Police seize possessions of rough sleepers in crackdown on homelessness“. I shared it with the comment: “This story is 18 months old BUT even if half true we must ALWAYS look for the compassionate alternative and it is to our shame when we don’t“. The second carried the title: “The father who froze to death in a Kent village – Daniel Gauntlett’s lonely death highlights the growing crisis of rough sleepers in rural Britain”. While there was police involvement insofar they had helped to evict him from the very derelict building outside of which he had died, my point is as with the other story, this should concern every one of us and every attempt should have been made to help homeless people.

The encouraging thing for me is I see all sorts of signs of people making a difference. Given the nature of this “client group” and the complex and diverse needs found, the solutions are not easy but we try to do the best we can. Again looking at various email exchanges today, I realise we are dealing with wicked situations insofar whatever decision we make is going to be flawed. Sometimes the heart can so easily rule the head and by not making the tough and strategic decisions that are needed sometimes we fail to capitalise on the opportunities that do present themselves. Our efforts may then thus be rendered ineffective as a result. Besides, whatever we do may not be enough, and by doing one action and making one person a priority need we sometimes end up failing to do another action and not giving priority to someone else who is also in need and maybe where we can make more headway given our own limited resources. Practically speaking this might mean using up our energies on lost causes and failing to tackle winnable ones.

So here is the deal, and if there is to be a 2015 resolution, I will be taking all these matters to heart and seeking workable solutions along with those who can help to make it so. With whatever powers and opportunities God gives, I will engage with the good and the great, the not so good and the not so great, the disempowered and the lowly and the poor and the homeless. There is a need to work both at the coal face and the corridors of power. There is no question we are up against all sorts of obstacles if substantial breakthroughs are to be made: institutional weaknesses, lack of affordable housing, insufficient resources, societal ignorance, unresolved issues among the homeless themselves etc., but breakthroughs have been seen in the past and more can be expected in the future if we do what needs doing and aim to do it together and, dare I say it, especially so if with God’s help. Moreover, I will be encouraging those who want to show compassion to do so, whatever their beliefs, and all of us can do that and may we do so with maximum effect.


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