Reflections from the front lines serving people experiencing homelessness, riding the COVID wave, enduring Phoenix summer, and living up to the legacy of a champion.
COVID is still with us. Fewer positive cases on the Human Services Campus. Testing and vaccinations continue. Mask wearing indoors. Lots of hand sanitizer in use. Coughing still makes people tense up. I'm sticking with fist bumps and hugs.
And our concern for COVID illness and death is now dwarfed by the heat of Phoenix summer. Lots of people are reaching out to ask what we need. We distribute about 2,000 bottles of water per day, and we currently have enough for about three weeks. Fingers crossed we will be receiving a donated commercial ice machine in the very near future. With that we can keep more bottles of water cooler, as "some water is better than no water," AND a chilled bottle of water is certainly more refreshing than a bottle of lukewarm to hot water. And we have a “heat relief” grant that we will use to purchase a smaller, back up ice machine.
This work continues to be full of highs and lows. Our team continues to help people with an intake to our system of care, be safe during the day and night, and move into housing. Yet we still can't meet everyone's needs. Not for lack of anything related to experience or skill. Every month when I receive a report from the County that lists "transient deaths," I scan the names. As I approach my three-year work anniversary, I begin to recognize more of the names. And our employees recognize the names. For people we helped and know had housing at one point, we wonder what happened. For those we had not seen for a while, we wonder what happened. And it's not really our business to know. And yet it hurts.
Even more hurtful, when a deceased person is found by employees. They have to wait for police detectives, be interviewed, and wait for the coroner. It can feel like we didn't fully help that individual, and maybe we couldn't. I'm not writing to talk about feelings of guilt. I'm sharing because in the "homeless services sector," we do so much more than address the lack of housing. We are confronted with mental and physical health issues. We are the safety net when there is no further down the netting a person can go. And we will never know all of the thoughts in each individual's mind. We do our best. And because we value and hire people with "lived experience," people who have experienced homeless, who have history with the criminal justice system, addiction, violence – people with past trauma, we are putting these people directly in the line of retraumatization. We additionally put employees in the line of vicarious or secondary trauma.
So, as a leader, I am spending more time seeking out resources and support, and looking for ways to compensate our employees, improving benefits packages, and talking about overall wellness. It is one thing to be "trauma informed," and it is quite another to build a compassionate and supportive workplace culture.
As I have said before, "homelessness" is a public health issue. People who lack housing are not in a space to be 100% healthy, needing assistance across life domains. And the toll this work takes on the employees is also a health issue. It's all connected, we are all connected.
I feel like I'm closer to a mental model, a systems framework, to eventually communicate this in a more succinct and understandable manner.
In the meantime, I'm quite smitten with the new song by Pink, "All I Know So Far."
"You throw your head back, And you spit in the wind.
Let the walls crack, Cause it lets the light in,
Let ‘em drag you through hell. They can’t tell you to change who you are.
That’s all I know so far.
And when the storms out, You run in the rain
Put your sword down, Dive right into the pain
Stay unfiltered and loud,
You be proud of that skin full of scars ,
That’s all I know so far"
For Mike, we will keep working to figure it all out. For today, that's all I know so far.