Wednesday, March 5, 2014

9 Things That Help Me Out in Working with the Homeless

by T.J. Piccolo

T.J. is serving on the Hope University team at Room In The Inn this year through the Young Adult Volunteer program of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Working with the homeless can be tough for me at times, especially when I first started. I just now feel like I'm over the "new guy" hump of the camel. Now some people know me, and when they have a problem, without looking at my name tag, they shout at me by name! Oh, what a wonderful feeling it is, indeed!

But truthfully, I am only half-kidding. Now some people will come to me when they are upset BECAUSE WE HAVE A RELATIONSHIP. THIS IS A BIG DEAL BOLD UNDERLINE ALL CAPS.

When you first start, no one knows your name and they all assume you know nothing or that you are a volunteer. In my case, they were right on both counts, and, as I am a slow learner, they continue to be right sometimes. But now they no longer tell me that they don't want to talk to me but that they do want to talk to a former employee who hasn't worked at Room In The Inn for several months. Now sometimes they want to talk to me! And I owe it to these 9 easy things.

T.J. (second from right) with friends at Room In The Inn
Thing #1: Name Recognition

[This is a fictional example. I do not know a participant named Zoolu, even though I wish I did.]

"What's up, Zoolu?! How's your morning?!?!" I ask (sometimes) enthusiastically and smiley, whilst extending a friendly fist.

"All right, T.J.," says low-key, cool Zoolu.

"All right!" Says me, very excited about the fist bump I am receiving.

"All right," says Zoolu. He does not stop as he gives the dorky volunteer-for-a-year that tries too hard the fist bump, and keeps on walking.

Sometimes that is all my relationship is with a participant. But it becomes routine in the best way possible. Even though many Zoolu's are laid back, I can still tell they are appreciative of the name recognition. It helps with a lot of things. We can stick up for each other. If a participant is giving me a hard time, Zoolu can tell them to chill and that I'm just trying to help. If Zoolu has a day where he is letting out frustration in a negative way, I can pull Zoolu aside and ask him what's up, because I know him and I've never seen him act like this before. He might calm down a little bit and tell me what's up because we know each other.

But the name recognition is crucial. Zoolu is not just another face in the crowd to me, nor am I to him. I give him his mail without asking for his name. I know him, thus he is known at Room In The Inn.

Stylish Room In The Inn staffer Jay

Thing #2: Compliments

Sometimes the general public is not so friendly. I'm not saying the general public is mean, but I'm not saying the general public is warm either. So a simple compliment can go a long way. Genuine ones go even further.

Some people in the homeless community take whatever clothes they can get, and do not always get the chance to choose what they wear. So often times, I give them a compliment on what they are wearing.

"Oh, I like your hat!"

"Looking sharp today!"

"I'm digging the scarf."

I've seen compliments like this perk people right up. It has probably become my best ice breaker with women participants.

"Thank ya, baby! It keeps my hair dry and matches everything!" Exclaim multiple women participants.

Obviously, I don't leave the compliments to physical appearance. I like to give props when people teach me about Nashville or tell me something new, or educate me, or tell me how they are trying to better themselves, or how far they have come, or what have you. I try to give compliments whenever I can about whatever I can.

The Laundry Room

Thing #3: Folding Laundry

When you work at Room In The Inn, folding laundry is encouraged, but I've been told before that you don't have to do it. Most employees do it anyway. It goes a long way, even when participants don't want their clothes folded (which is rare). There have been a few times when people receive their clean laundry and they are shocked about the folded laundry. I've seen people blush over it. No exaggeration.

"You folded it for me?"

Heck yeah, we did! We try to keep your shirts wrinkle-free for your benefit because we love you!

Room In The Inn receives mail for 1,000+ people.

Thing #4: Double-Checking Mail

There are many times a participant will ask me to double check for their mail even though I just looked through the pile and didn't see their name. I can be 100% sure that this person's mail has not yet arrived, but I will look through the pile again anyway.

A participant can be looking for something very important: a paycheck, a social security card, a birth certificate, an ID, a food stamp card, etc. These things are essential for finding housing, jobs, food, etc. If I can ease intensity and anxiety by looking for a person's mail again, then I will. It never hurts to check twice, and even if it still isn't there the second time, the participant knows these things:
I looked for it again (even if there is a long line behind them)
I care enough to look again
I want them to receive their important mail
I am on their side
To put it simply, they appreciate it, and they remember it.

Thing #5: Empower & Encourage

A former coworker at Room In The Inn gave me some of the excellent advice I will never forget:

"Do not do for others what they can do for themselves."

Obviously, this does not mean something like "Do not hold the door open for a man in a wheelchair just because he can do it himself." It means there are things participants can do themselves that they will ask staff to do for them. But if the participants do these things, they will feel empowered that they did it themselves.

"Please go get me some cough drops," Zoolu says to me as I was walk by. He is sitting in a chair where he is a few feet from the support desk. He can easily go to the support desk and ask the staff behind the desk for some cough drops himself.

"You got legs, Zoolu!" I joke back in a serious tone as I walk away, leaving him to get his own cough drops.

It is the small things.

"I'll help you with the application, but you have to fill it out yourself."

Sometimes it is encouragement.

"Hey! You're just sitting right now. Why don't you go take a class so you can get points for that laundry voucher you said you wanted earlier?"

"You don't have to wait until tomorrow. Job Search is still open for another half hour. You should go give it a try. They'll walk you through whatever pace you need."

"Okay, so they didn't hire you, but at least you did the best you could at the interview! It's not like you're just sitting around wasting time. You are actively looking for housing and a job. You're doing great. Keep going. Something is bound to turn up."

Being homeless can be a hard cycle to break. Encouragement and empowerment can remind participants that it is not impossible to break.

Jesse, who works in our education department, is an encouraging fellow.
Thing #6: An Inside Joke

Naturally, humor is an important element when working with the homeless. The environment can become heavy and/or gloomy otherwise. Take it a step further and build a small, lighthearted joke between you and an individual or small group of participants. That way you have an inside joke.

I have one inside joke where a participant is a king, so I play the "trumpet" for him whenever he approaches me. Another participant, who is Spanish speaking, often says something lighthearted to tease to me, at which I will shake my head at him because I have no idea what he is saying. Another participant jokes that I steal his things. One participant calls me "mailman."

So on and so forth. It always gives us something to laugh about.

Thing #7: Dancing

I have moves that just won't quit, and it always gives the participants something to cheer about.*

*or, more commonly, something to complain about.

The view from Room In The Inn

Thing #8: Listening

Stupid jokes. Sad tales. Complaints. Personal history. Important life lessons. God moments. Failed relationships. The past. The future. Goals. Hopes. Grief. Appreciation.

These are all things that are communicated by a participant in their body language or in conversation. Sometimes directly, sometimes paraphrased. Most times, all they want is to be heard.

Thing #9: Remembering

Remember what you listened to.

If you remember a participant saying they had a death in the family, ask them how they are doing or find a way to show them love.

If you remember that a participant needs gloves, tell them where there are gloves.

Remember participants that have passed and honor them.

The list goes on.