February 9, 2016 by poverty2professional
At this point in the blog, we’ve established that homelessness is stigmatized in the US. So, what could be worse than to have one social shame so closely associated with another? I’m talking about mental health.
With one in four people experiencing homelessness classified as “suffering from severe mental illness,” there is a clear and present need for assistance. However, no one wants to be associated with “seeing a shrink” or, worse, “getting help.” I sure didn’t. Even if the intense daily stress of homelessness would send anyone to seek psychological counseling, no one wants to be the person who admits to receiving “help” for their mental wellbeing. It insinuates that there was something wrong with you to begin with. That you’re incurably “sick.” And we’ve all seen the way housed folks shy away on the street from that one person talking to herself.
So, suffice to say, I didn’t feel too comfortable going to the “Thursday Teen Therapy Sessions” at my shelter. The sessions were held in the mini library I had been using for my study space. When the next session was held, I was prepared to move myself over to a conference room down the hall. I ended going to that session instead. I only attended because our caseworker issued an ultimatum that if my father didn’t get me to comply we would be dismissed – yes, evicted from a shelter. And yes, our caseworker had that kind of authority. Or so he told us.
See what I meant about daily stress? And this was only one of the many, many volatile elements. The last person you need pressuring you is your case manager. Imagine how stressful consistent threatening of removal from the shelter is alone. Remember, we could only get so many write-ups stacked against us.
But I digress.
Let’s go back to mental health…
Edited journal notes, February 2008
I was late to the first meeting; and I deliberately took my time going down the hallway. With each step I reworked the image of this “teen therapist.” Eventually, I came up with two basic archetypes, the only difference was their genders, otherwise the therapist would be some college-fresh, rosy-eyed, bespectacled pencil-neck with side-swept hair, a bobbing Adam’s apple and a pencil and clipboard in hand asking me how I felt today. This therapist probably got replaced every two to three months. I’d manage.
I may have been late, but I was still the first to arrive. So it was just me and…who the heck was this old man? Jim** sort of destroyed my image of the teen counselor. He was old, short, not as waif-like as the other character in my head, and what fine hair he had left couldn’t really be side-swept and was hardly ever combed. He wore a beige cap to cover it. Then he slid the dreaded survey sheets toward me and asked, “Tell me about yourself.”
Oh, dear. Here we go. All aboard the Let’s Evaluate You Express. He’ll probably label me as a “recluse” and a “workaholic.”
Jim took out a flashcard and wrote my name at the top. I gave him the basic rank and number line.
“What are your hobbies?” he asked.
“Reading, writing, and – ”
“Arithmetic?” he completed jokingly.
“Drawing,” I huffed, unamused. “And some close-up magic.”
He seemed interested in the second half, but after he made a flat Harry Potter joke, he moved on to the next question. I assumed asking my horoscope was supposed to make me feel more at ease. It didn’t. It made me think of him more as a dinosaur hippie. What caught me off guard was when he asked what sort of sandwich I preferred.
“It doesn’t matter,” I honestly told him. He asked if beef was fine so I specified to turkey.
We weren’t off to a good start, but real food sounded pretty good right now.
End journal notes.
Clearly, I had my own preconceptions about what mental health meant as well. But time with Jim was neither scripted nor structured like a bad Freudian therapist cartoon. With a group of young teens that hovered around five meeting every week – I was always the oldest – there weren’t any hard and fast rules beyond checking in. We got to steer the conversation. There were no directed prompts. I suppose Jim figured we already had enough topics to open up with anyway.
Jim also knew how to boost attendance rates. In addition to subway sandwiches, we were each given one five-dollar gift card. If we wrote up a journal entry to share at the week’s meeting, we would get an additional five-dollar card for every page written (up to two pages). Because the cards were in such small denominations, we could cash them in at their store of origin. Our parents, if not just us, especially appreciated this. Fifteen bucks goes pretty far in this situation.
While I’m not going to deny that the monetary motivation was a perk, I mostly wrote the journal entries just because I always did. I still had my laptop and our shelter had an old printer. And Jim regularly praised me as a strong writer.
Yet even as I grew more comfortable with Jim and disclosing with the other kids at the shelter, the stereotype around “seeing a counselor” was pretty hard to shake. And it was regularly reinforced.
Edited journal notes May 2008
The conversation still rings in my ears. It was an ordinary evening, I had been in the shelter’s bookroom, doing my homework, when I heard the tramping of many feet in the hallway. Volunteer orientation day? These volunteers, I quickly saw, were actually young Girl Scouts and their adult escort was giving the tour. I shrugged, turning back to my texts. Then the door opened and in peeked a handful of round faces.
“This is the library,” explained the guide. “And every week a teen meeting’s held here.”
“Teen meeting for what?” inquired one of the girls.
The adult’s response stunned me. “Well, if you think being a teenager’s tough, imagine being a homeless teenager. They really need help.”
My skin prickled at the phrasing she used. Or the emphasis. “Really need help?” She was speaking this way to a bunch of middle school kids!
“Oh. Do they have help?”
“Well, that’s why a therapist comes in here, to go with the teens through all their issues.”
I felt my pencil snap.
“Is that one of them?”
One of them? Had I become a specimen, now? Was I no longer capable of direct dialogue? The adult seemed to think so; quickly, she ushered the girls out of the threshold, remarking, “Don’t bother anyone. Sometimes troubled kids here can be very unstable.”
End journal notes.
Getting observed in a shelter is a common experience when volunteers come to visit. Being addressed in a weird third-person/zoo-animal style is, unfortunately, more common than I initially hoped. And people – outside people who don’t understand yet – think you’re “unstable.” Folks want confirmations of their biases because it makes them feel safe. And, in an unfamiliar place like the shelter, at least those expectations – no matter how negative – could be perceived as valid and therefore comforting in their “certainty.”
I’m glad that Jim was there to listen to me spill all this. My dad had to go through the same experience of being homeless, so he didn’t always react with the same interest or really care to revisit it. Sometimes, even he needed to detox from it all. For Jim, it may have been part of his job, but he genuinely gave all of us kids the time of day. Over a year later and still at the shelter, I reflected on my revised views of him.
Excerpt of journal notes, April 2009.
As the weeks passed, I gradually participated more. Jim was never crotchety and short like his age suggests. He certainly acted considerably less like a cold, distant “therapist” (now a word I would never associate with Jim in a million years). He was just there to listen; sort of like a patched up teddy bear. Also, not unlike a stuffed animal, Jim’s memory could be a little fuzzy, sometimes he was slow to pick up on a joke (or maybe that was because of his hearing – one can never be sure with older gents), but he handled my gibes at his advanced years with good humor (like the ones I’ve just inserted). Jim’s one similarity to my prototype was idea of seeing the world through rose colored glasses. I thought I’d be nauseated by such a person and, at times, Jim’s quixotic perspectives could try my patience; nonetheless, he enriched me to a degree. Where in my mind it was a weakness of naïveté, Jim demonstrated it could be a strength (God knows he needs it for his field).
Every week he came in with this fresh look of “Well, what can I learn from you today?” He never judged and always went along with the flow. Even with his “fuzzy brain,” he exhibited a center of focus. Jim proved to be quite admirable; one of the few adults at the shelter who only wished the best for the kids.
Further reading: Mental Disorders Keep Thousands of Homeless on Streets (Jervis, USA Today)
**Please note: Names and locations have been changed or left intentionally vague to protect identities and privacy.