Saturday, September 12, 2009

the need for dignity

One cannot work with the downtrodden long without becoming aware that there is something they crave more than a meal: dignity. Dignity is why my clients are far more upset if our shower is broken than if our food has run out. It is why, much to our frustration, so many of them will turn down work that pays less than what they once made. It is why so many of them come in with heads hanging and with tears welling up.

Just yesterday, a man came down to register, and I invited him in to my office. I began as we always do when it comes to new folks that come down: "So, tell me about your situation right now." This man immediately reached behind him and closed the door, then began a desperate plea. He trembled and spoke quickly, his eyes looking anywhere but at me, clearly ashamed to be asking for help and afraid I was judging him the whole time he talked. "If I could just get a shower and wash my clothes. I won't ask for a place to stay. I'm staying in my storage unit. I can sleep there. But if I could just get a shower and get out of these clothes...I...I just need some help." He tried to hold back tears, and only partly succeeded. Before I went to get the registration forms, I asked, "Are you a hug man?" He wavered, "Well, yes, but I don't think you want to hug me. I'm pretty ripe." But when I gestured, he stood anyway, and I hugged him. I could feel him shaking. Later, I watched that same man emerge from the shower like a whole new human, still a little shaky, but with a calmer face. "Feel good?" I asked. "Oh! that was divine," he replied. My replacement, who started this week so that we can overlap for a while, looked at me and shook his head in amazement. "That's incredible." I nodded knowingly. It is indeed incredible what happens when you allow someone the dignity of being clean.

Sometimes it is difficult to know how to use dignity as a motivator. As I mentioned in a previous post, there is debate about whether offering work to an alcoholic may help them out of their addiction by offering dignity and curbing boredom. The situation I mentioned in that post ended with the client in question guzzling 6 bottles of cooking sherry (high alcohol content and can be purchased using food stamps) and spending the next few days in the hospital after a minor heart attack. Strike one.

Another client, Tom (not his real name), recently got a job at Wal-Mart and lost it within a week because of his drinking. Of course, he later confessed to me that he had also mouthed off to his manager because he couldn't handle the idiotic way they were going about a shipping/stocking task. True, most of our guys are skilled tradesman. It must be painfully difficult to be a peon at Wal-Mart, accepting orders from someone who doesn't know what they're doing (in regards to the mechanical/technical side of things) because you aren't the professional in that setting and have no say. Still, a job is a job--some dollars is an improvement on no dollars-- and so we encourage our guys to get rid of excuses, even when we understand where they come from.

When Tom came into my office to vent about the situation, he was drunk again. I listened for a while and debated about how to respond. "Suck it up," was an option. "You're going to have to deal with your drinking, man, and take what work you can get." In some cases, that is the right response. But in Tom's case, I just asked, "Tom, what did you do before you were homeless?" He told me about his work in mechanical engineering and electrical jobs and plumbing. He's a very skilled guy, a jack of all trades. Watching him light up, I took a different angle. "Then go do what you're trained for, Tom. You're good at your work. Go find it." I could see the wheels turning in his head, the sudden boost of confidence. "Yeah. You're right. Hey, there's a place I used to work. Can you look up their number for me? I did good work for them. I know that if they can, they'll hire me." I typed in the business name--a construction place in Michigan--and handed him the number. "Tom, you are better than living in a tent. You are better than Wal-Mart. Go and do th..." He stopped me short, stepping in right after the word Wal-Mart. "Thank you, Katie. I heard that. Thank you." And then Tom, who has shown almost no motivation from the moment he registered at FMS, walked out my door straight to the phone, and called Michigan. He didn't get the job, but he has been calling other people ever since, and left early on Thursday because he had some day labor to attend to.

I never know when it is a good idea to say, "You're better than Wal-Mart", and when I should say, "Hey man, I know it isn't the professional setting you're used to, but it's a good job. Suck it up." I'm learning that it just takes case by case discretion, and that such discretion will only come through relationship, through me putting in the time that helps me see the difference between Tom's mindset and that of any other client in my office. But the need for the Church to establish that kind of relationship with the downtrodden is a whole different blog...

For now, I just say again that dignity seems to be at the heart of healing for the folks I work with, and for so many others around us. To be called by name, to have a shower and a shave and some clean clothes, to know that their skills are recognized...these things are as important as the loaf of bread we might offer. May we always seek to acknowledge and affirm the dignity of those who need our help, but not our condescension.

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