Taking Stock of a Fast, On-the-Job Education

The last year has presented an incredibly steep learning curve.  I wrote the following for my own use, to take stock as I transitioned into my current role as a program manager.  Most of the ideas here I have gleaned from conversations in the field regarding harm reduction, person-centered planning, motivational interviewing, and the humanistic tradition within social services.  My main contribution is to frame and contextualize these ideas in a way that makes sense to me, and it nicely (if abstractly) summarizes my experience working at a small, grassroots homelessness agency.

We provide Housing Support Services to individuals with needs so acute they qualify for subsidized, permanent, supportive housing.  “Case Manager” is a misleading shorthand that – because it already has currency – helps us signal to other agencies and authorities what we are trying to do with the person we are serving.  Sometimes the title can buy us some access, so it can be prudent to use it.  But it is important for us to remember that we do not “manage cases.”

 Similarly, “client” is a misleading shorthand we use when interacting with other systems and agencies.  In our agency’s early days as emergency shelter, Emmet Jarret taught that we provide hospitality to guests, not clients.  As workers on the Housing Support Team, we work with people in the community or transitioning out of the shelter, and we are more often their guests than they ours.  So we talk about tenants in supportive housing, or participants in one or more of our programs.

We embrace the “housing first” model because it is just and because it works.  People have a right to housing without preconditions.  Moreover, it is very hard to predict who will succeed in housing, while it is demonstrably true that being homeless makes everything – from sobriety to employment – much harder.  Housing first puts our priorities in the correct order and gives those we serve the most important tool for their recovery journey (recovery of sobriety, wellness, confidence, functioning, hope – whatever was lost).  Every service we offer is voluntary and decoupled from housing as far as possible.

Those we serve have been dispossessed.  Homelessness is one way of being dispossessed, though the losses run deeper and broader than homelessness alone.  They include trauma, poverty, radical uncertainty, hopelessness, grief upon grief upon grief.  Who could possibly be at their best under such conditions?  Who could make choices at all, much less good or informed choices?

And yet: those we serve have many skills and strengths, which they use for better and worse.

We focus on skills and strengths rather than problems because the people we serve already know they have problems.  They need no reminder on that front.  But they may not have heard in a while that they have skills and strengths.  Or maybe they have some skills they think of as faults (authority figures often cast skills as faults, as unruliness, manipulation, and non-compliance), and other skills they could improve through practice.  Our perspective as staff may allow us to mark and highlight unknown or unrecognized skills and strengths.

Typically, dispossessed persons experience disaster and harsh judgment no matter what their intentions.  Praise and congratulation are rare.  The doctor doesn’t say, “nice job cutting back from a pack a day to just eight cigarettes.”  He says, “jeez, can’t I get you to quit smoking?”  The judge does not say, “I am glad you refrained from hitting that man and chose instead to threaten him verbally.”  Social workers don’t say, “wow, you really hustled until I provided the service or referral you required.”  But it is vital that we identify such choices as praiseworthy because it is hard to distinguish better from worse choices when consequences are massively disproportionate to actions, as they always are for the dispossessed.  So we identify and support less harmful choices whenever possible.  In the field, this approach is called “harm reduction,” and it is sometimes phrased this way: celebrate any positive change.

 We have no special expertise about people’s lives.  We have some knowledge about systems, processes, laws, and resources.  But we are not experts about the lives of those we serve, however long we have known them or however we might start to think we know their “type.”  Everyone is the expert about her own life.  When we forget that, our service is compromised.

At the same time, many people have learned too well to get ahead by deferring to experts.  It can be confusing – even terrifying – to hear from a service provider, “you are the expert.  You choose your own goals.”  We should expect a range of reactions from people when we recognize their power over their own lives.  Like everything else, self-advocacy is a skill that will take practice.

 Our particular skill as non-clinical social workers (or as peer support providers) is our willingness to spend significant periods of time alongside people who face enormous challenges meeting their basic needs.  We ourselves do not diagnose, treat, fix, or control.  We witness the experience of extreme distress, and we refer those we serve to opportunities to get some traction on the sources of that distress.  That is the core of our work.

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Following Vocation Beyond Career

I now work for the New London Homeless Hospitality Center (NLHHC).  It’s a wonderful job.  Though it’s taken me away from teaching and research – two of my many loves – it has facilitated other pursuits I love: deep listening, radical hospitality, judgment under pressure, cross-difference conversation, and the re-weaving of ruptured community.

Here’s how it happened:

– The academic job market (like the rest of the job market) is terrible, and I don’t want to uproot or split my household in search of apocryphal greener pastures.

– I love New London, our new friends, and the religious home my family has found here.  Our congregation – All Souls New London – has been a key support to NLHHC since its inception.

– I started volunteering at NLHHC, and I was quickly impressed.  It possesses many of the traits I argued for in my dissertation.  It resembles other efforts I’ve joined or supported in the past.

– NLHHC liked me, too.  They offered me a job.

– Just before the job offer I became a regular visitor at the St. Francis House here in town.  St. Francis house is an intentional community that’s part Franciscan monastery (Anglican communion), part Catholic Worker house, and part peace movement.

– I learned that NLHHC was essentially founded by the St. Francis House.  I like organizations that grow out of and beyond pacifist roots.  I look for the peaceable kingdom.

– I took a long, hard look at my calling in life.  Being in community with persons and groups whose judgment I trust helped me trust my own.  So I threw my lot in with NLHHC and the population it serves.

There’s more to the story, but insofar as I can narrate it in terms of a career path, that’s about it.

But also: I remembered that I have never chosen conventional paths.

Also: I realized that scarce few of my intellectual heroes were academics.

Also: I have no idea how or where this adventure will end, and that feels right in a way that little has felt for a long time.

So now I work for homeless individuals with complex health care needs.  I work to put them into housing.  I follow up with intensive case management to keep them in housing.  I work with them to make and keep doctor’s appointments, to pursue substance abuse rehabilitation, to address mental and behavioral health.  Along the way, I give attention, I show respect, and I learn.

I was briefly concerned that my bookish training was poor preparation for this work, but my boss says we’re an organization characterized by “qualifications not credentials.”  And when I look back at my total education, not just the part that led to the degree, I see that I am qualified.  Above all I am well trained to learn, and there’s much to learn about how the other half lives – even more to learn about how to live with them.

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The Art of the Possible

More on truisms and pat phrases…

“Politics is the art of the possible,”  from Bismarck, seems to mean nearly the opposite of what it’s typically taken to mean. 

First, because Bismarck elsewhere opposes “art” to science “as the professors assume.”  In other words, the art of the possible is grounded not in demonstrably empirical truths but in long practice and the development of capacities for judgment.  Intuition plays a large role, of necessity.

Second, because “possible” is quite an expansive category.  Those who cite this quote to justify conservative or incremental approaches actually mean something like “politics is the science of the probable” or “the likely” or “the currently feasible.”  But an “art” of the “possible” allows for big gambles, even for reconfiguring or reimagining current estimations of the possible.  It allows for an art of making possible what was until recently, until today, beyond imagination.

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All My Friends are Losing Their Jobs

In the last two months, four of my friends who live in New London have confronted imminent job loss.

Two were working for local Patch sites before owner AOL decided to shutter all but the most profitable locations.  Dirk and Paul were essentially one-man newspapers in their respective beats, responsible for on-the-scene reporting, editing, photography, website maintenance, moderation of comments and blogs.  They had no offices and no staff, but if you wanted to know what was happening in New London, you asked Dirk: where are those sirens headed?  What’s all the flap about last night’s city council really mean?  Why are they tearing up that stretch of road they just paved?  Dirk would be following the sirens or fresh back from the City Council meeting with the answer.  But in this economically depressed area his site couldn’t sell enough advertising space so – chop! – no job for Dirk, no more of his journalistic integrity for New London.

He’ll probably leave journalism, which is caught in a well-diagnosed but so far un-stoppable crisis around the expense of journalism and general disinterest in paying for it.  Paul meanwhile was just offered a job that involved getting others to produce content for free.  Well aware that doing more work for less remuneration hampers real journalism, he turned down the offer.

Two other friends are almost certain to lose their positions as custodial workers at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital, a not-for-profit that has decided to cut costs by circumventing its unions and contracting out for janitorial and food service.  (I saw how this out-of-sight strategy went down at Duke University: unsafe conditions in off-site laundries, undocumented and therefore unprotected workers doing landscaping and construction, a campaign to divest the school from polluter-and-exploiter-extraordinaire Smithfield Foods).

Mark is lucky (I guess): he’s just barely of retirement age and single with no kids.  He’ll retire early to his trailer in the woods in Massachusetts and hunt mushrooms and deer.  Travis is lucky too, after a fashion.  Though he’s a custodial worker and shop steward of his union by day, he’s also an artist in residence at the Hygienic Art gallery downtown.  He’s their first local boy, a self-taught artist with deep roots here in town.  But now he’s looking to relocate.  His art sells better in Boston and New Haven, and he’s about to lose his day job in New London.  There’s nothing to keep him here.

(I’m out of work too, but as self-employed contractor and punk-rocker Big Tim just put it when I told him what I was writing: “and here we have an unemployed philosopher!  Who knew?”)

These guys are diligent and creative.  They’ll be alright.  I’m more worried about this region and its perennially abortive efforts to revitalize.  Peter Buffett’s recent observations about charity seem relevant to our predicament:

“Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left.”

I’d wager that our community leaders don’t think of L+M’s custodial staff as part of the creative class they’re trying to draw and keep here, but I know at least one of them is.  When Travis’s work hangs on the wall at the gallery downtown, for the enjoyment and edification of the moneyed and the misfits alike, I notice his draftsman’s attention married to the custodian’s eye for textures of floors.  Mark is there, wine and cheese in hand and marveling over his co-worker’s creative labors.  Next year, when the city’s entrepreneurs and punks mingle strangely within the gallery’s walls, the janitor-artist and janitor-audience won’t be there.  Who else will be missing, and how will we fare without them?

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Missing Words

If you know me, you know I am a devotee of Simone Weil.

Here’s how Weil thought war interacts with language (from “The Power of Words”):

“In every sphere, we seem to have lost the very elements of intelligence: the ideas of limit, measure, degree, proportion, relation, comparison, contingency, interdependence, interrelation of means and ends … our political universe is peopled exclusively by myths and monsters; all it contains is absolutes and abstract entities … nation, security, capitalism, communism, fascism, order, authority, property, democracy.”

She goes on to analyze how each of these terms, when “capitalized,” can “prevent us from seeing that there is a problem to be solved, instead of a fatality to be endured.”

But I have become more interested in the powerless words, the ones whose loss Weil names and mourns.  It is the lack of words like “limit, measure, degree” and phrases like “insofar as” or “to the extent that” that accomplishes the capitalization of empty abstractions.  It is difficult if not impossible to talk about democracy to people who identify it as an inherent or essential rather than contingent or proportionately limited property of their home territory or in-group.  It is just as hard to speak intelligently about defense when your hawkish interlocutors have the ready riposte: “yes, but the best defense is a good offense” (as Weil has it, “that the only defense is attack”).

“Defense” and “security” are so lost to Weil that she can only describe them as “an imaginary state of affairs in which one would retain the capacity to make war while depriving all other coutries of it.”  When defense is equated with attack, we rob ourselves of alternatives in action.  Consider the meaning of “stand your ground,” how it dismisses the options of de-escalation: avoidance, retreat, deception, even humor or – dare I say it? – temporary, strategic compliance.  Witness the recent “Do something!  Anything!” (but not really anything – anything violent) imperatives with respect to Syria, and the fact that only the chance conjunction of diplomatic slip-ups and opportunistic machinations among strongmen has permitted discovery of an alternative to blowing shit up.

I’ve been looking for examples of this phenomenon in arenas other than International Relations.  Back when I was pious, I once sat through a service in which the preacher went point-by-point through the Sermon on the Mount and told us why each one of the virtues it describes – peacemaking, meekness, poorness of spirit – boils down to “being a witness and getting folks saved.”   The normal meanings of the words “peace” and “meek” clearly meant nothing to him, and he was intent on teaching his congregation that they meant something (one thing) else.  The original sermonizer had unnecessarily complicated things, it seems.  That guy should have just told us all to go out and knock on doors.

More recently, I’ve begun to see the effect at work in our loss of a concept of the public.  It isn’t quite a pat truism yet, but somewhere between trickle-down economics and Richard Florida we have become convinced that private and public interest are identical, or that public interest reduces to aggregated, averaged, and variously weighted sums of private interest, or – in its strongest form – that the private interest of the wealthy in particular is either by definition or functionally the same thing as the interest of the public at large.  Hence, widespread fear at local, state, and national levels that corporations will abandon us if we don’t acquiesce to their every demand, abusive lovers that they are.

Watch for new truisms: “yes, but the securest public interest is a strong private faction.”

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Tom Bombadil is Dying

I wrote this piece some months ago as an exercise for myself.  The real Tom died recently, and I feel compelled to speak to the loss in my own fashion.

Tom Bombadil is dying.  His beard thins and his eyes dim.  He can barely lift his yellow-booted feet from the floor.  His booming singing voice has shrunk to a barely audible whisper.  He can’t even be bothered to replace the feather in his wide-brimmed, high-crowned felt hat.

When I first met Tom, outside the coffee shop downtown, I did not know that he was Bombadil.  He did not exactly fit Professor Tolkien’s description, having traded his blue coat and yellow boots for a tie-dyed t-shirt and worn pair of Birkenstocks.  In place of Goldberry, the river daughter, he kept company with musicians and day laborers and hipster house-painters.  In place of the fat ponies, he was surrounded by massive, gentle German shepherds that wandered off-leash but responded quickly to his commands.

My own dog, a shy greyhound, did not appreciate Tom’s loud and energetic greetings.  “Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol! My darling!  I know I that I should give her space, but I would pet her noggin!”  My dog retreated behind my legs – her usual strategy – and I rolled my eyes.  “Just let her be,” I said.  “If you shake my hand and talk with me for awhile, she’ll warm to you.”  “Hi ho derry doll, ring a ding a dillo,” said Tom, planting his large hand onto my dog’s small head as she trembled beneath it.

My dog and I got to know Tom better over the next year.  Ours is a U.S. navy town, and Tom bears the marks of his environment.  He is a submarine veteran, a machinist, a handyman, an old hippie, a Buddhist, and a practical radical.  He does business in cash to avoid supporting the banks: “they get enough from the government already.”  He scavenges and repairs old cell phones and laptops to give to the city’s many homeless: “it’s an easy fix and it costs me just a little.”  He gardens at home and tends an incredible variety of plants all around the city’s gardens, parks, and businesses.

It was the plants that first clued me in to his true identity.  I was at the coffee shop writing my dissertation.  Tom walked up and looked over my head at a tall, gnarled, potted plant in the window behind me.  “This one’s about ready to drop its seeds,” he said, and he walked off.  Seconds later, I heard a *pop* and was showered with seeds and botanical dust.  I glanced up at Tom across the room, and I took in his full white beard, red nose, and wide-brimmed, high-crowned felt hat with a jaunty feather sticking out of it.  “Tom Bombadil,” I breathed.

Tom tells a story about the time a young tree on his block got out of line and started beating its wife, right in the street, in full view of the whole neighborhood.  Tom went and got his shovel, stood behind the tree, told it he would drive the shovel straight into its taproot if it didn’t stop.  When the cops arrived and found Tom brandishing his shovel, they took his statement and let him go.  They carted the young tree off for processing.  In years past, Tom might have sung to the tree and coaxed it gently from violence.  Now, in the disenchanted world, he uses tools.

Tom won’t admit that he’s Bombadil.  He claims not to know who that is.  I ask him, “it’s said that you were ‘eldest,’ but Treebeard makes a similar claim.  Are you one of the Ainur, the elder spirits?  Or are you an embodiment of Middle-Earth itself, the spirit of Ea?  Or might you be a representation of Tolkien, the author himself, strolling through the world he has created?”  Tom has no idea what I’m talking about.  He is a warrior, not a creator, he tells me.  He is currently at war with his cancer (that’s a stereotype I avoid, but Tom has adopted the warrior ethic in every aspect of his life, and did so before the cancer).

Over the last year, since I first met him, Tom’s poetic proclamations have reduced in scope to updates on the course of his treatment.  “Hi-ho merry doll, Prednizone’s a doozy.  Makes Tom a grumpy man, sends him off his rocker.”  When I saw him this week, he could barely manage a poetic cadence.  He plopped down next to me at the coffee bar and rasped,  “Ding Dong doctor, care to hear about my hemoglobin?”  He spoke an octave higher than usual.  He laughed high in his chest, and short.

It is clear to me now that of all Middle-Earth’s denizens, Tom Bombadil never took the ship into the West.  He stayed here, became a submariner, and made his way through a world of metal and wheels and treasonous, poisonous designs.  When Tom dies, the earth’s enclosure – its conversion from flat and boundless to round and self-referential – will come that much closer to completion.

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Perishable Monuments

… the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours, since we have not left our power without witness, but have shown it by mighty proofs; and far from needing a Homer for our panegyrist, or other of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression which they gave to melt at the touch of fact, we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us.
       “Pericles’ Funeral Oration,” in Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War

New London, Connecticut, where I live, is very different from the Athens Pericles urged his fellows to love.  In terms of Homeric panegyric, we are more like Troy.  Our monuments are not “mighty proofs” of imperial dominance so much as traces of tenacious resistance to forces beyond the citizens’ control.  Those forces usually win.

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The Kelo house is one such monument.  This “little pink house” represented local resistance to abuse of eminent domain by the New London Development Corporation.  Famously, Kelo and her neighbors (and no doubt some slumlords in that mix) lost that fight.  A benefactor relocated the house and put up a small stone marker.

Meanwhile, the spectacular failure of the NLDC to fulfill its promises has left a very different kind of memorial: the monumental absence of empty lot after empty lot in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood where the pink house once stood.

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Poor zoning can kill a neighborhood as readily as eminent domain.  This summer I’m moving from a neighborhood increasingly checkered by warehouses and storage facilities to a short, residential street divided by an oblong strip of park.  The park has a small, stone memorial much like the one in front of the Kelo home.  It is dedicated to the man who led the defense of the neighborhood from a dire threat: encroaching doctors’ offices that radiate north and south from the nearby hospital.

This neighborhood’s survival, celebrated in a yearly block party, is a hopeful contrast to the fate of the Fort Trumbull neighborhood and the impending doom of the street I’m leaving behind.  But it’s a victory story with the familiar limitations of NIMBY activism.  The neighborhood that saved itself has, predictably, more “pull” than the one I’m leaving behind.  Nicer homes.  More influential residents.  Mobilizing such resistance across enclaves is a much bigger challenge.

Consider last year’s minor tussle over the Columbus statue on Bank Street.  It was erected in the 1950s by Italian-Americans eager to relate their home country to the U.S. patriotic narrative.  But last Columbus Day, local activists decorated the statue with cardboard signs decrying the genocide of native Americans.  There’s even a facebook group calling for the statue’s removal.


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In historical terms, the critics are right about Columbus.  But I’m interested in the context of New London, where the (very low-key) debate over the statue tracks right onto a salient cleavage in city politics: old immigrant Greek- and Italian-American communities vs. a burgeoning class of mostly younger artists, hipsters, and owners of newer small businesses.  Meanwhile, the WASPy statue of John Winthrop, Jr. (son of the more famous Winthrop) stands unmolested uptown, despite his receipt of lands conquered from the Pequot.  I’m not saying the Colombus statue’s okay, but the small protest, such as it was, was more knee-jerk than informed, more likely to foment local tensions than to accomplish a real rapprochement among divided communities in the region.

My favorite public artwork in town is a mural that both demonstrates and cuts across this clannishness.  Painted on the side of a laundromat, it depicts what looks like Oprah(?) and J-Lo(?) doing the washing together with an old fashioned laundry tub in the foreground and some local historic houses in the back.  It’s cheesy, no question, and it trades heavily in celebrity (that is, if I’m right about the figures), but my wife (an art historian) and I – with the help of an observant student or two – have found more here than meets the eye.

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Cell phone photo taken from my car, a laziness that nonetheless represents the image as I see it almost every day.

The mural sits on a street where Black and Latino neighborhoods meet and intertwine.  The historic buildings depicted in the background are the Hempsted Houses, which sit just down the road in the same neighborhood.  Joshua Hemsted was a prominent, white, local resident in the 17th and 18th centuries, and his diary refers to at least one transaction in the slave trade.  His descendants in the 19th century included abolitionists who protested their church’s teaching on slavery and admitted black students to the school they ran in the home.  

J-Lo washes the American flag, a violation of protocol that recalls the Peruvian protest tradition of lava la bandera, a rough equivalent of flag-burning that symbolically calls on the nation to cleanse itself of its sins.   Oprah is holding a pan-African or Black Liberation Flag, apparently also freshly washed.  I learned from art historian Joan del Plato that the painting’s composition recalls Harlem-based artist Jacob Lawrence’s paintings of Harriet Tubman and black washer women (no 28 in the Tubman series is uncannily similar.  Unfortunately, I can’t find a digital version.  You’ll have to take my word for it).  Around the corner, (not pictured) an anonymous woman with her back to the viewer hangs the flags of Caribbean nations to dry against a semi-fictional portrayal of New London’s coastline: the lighthouse is recognizable, but the wealthy homes and private beaches are replaced by open stretches of publicly-accessible sand.

Unlike the Columbus or Winthrop monuments, which memorialize discovery and founding without acknowledging violence and conquest, the Truman Street Laundry mural invokes cross-ethnic peace by highlighting struggles against injustice.  It remembers losses and defeats as well as positive but always inadequate efforts to redress and reconcile.  It imagines a city where the historic houses are not fenced in and the coastline is not parceled into myriad private beaches that say “no trespassing.”

What is it about these memorials I find so compelling?  This is a small, struggling, vulnerable city.  It has little need for “imperishable monuments” like those Pericles thinks obviate Homeric poetry.  My favorite New London memorials are decidedly un-monumental.  They may be carved from stone or painted indelibly on the wall, but they suggest fragility rather than strength.  In a city-not-empire, subject to exploitation by external forces from eminent domain abuse to absentee landlords from New York City and neighboring townships, Pericles has little to offer.  When political life is more defensive than daring, when the people must work together against those who would simply force new highways and sea lanes, we stand in need of Homer and the “others of his craft” who far from mere charmers are the bearers of a less selective historical memory.

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