Summer is upon us once again. And being a Newfoundlander I swore many years ago not to complain about the heat of summer, all two weeks of it some years!
But working with the homeless has allowed me to see another perspective. I always figured that the winter would be the worst for our Homeless, but as one man taught me, “…in the winter I can always add another layer, in the summer there is only so much I can shed and then I am at the mercy of the heat.”
Yesterday, as our Door Outreach was winding down, I went outside to check on things and close it down so our volunteers could head home in a timely fashion. However, a man I will call Jeff had come and collapsed next to the building. He was in a pitiful way, having nowhere to go to get out of the heat.
We brought him into the building and called a sister agency that had appropriate resources to assist, While waiting he told me his story. Sadly, I have heard it many times from many people.
He had suffered a brain injury. He could function for the most part, but he did not do well in stressful situations and his memory came and went depending on his fatigue and stress levels. He was not on drugs or alcohol, but his behaviours could be misinterpreted as resulting from drug or alcohol addiction. He is an introvert who just wants to feel safe and to be left alone.
Due to the above reasons after a dispute with his landlord he found himself on the street and the landlord kept a lot of his belonging (including personal papers). He did not do well at the shelters as there are some guests there who are quite aggressive and when they attacked him, he defended himself. Even though he was defending himself, he was found at fault. Hence, he was either banned from or is too afraid to go to shelters anymore.
How can our hearts not go out to anyone on our doorstep in such a situation. As mentioned, we did find an immediate solution for him yesterday, but what happened to him today? What could I have done to help him turn his life around and have a better future?
These are legitimate questions that deep down so many of us wants to know. The problem is we can’t. God works in his own way and on His own timeline; always we must trust God has the situation in hand even when it disturbs our human sensibilities.
The challenge of working with homeless individuals in the long term is figuring out how the system works and knowing what resources are out there, so that we know where to refer our friends in these and other heartbreaking situations (hence why I encourage all OIM volunteers to become familiar with our Help Pamphlet and why we share it with so many other organizations).
It is important to know the core values of the organization we are volunteering with and where to refer people in situations that fall outside our area of competence. We can specialize and become excellent in a few things, but if we try to be everything to everyone we will individually and even as an organization, develop compassion fatigue or burn out and lose our compassion, and worse, do nothing well.
For this reason, I personally focus on ensuring our volunteers and even staff, have access to self help courses on how to recognize and treat symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout. Another way we encourage early recognition is to debrief with team members after such an encounter. Our team members and friends can sometimes see changes in our personality before we recognize danger so talking about situations that disturbed us are a part of an excellent first step.
keep in mind that it is not abnormal to have a heavy heart after witnessing people in need, but to be present in the situation and remain healthy enough to make a difference in the long term we must take care of our own mental health first. I cannot be ashamed to speak up about how I am feeling and remember “do not judge”. Listen. As I learned the hard way, not one of us is an Island. We need our community for support to get through the tough times.
God Bless you.
~Brian – Volunteer Coordinator