Seeing What Matters

Submitted by MarkHolmgren on May 23, 2015 - 10:20am

Jim is in his 50s and had been homeless on and off for much of his adult life. He was known by many on the street and in our drop-in centre. Our housing first workers began talking to him about getting his own place and he was, to say the least, excited about that. It took a while but it happened and one day our staff person – let’s call him Jack – took Jim to his new place, handed him the keys. Jim said to Jack, “I can’t remember a time when I had keys.”

We helped him get a bed, basic furniture, and kitchen and household items. As was our practice we located housing for Jim outside of the inner city where all the drugs and booze and other bad influences had plagued his life for so long. Jim wanted out of the life, although it was not clear what new life looked like to him.

Jim seemed to be settling in. Jack visited him weekly if not more often and felt that Jim was doing fine, not drinking or at least drinking a lot less. His place was no more untidy than Jack’s place was, so that was good, too; it meant no issues with the landlord.

As is our custom when a housed client is doing well, our workers focus more attention on helping those without housing or who are struggling in their new abode. Jim seemed fine, so Jack’s visits became less often. He called Jim once in a while in between.

About two months later, Jack received a call from the landlord. Jim had thrown his toaster and a couple of plates out the window. Jim was on the third floor so the objects made a bit of a mess when they landed. Jack visited Jim the same day.

Jim had been drinking but wasn’t drunk. He greeted Jack warmly, offered him a coffee and they sat down together at the kitchen table.

“You here about the toaster, right?”

“Yes, and about the plates.”

“Yeh, right. They broke up something bad.”

“You know,” Jack said. “The landlord’s not happy.”

Jim chuckled. “He never is, you know.”

Jack said. “Jim, you can’t throw toasters and plates out the window. They make a mess and people could get hurt.”

“Yeh,” Jim said. I did look before I threw them though.”

“You’ll get evicted, Jim, and then we will have to start all over while you sleep in the shelter.”

“I won’t go to a shelter,” Jim said. “But you are right, I could end up on the street.”

“So we’re good?”

“Yes,” Jim said.

Jack spent a bit more time with Jim and then he left for other appointments. That afternoon he wrote in Jim’s file about what had happened and how it had been resolved with Jim.

But as you might anticipate… Jack got another call from the landlord a week later or so. This time Jim had thrown a sofa cushion, towels and a pillow out the window.

When Jack arrived, Jim said, “I threw soft stuff out the window so no one would get hurt.

Jack and Jim had a similar conversation as last time about how doing such things would get him evicted and back on the street. This time Jack also had to go meet with the landlord and soothe things over with him.

Jack left thinking this time things were good… but they weren’t.

It wasn’t until the fourth time Jim threw things out the window that Jack discovered what was going on.

In all the previous conversations, Jack had tried to explain what the consequences of his actions will be if he doesn’t change his behaviour. After all, Jack didn’t want Jim to lose his place, which Jim consistently said he loved.

But it wasn’t until the fourth time, with the landlord about to provide an eviction notice, that Jack finally asked Jim, “Why… why do you throw things out the window, Jim?”

Jim didn’t have to ponder the question. He just let go a small smile and said, “I miss everybody, Jack. I know the folks on 96th Street aren’t good for me but they were my friends.”

Jack said, “I see,” but waited for more.

Jim took a sip of coffee and said. “Thing is, Jack, I am awful lonely and well, when I throw things out the window you show up and I don’t feel so lonely.”

That night Jack wrote in Jim’s file about the day’s events and his plans to help Jim get out more and hopefully make some new friends. Then he wrote me an email telling me about what happened and wondering if maybe Housing First wasn’t always the first thing a homeless person needed. Maybe, Jack wrote, “we need a program that is all about “Community First.”

I think Jack may be on to something there, don’t you?

Mark's blog is at http://www.markholmgren.com

Bissell Centre is at http://www.bissellcentre.org

Follow Mark @mjholmgren

Comments:
Thank you

Hi Mark, While this is the shortest of your blogs, this is one that has dug deep with me. While I worked in youth work and crisis intervention, I struggled with my idea of our work being done and the social workers' ideas of when it was done. Many individuals were left to fend for themselves without having the necessary supports in place and I was not allowed to communicate with them even on my own time. System breakdowns like this are damaging for everyone involved. I'm thankful to hear that your organization has the ability to stay engaged and this seems like a great volunteer engagement opportunity for a friendly visitor. Cheers, Zoe