She found one.

The day started with a light drizzle of rain and progressed into a full-on deluge by the time I arrived at my first appointment of the day.  A streak of yellow lightening split the sky in front of me as I popped my umbrella into shape.  Fortunately, when it rains like the world is coming to a certain end, the punks of the street take cover.  Plus, it was too early in the day for most of them to be up.

So I sloshed happily down the cracked sidewalk into the front yard of my client’s ramshackle house, unmolested by the usual people of the street.

My client sat at the table picking at a microwaveable meal of gelatinous meat with a side of green mush that was representative of vegetables.

We went through the usual list of questions and finished pretty quickly.  As I stashed the paperwork into my bag, I asked, “Anything else going on?”

She slyly looked at me and confirmed that my pen and paperwork were safely tucked away.

“Don’t write this down, but the prostitutes have taken over this block.”

I egged her on, “Oh yeah?”

Nodding with a grim expression, she said, “I don’t even go out to my back porch anymore.  I’m afraid of what I’ll see now that it’s covered with condoms.”

She was stone-cold serious while I tried to figure out if this was a dementia thing or a little joke to get a reaction from me.

Not waiting for my comment, she continued, “In fact, my granddaughter took the trash out there last week and found one.”

I asked, “A condom?”

Disgusted that I wasn’t following the story, she shook her head, “No, a prostitute.”

“My granddaughter screamed at her because she’s got a real nasty attitude, she always has. I heard her in here and thought something happened.  She came back in here and told me, the prostitutes thought this was an empty house.”

“But your lights are always on and the grass is mowed and your front door is open and…” I tried to make sense of how the prostitutes could have made this mistake.

“Don’t worry.  My granddaughter set them straight, but I’m still not going out there.”

She shrugged her shoulders and returned to her meal, now cold, and started picking at it again.

“That’s just how it is,” she said, as though to comfort me.

I left certain that it might be that way today, but it doesn’t have to be that way tomorrow.   Yet, I was uncertain as to what should change: the neighborhood, her living situation, or my attitude towards the whole thing.

Bad Social Work

What is good social work?

Let me start by explaining what is NOT good social work.

Good social work is not finding problems and reporting the information back to an insurance company for research purposes. It’s not giving people resources that are tapped out or difficult to access. It’s not black and white with clear solutions and easy answers. Most of all, good social work is not business, it’s life.

Clients are real people with real problems that were there before the involvement of a social worker and likely will still exist long afterwards . The problems associated with poverty may appear to be easy to overcome on paper. They can be next to impossible to overcome in the real world, where the rubber meets the road, so to say.

Take for example a family who has no income and are living exclusively on food bought with SNAP (food stamps) or obtained from food pantries and soup kitchens. The kids in this fictional family get targeted at school for whatever reason and a referral is made to a social worker to get some eyes on the situation. The obvious solution for the adult(s) of the family is… do I even need to write it? Get a job, right?

Not so fast. What if there is only one parent involved and she doesn’t have her GED? She doesn’t have transportation to get to the library to finish the courses or the money to pay for the test. She doesn’t have any marketable skills or she has a disability. She doesn’t have the confidence required to apply because she’s never had a job or known anyone to hold one for an extended amount of time. There are a million reasons for her to get a job and a million and one barriers to her doing so.

It would be easy to refer this woman to a job search assistance program or GED classes to take at home and call it a day. Check the box that the assessment was completed, referrals given, and follow up with be done in a week or two. Realistically, what would happen? Maybe she would follow up on one of the referrals, find that it was a dead end, and continue trying to survive with her children in a mean world.

What is really needed to stop the cycle of poverty, to end the violence, struggles with addiction, and sense of hopelessness that keep people trapped and spinning in place?

I clearly don’t have any of the answers. I don’t even know what is good social work compared with successful meddling and good report writing. What I do know is that the problems of the poor don’t need more bad social work.

I’ll figure the rest out from there.

Cookie Quarrel of July

There’s a story that I want to share- but it isn’t mine to tell.

It’s about the most raucous fight between two demented residents of a nursing home over a box of cookies.
I want to go into the gory details of the residents springing up out of their wheelchairs to attack one another, much to the surprise of their aides.
Its killing me not to be able to describe the fight scene in which the normally sterile and lame setting of a nursing home transformed into a place much like the Wild West, sub out the tumble weeds for catheter bags and fast women in bodices for aides in scrubs and crocs.
Each resident was out for himself in the great cookie quarrel of July.
The story even has a tragic ending with the eviction of two residents to the unfriendly streets of the city.

Perhaps the worst part about not being able to share this story is that no one will ever learn what became of the box of gourmet cookies.

On Love

Dear Readers,

Today I have a gift for you from one of my clients. 

It’s not much, just a little piece of relationship advice.

 

When you start sticking and stabbing your partner

and you know the day is coming

when you’re going to cut him too deep and he won’t stop bleeding

then it’s time to go.

 

She was married for 54 good years.

The secret?

They lived in different states.

 

Her separated husband told her one day that he had a dream.

The Lord came to him and said, “Hang on, Georgie, she’s gonna come back to you.”

She laughed and said, “That’s funny, ‘cuz I’ve been praying to the same Lord to never see you again.”

 

He passed away a few years ago on July 15. Lord rest his soul. 

 

As I opened the door to leave, a tiny cross-eyed man arrived at the door.  He peeked over my shoulder from the doorway.  The woman spotted him and yelled out, “Oooh-wee, you ain’t brought nothing for me to eat, but get in here anyways.” 

He shuffled in past me and jumped into her outstretched arms. 

I left with the woman’s sage advice and knowing that In the end, love prevails or something close enough to it. 

Tuesday’s Preface

I would feel less guilty as a fly on the wall.

The woman stared straight ahead at a blank computer screen.  Thin, brown hair fell against the cheeks of her very pale face.  The phone rang again.  She heard it through the thick haze that spread over her brain and filled her delicate ears.  She moaned in anguish and envisioned herself flitting out the window carried by a tiny pair of buzzing wings, able to see everything without the responsibility of knowing.

Why this guilt? You didn’t do anything, the woman berated herself. 

A tinny voice that may have been her conscious reminded her, it’s exactly because you didn’t do anything.  You should feel bad. 

Oh shut up, she told the tinny voice.  You are exactly what I don’t need.

The internal monologue may have continued for an indefinite time if it wasn’t suddenly interrupted and the woman was saved from herself.    

“Kel, I overheard you on the phone,” her red-haired co-worker, Samantha, said without apologizing for eavesdropping.  She rolled into the shared hallway, barefoot, like usual.  Her palms and fingertips pressed together as though in prayer, she was about to launch into amateur therapy mode.  The first woman had been subjected to this in the past.

 “You must tell yourself that it’s not your fault.  You couldn’t have done anything to change what happened.” 

“Thanks,” the first woman said, “that helps.”

“Well if you don’t want my help, why don’t you just say?” the red-head declared indignantly and rolled back into her work space.

Inside, the first woman cringed, she knew things could have been different if she hadn’t been too busy to follow up or make the right reports, if she hasn’t been so behind in her work or burned out, this never would have happened.  She felt certain that everything could have been avoided if she just tried a little harder.

She glanced at her watch and it was later than she expected.  

I will deal with this tomorrow, she decided.  She stood to leave the office, uncertain that she would return in the morning.  On second thought, she turned back and grabbed a picture from her wedding and a mug with the presidents’ faces on it. 

“Just in case,” she muttered and left.  

The Smile of a Fat Baby

The sun over Indiana was bright and hot today.  It would have felt great if I was next to a pool with a Corona in my hand. This, however, was not the case.  I spent the day driving between home visits and made a special discovery about my car’s A/C. 

It is no longer the ice-making machine that it once was in days gone past.   

My last stop of the day brought me to check-in on a sick little guy.  I arrived with drops of sweat sliding down my back and my face was in a full state of glisten.  The little guy’s mom flicked her cigarette into the yard and let me inside, watching me the whole time with a dark pair of suspicious eyes.

Her answers were clipped and she kept her arms crossed, while on the ground, the sound of mucus gurgled from the trach of her baby.  He rested in a bouncy-bassinet-contraption with a monitor hooked up to his big toe, checking on his oxygen level.  In his chubby arms, he lovingly held onto a plastic sea-creature.  

After a few minutes, his mom picked him up in an almost obligatory show of affection.  It didn’t matter to the boy if it was real or forced, he was getting snuggles from his mama.  I watched as the baby reached up and grabbed the ring in his mother’s lip.  I gasped as the baby gave the ring a playful tug in fear that it was about to be yanked out. 

Much to my surprise, the woman laughed and the baby pulled his arm back.  He looked straight in my eyes and nodded with a gummy smile.

I don’t spend much time with infants but I got a feeling from that smile, deep in my gut.  It is the same feeling that tells me to double check my locks, look over my shoulder, to keep asking questions or to stop talking, and to trust the seemingly untrustworthy.  He might be a fat baby with a few medical problems and a young mother, but he’s also an old soul who is going to be ok, whatever that means.  

Editing life

Life is just a story we tell ourselves and the world. 
 
It’s based on our own perceptions and convenient omissions. Each experience should be liberally coated in sugar in its retelling.  Why not, it’s your story.  Every day, the story gets revised and edited.  Words and sentences change and sometimes entire chapters get cut.  Hopefully, at the end of the process, a beautiful body of work is left with smooth transitions, strong characters, and a logical plot with just enough twists to keep it exciting. 
 
Right now, I’m in the process of a major revision in the chapter of how I came to social work.  I started as a bleeding heart in the wrong industry- wanting to save the poor and sick and to give hope to the hopeless.  I did what I set out to do but now I’m cynical and jaded. 
 
I question most clients’ stories because, after all, we each are the author and story-teller of our life’s story.  I feel resentment towards clients who claim to be too sick to work but manage to mow the grass, clean the gutters, and host a Memorial Day cookout for their many friends and family members.  I want to scream when clients ask for help with the heat bill but won’t sacrifice cable or smoking, eating out or getting their nails done.  When I see widespread abuse of the systems meant to ease suffering and improve quality of life, I wonder if the real answer is to stop providing the answer.  Let people decide how to improve their own lives.  If they don’t want more in life, so be it, but let’s stop trying so hard to help.  Let the resources dry up that are being misused and redirect them where a difference can be made like education and research. 
 
I want my clients and clients’ families to need more out of life than to just survive on hand-outs and government programs.  I wish there was a way to instill a work ethic, honesty, dignity and pride in their hearts and brains.  More than that, I want to see the good in people again.   Scratch that, I need to see the good in people again in order to keep adding to my story to keep it beautiful and living, rather than covered in the soot from a slowly burning society.
 
That’s just the story of my life today. 
 
By tomorrow, I’m sure the same story will have been revised and rewritten with a fresh voice and new hope inspired by a good night’s rest and the promise of weekend libations.
 
photo: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/objects?exhibitionId=%7b36D81705-241D-4934-AB02-FD7C8DBBB3E5%7d&pg=2&rpp=20
A Pair of Hungry Pike, Unknown (Canadian), Date: 1911, Accession Number: 2007.460.2

Keeping Cool in the Ghetto

When social work doesn’t work…

It starts when an old woman’s daughter calls to beg for an A/C unit for her mother. 

“Please, it is so hot in her house.” 

I heard her break to take a drag on her cigarette.  

“We just don’t have the extra money for anything like that,” she continued.

Their very understanding social worker, nodded on the other end of the phone, “Yes, that is a problem.” 

I filled with a sense of false self-importance and knew the exactly what to do.  I quickly completed an application for the program without the need to exaggerate the situation.  The truth of this woman’s life was desperate enough to garner the sympathy and thereby assistance requested. 

Surprisingly soon after the app was submitted, the woman was approved for cool air.  As a privilege and a right to decent living conditions as a human, or out of pity for her poverty and poor health doesn’t really matter, right?

In any case, I mustered the strength to get the A/C into my car, with the help of a co-worker, and headed off into the heart of darkness to make my special delivery. 

When I pulled up in front of the shanty house, it occurred to me that they might not have the electrical wiring to support the efficient energy burning machine in my backseat.  It appeared that they didn’t have window screens, collars for their dogs or a mower to cut the grass.  I guessed that a good socket might be a stretch.  Nonetheless, I continued with my mission as I had an old lady to save.

Three women sat heavily on a sagging wooden porch.  They stared dumbly ahead until I hopped out of my car.  Then their looks turned to that of suspicion even though I called to confirm the delivery just 24 hours earlier.   

“Hey there, ladies. I’ve brought you something to cool off.  I just need a little help getting it inside.”

The woman I was there to save continued to stare ahead, uninterested in my business of her rescue.  Her silver braids shone in the sun as she looked over the cracked and empty parking lot across the street.  Weeds and broken bottles were more interesting than the possibility of a room cooled to 72 degrees.

A massive woman sat next to her and yelled out, “Well, what you waiting for? Bring it in already.”

She looked like she was about to drown in the sweat as it pooled in the roll around her neck.  Her face and arms were slick with sweat, yet she sat amazingly motionless.  She was a mound of melting human, forgettable as she was unhelpful. 

 “Listen, I need some help. Can someone come down here and give me a hand?”  I directed the question to the only capable body, the third woman who sat on an upturned paint bucket.  

She picked up the hint and was the only one to respond.

“Why you axin’?  Is it heavy or somethin’?”

No, I just want you to experience the good feelings generated from team work, I thought.

“Yes it’s heavy, and I can’t lift it alone.”

 Begrudgingly, the youngest woman shuffled down to help.  We managed to get the A/C inside once we cautiously stepped over the old woman’s swollen feet.  She couldn’t see the need to move her feet for our safe passage.  After all, she was there first. 

The woman led me inside towards the nearest open window and dropped her end of the box. 

“There, you can set it up here,” she declared and turned to go back outside.

So I showed myself to the door after her and left. 

Nothing was said when I left.  The massive woman looked disappointed that I didn’t set up the unit and the youngest woman was dismayed that she may be tasked with the difficult chore of reading directions and setting the A/C up herself.  Meanwhile, the woman with the silver braids stared straight ahead, indifferent to world around her.  She didn’t mind the heat and never asked for the A/C.   Why should she be grateful for something that she never wanted? 

I’d like to make the excuse for her that she was tired of accepting charity and even more tired of living in poverty.   Her soul was worn and weary from never having enough or any way to get it aside from the kindness of strangers.  

My only regret is that I didn’t drag the A/C back out of that disgusting house that smelled of wet dog and flea killing powder, around the old woman’s legs, over the broken boards of the porch and back to my car for someone who does want it and would appreciate it. 

What is gratitude in the face of charity?  What is anything in the face of charity, other than a sad state of affairs, to everyone but the giver?  In spite of this, I’m still secretly holding out for a little thank you card in the mail.  Its a silly and selfish wish, but what can I say, I’m just a little human?   

 

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” 
― Hélder CâmaraDom Helder Camara: Essential Writings

“While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.” 
― Chinua AchebeAnthills of the Savannah

 

 

Sunday night dread

Sunday night, the rumor returns to me, like a punch to the gut.  It lingers on the fore-front of my thoughts and gnaws at my peace of mind.

On Monday, I am due to visit a curmudgeon of an old woman.  She usually stays in her bed with the covers pulled up to her neck and mixes subtle insults for me with complaints of her health.  There is a haughty pride in her suffering that she is only too glad to share with others.

However unpleasant, it is not the curmudgeon that concerns me.  Rather, it is the visitor who is staying indefinitely in her basement.  He’s a wanted man with a bit of a mental health issue, already a felon, holed up in the damp and cool space underneath of the woman’s home. He is quite naturally no longer taking his mood-stabilizing medication. 

The situation gives me cause to wonder how strong the fight or flight instinct might be in a person so clearly desperate to avoid capture and arrest.  Does he ever leave or do friends come to visit?  Who is providing food and water to this person of questionable character when the old woman claims to be bed-ridden and living completely alone?  How many other curmudgeons are also hosting criminals in basements and back bedrooms? 

If I allow my mind the freedom to continue to wander, the questions keep coming and a sense of fear pervades.  Instead, I’m taking control and roping in my imagination.  More than anything, I’m sincerely hoping that it’s another silly rumor and then maybe looking for a new job on my next lunch hour.  

If only…

“When are you getting up tomorrow?” the man asked his wife.

The man focused on setting the alarm on his phone, while his wife sat on the edge of the bed and pulled off her socks.  She threw the socks, one after the other, to the floor.

“Whenever I feel like it,” she replied without looking at her husband.

The man raised his eyebrows, silently questioning the sock-less woman next to him. 

“I quit my job today and I’ll tell you why I did it,” she said calmly.

The man listened attentively and wondered how his wife had kept her little secret from him for so long.  Usually, she was bursting with excitement when she had a piece of news to share.   He felt conflicted, he was relieved his wife finally did what they had discussed so many nights, but upset that she waited so long to tell him.  I’m sure she has her reasons, he though t and waited.  She always filled the silence if he waited.

The woman continued speaking as she fluffed her pillows.

“They tried to make me work on Good Friday,” she explained with a straight face.

Her husband laughed in disbelief. 

“It wasn’t the guns, gang bangers, bed bugs, drugs or abuse that did it for you?” he asked.

“Nope,” his little wife said, settling down into her freshly fluffed pillows.

She breathed a sign of relaxation.  Her pillows felt perfect as her head sank down, surrounded by downy feathers and cotton. 

“I never minded all of that,” she said, reflecting on the day. 

Her husband propped himself up on one elbow and stared at her in confusion. 

“What? Really?” he asked.

“Yup, the clients were never really the problem.  It was always the management, safe in their clean, little offices, pushing papers and pressing for more rules and deadlines.   My clients were just trying to get by from day to day with next to nothing.” 

She reached over and turned off her bedside light with a click. 

“How could I begrudge them for surviving?”