The Intrepid Social Worker

by Suzanne Bracken, LiveWire Collective Member

Looking at the character of Patricia, the intrepid social worker determined to help others in their hour of need, it was a bit of a challenge to try and make her ‘real’, at first. With the help of Jim LoBianco, Deputy Commissioner of the Office of Homeless Services here in Chicago, a better picture of the person behind the helping smile has begun to take shape.

In talking with Jim, I learned about the challenges these good-hearted people face in reaching out to the homeless. Their joys, frustrations, the level of creativity needed to find a solution that works for each individual. One thing he pointed out to me that I had not really considered before, homelessness is a very individualized problem. No two people are the same when it comes to how they became and why they are homeless. Hearing this changed my perception of the homeless; from a group with common characteristics to a population of individuals with circumstances different from own.

Like many others, I used to believe that homeless persons found themselves without housing because of poor personal choices or mental illness. While addiction does play a major role in a large number of cases, it is not solely responsible for keeping people on the streets. Pride can also keep a person from seeking assistance that is readily available. For some, incurring a debt to others, even simply a debt of gratitude, is too high a price to pay.

As with other human service-based professions, there is a high level of burnout and turnover due to low pay and frustration with the job, generated by trying to help people who resist what is offered.

I find it hard to fathom why someone would choose a life of homelessness over the assistance of strangers. Of course I’m thinking from my viewpoint, with a roof over my head, warm clothes on my back and ample food available, why would anyone resist assistance? Even if the assistance comes with strings attached, like sobriety requirements, rules and restrictions, it is still better than living on the streets, right? It makes me wonder if the freedom allotted from not being beholden to anyone (no rent, no bills, no rules or responsibilities) tastes sweet enough to balance out the bitterness of living outside in an unforgiving world. I truly can’t imagine it.

Neither can Patricia, and she is on the verge of burning out because of it.