Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Volunteer Perspective: Discovering Outreach As A Healing Tribute

The following essay was written by one of our awesome street outreach volunteers. She set out to examine her initial motivation for joining Yellow Brick Road and explore some of the factors that have kept her with us well beyond the minimum six month volunteer commitment. Her story is graphic and we are presenting it here completely unedited because it is beautifully written and perfectly articulates one outreach worker's experience with Yellow Brick Road. Please be advised that it may be triggering to some readers.

I started volunteering for Yellow Brick Road a year after my friend Scotty was stabbed to death while he was sleeping under a stairwell. Scotty was loved by everyone he knew. He had a sweet demeanor and was incredibly kind and fun to hang out with. He was truly “one of the good ones.” A few hundred people showed up to his funeral. Most of us didn’t know that he was homeless until after we found out he was dead. When I left our hometown, Scotty was a talented chef at one of the best restaurants in town. Through a combination of bad luck, bad decisions, addiction, possible mental health issues, and lack of support and resources, he ended up on the streets.

It hit me hard when Scotty was murdered. I didn’t understand how one of the best people I knew ended up dying all alone and in such a horrific, unimaginable way. I couldn’t fathom how someone could so brutally and callously take the life of my friend, who was going through the worst, most lonely time in his life. I felt completely hopeless for the world. The world kills the best ones. There didn’t seem to be a point to being one of the best ones or even existing at all. One of the hardest things about Scotty’s death was reading the news articles about him. They referred to him as “a homeless man.” As though we could all feel better that it was just a homeless man and not someone like us, like there was a class system to humanity. Some articles didn’t even bother to spell his name right. Oh, and the comments. “Good. Let the homeless kill each other off.” (He was not murdered by a homeless person, by the way.) “Homeless people should stop being lazy and get jobs.” “Get the homeless out of our town.” “Homeless people are all violent drug addicts.” And such.

One of the things that I know deeply is that I could be in Scotty’s shoes too, but I’m not because I have had multiple sources of support throughout the years. I have made bad decisions. Really bad ones. We all have. And we’ve all had someone there to extend a hand in some way.

A year after Scotty’s death, having been touched so deeply by the problem of homelessness, I felt ready to try to do something that helped, rather than continue to sit there thinking about how the problem is so insurmountable. I decided to volunteer for Yellow Brick Road doing street outreach, because I wanted to talk to people, hear people, smile at people, be kind to people. I wished that someone would have been there to do that for Scotty.

It has taken me several months to really understand just what we do, because it’s so much more than giving out first aid and hygiene supplies like socks, bandaids, and condoms. From the beginning, I very much decided to trust in the system of Yellow Brick Road. This is totally against my nature. I have raged against machines since my very first jobs, questioning everything and trying to make everything better than it was. It never really went over well in corporate settings, which is why I have worked for myself for the past decade. But with Yellow Brick Road, I wanted to learn how to impact people’s lives in a way that wasn’t all about me and my personal contributions. And I didn’t want to damage anybody by trying to do things my own way. So, even though I didn’t understand it, I decided to see myself as a spoke in the wheel of a machine that already works. When I was on outreach, I was not Candice, but a representative of Yellow Brick Road. I try to be friendly and personable with people, but I try not to make it about me. If someone is grateful for what we do, I try to turn it back to the program, so that people know they don’t have to depend on me personally. There is a program that has been around for a few decades that they can turn to for help when they want it, whether I am here or not.

Several months later, I was finally able to grasp what we do and why it is important. When it comes to the homeless, everyone wants quick solutions. “We need more affordable housing.” “They should just get a job.” “More jobs.” “The police should stop them from sleeping in my neighborhood.” “More mental health services.” “More addiction services.” “Throw them in jail.” “Give them a bus ticket to California.” “Vote Democrat.” “Vote Republican.” “Vote third-party.” And worse. But homelessness is a complex issue, and there aren’t any quick solutions.

One night on outreach, I was with a staff member who has been with the organization for over a decade. We ran into two former clients that night who recognized him and approached him to talk. The first was a woman in her twenties. She had been clean for five years, and was currently working and living in her own apartment. We all talked for about twenty minutes and the woman reminisced about different things that happened at shelter when she had stayed there. I laughed so much during that conversation. She was hilarious, and in such a deadpan way. Then she mentioned that she had gotten kicked out of shelter several times for shooting up in the bathroom. I was immediately taken aback. I realized that I had always imagined that the ones who successfully worked their way to finding housing and employment were the ones who went to shelter with a purpose to succeed. I thought that by the time kids made it to shelter, they had already decided that they were done with drugs and were going to do what they needed to do to get out of that situation. I guess I had a bit of a boot-strapper mentality going on, even though I am against that kind of idea in principle. We all love a good story where a determined person beats all the odds through sheer determination and street smarts.

Next, we ran into a guy who was standing outside his place of employment on a break. He was working there and had started up his own small business and was working really hard to make it all pan out. After we walked away, my co-outreacher told me that this guy used to basically be a street drunk. They’d see him on outreach for about five years, drunk as a skunk and never wanting anything from Yellow Brick Road, until he finally started accepting supplies. From there, he came to stationary outreach and eventually went to rehab and got into housing. It was interesting to hear, because we have so many people we see often who refuse to accept anything from us, and it gave me a bit of positive perspective.

My learning that night wasn’t over. I asked my co-outreacher, “What was the turning point for these people? When did they decide that they wanted help and wanted to get off the street?” He told me that it doesn’t really work like that. People always want to get off the street. They just don’t have all the tools that they need all at the same time in order to get there. Everything is stacked against you when you’re out there. You can decide that you’re going to get into shelter. That doesn’t mean that the next day someone’s not going to steal all your stuff, and then in a moment of despair you’re not going to spend your last money on getting high, since it all seems so hopeless. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to get stabbed to death while you’re sleeping underneath a stairwell that night. What we do is build relationships with them so that they know us and trust us, and then one day they trust us enough to come to our stationary outreach (where youth can come and do laundry, take showers, eat a meal, and talk to staff members about resources, if they want). Then maybe sometime after that, they decide they want to get screened into shelter. Then maybe they get kicked out or don’t want to stay. Then they come back. Rinse and repeat. Eventually some will transition to permanent housing. They’ve been screwed over a lot and it is extremely hard for them to trust people, especially adults. Many of them have been abused by adults. All of them carry trauma in some way. We try to remain consistent so that they know they can trust us. We try to always show respect for them, so they know they can be open with us and we won’t judge them.

And so what I learned about what we do is that we build relationships. We build them slowly and consistently. We build trust and respect and we don’t skip steps to gain that trust and respect. And that takes time and it’s not a quick fix to a big problem. But it’s an essential piece in being able to solve these problems long-term.

Just a month after I started doing outreach, I found out that another friend, Chapita, had died, and that she had been homeless at the time, dealing with addiction and mental health issues. She had been hit by a train. She had four kids. Her mother was an addict too. She had a really hard life. I was devastated to learn of her death and I felt that it was unbelievably unjust for her to have endured such suffering all throughout life and then to have it all end like this. But I didn’t fall apart this time, not like I did with Scotty. Being a spoke in the wheel of Yellow Brick Road made me feel better. It made me feel like I could carry Chapita with me. I realized that I was carrying Scotty with me too. I could treat the people I met as though they were Chapita, who I used to know as an eight-year-old girl that would make cards for me and funny faces at me when I was sad. I could treat people as though they were Scotty, who used to have a cool car that he’d drive us around in and blast Dr. Dre, and who would be there for his friends for whatever reason they needed him. Scotty and Chapita are still alive when the people that knew them share their spirits with others. Their lights are like candles that lit many others during their lifetimes, and so long as we keep lighting more candles during our own lives, their flames will never die.


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