by Amelia Kent
November 27, 2012
In 2011 I served 480 hours working as an unpaid intern at Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) in Seattle, Washington. What makes DESC programs great—but also leaves them stigmatized—is the organization’s dedication to working with people who have dual disorders: people struggling with not only a mental illness but also a substance abuse problem.
Many clients are also involved in forensic programs, meaning they are still actively working with a probation officer or are currently in conflict with the law. DESC also follows the Housing First Model, which asserts that only after housing and stability has been attained can a client be expected to make any meaningful life changes. These are known as harm reduction programs, and they attempt to minimize the consequences associated with risky or illegal client behavior. Controversial social service strategies like these are often labeled as enabling destructive behaviors, leaving the general public questioning the validity of these programs—and the skepticism doesn’t stop there. Despite the fact that this is a highly vulnerable population, it remains a group that many social workers prefer not to work with.
While serving at DESC I discovered that there is a sense of community and solidarity among people living on the streets; individuals who are simultaneously utilizing services from the jail, the court, the hospital, and the community mental health providers. There is a similar sense of community among those working in harm reduction programs who can relate to one another, if only for the peculiarity of their professional lives. Some clients may take months to recover, while others may take years, the process can be frustrating but for the professionals who have been able to thwart the mounting cynicism, we believe that this work is time well spent; either because we have seen the success stories firsthand, or because we simply refuse to treat anyone—regardless of their personal choices—as less than human. I personally believe that no one deserves to sleep under an overpass, to eat out of a garbage can, or to be abandoned by their own families in the face of chronic mental illness yet we see this increasingly on a day-to-day basis.
When you work with these people every day your outlook and attitude become shaped by their experiences. Every client I worked with at DESC was completely different and every generalization or assumption I made about them turned out to be wrong. I quickly learned that in order to partner with these clients and serve as an advocate I had to throw out every prejudice I ever held against homeless people and come to the table with acceptance, understanding, and an open mind. Most of us can pass a homeless person on the street and not think twice about it. I no longer have that luxury because I now know that every person suffering from homelessness has a name, a family, a story, and a wide array of factors that contributed to their predicament.
People like to say that they support recovery programs right up until the point when a harm reduction apartment complex is built in their community. Suddenly people aren’t so enthusiastic about the idea and the only cause for this reaction seems to be a severe stigmatization of the homeless. What’s more remarkable is how quickly I learned that this stigmatization also extends to professionals who work with the homeless population.
When my friends would ask me about my job I would tell them stories about working with drug addicts and people who were chronically mentally ill. Some people acted as though I was making them uncomfortable, some expressed genuine concern but more often than not people would remark on how depressing my job sounded to them. The circle of friends I was able to share honestly about my work grew smaller and smaller.
Life becomes more complicated and difficult when you invest time in learning about social and economic problems but it also becomes more gratifying when you can partner with clients and work alongside them on their path to recovery. The skills that I learned at DESC in mental health case management, outreach, recovery programming, and crisis intervention are undoubtedly going to inform my practice and benefit my social work career in the years to come. However the stories I’ve heard, the lives I’ve touched, and the humility I felt in serving the homeless will stay with me forever.
Although the reality of homelessness is not always convenient, sooner or later we will have to face this issue as a society and address it with the most effective means necessary. Harm reduction is the most promising strategy we have moving forward; and the professionals who work to advocate, empower, and help create an alternative ending for those suffering from homelessness are fulfilling their duty to serve those with the greatest need and doing so regardless of their own personal sacrifice. These professionals should be applauded—or at the very least accepted for their selfless service to their communities.
About the Author:
Take a look at Amelia’s recent article about international social work called “Esperanza International: A Closer Look at Development“. Also, the following information is from the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) in Seattle, Washington. Visit the DESC donation page to make a contribution to their efforts:
IF YOU BELIEVE THAT HOMELESSNESS CAN BE ELIMINATED, MAKE A CONTRIBUTION NOW!
The Downtown Emergency Service Center works to end the homelessness of vulnerable people, particularly those living with serious mental or addictive illnesses. Through partnerships and an integrated array of comprehensive services, treatment and housing, we give people the opportunity to reach their highest potential. At DESC, uncommon efforts produce uncommon results that eliminate homelessness, one person at a time.
The payment and personal information you enter will be completely confidential. Or send a check payable to DESC to Office of Fund Development, 515 Third Avenue, Seattle, WA 98104
Because DESC is a recognized organization under IRS Section 501(c)(3) (Tax ID 91-1275815), your donation is tax-deductible to the full extent of the law.