29 May 2009

Six-Dollar Trust

Celia came in, shifty eyed, and asked to speak with us in private. We shut the door.

"I want to let you guys know that when you give people $6.00 for police reports for housing at Dwelling Place, they reimburse them when they turn it in. Sometimes.... sometimes people just apply for Dwelling Place to get the free $6.00. Don't tell anyone I told you. I just thought it was something you should know."

Yes, Celia, we know. We've known.
Dwelling Place subsidized housing properties, many of which are located in or near the Heartside area, require that each applicant present a copy of their criminal record, provided by the Grand Rapids Police Department for $6.00. We have, and will continue to, assist individuals with this $6.00 fee in order to encourage the process of applying for subsidized housing, a great option for the Heartside population (your own room surrounded by the same community). The Dwelling Place office has the same idea--they will pay back the $6.00 fee that someone pays for their police report.

When we discovered this, we tried to work out a system with Dwelling Place in which they refund us for the money for the report, if we were in fact the initial funder. It has been a strangely difficult process, and we finally agreed that if a Degage staff member (myself) turns in the police report on behalf of an individual, they will refund it to us.

So. We currently rely on patrons to return the police reports to us (so that we can turn them in) even though they know they could do it themselves, and get the money. Everyone knows. My 50% success rate makes sense--it's better than nothing.

I went through this routine with BobbyJoel last week... "I will write a check to the police department for your police report. Please return it to me, and I will turn it into the Dwelling Place office for you" .... please?
BobbyJoel saw it.
"Anna, I know why you want me to bring it back."
I know you do.

The next day, I found an envelope on my desk from BobbyJoel.
'To Anna. Thanks you. BobbyJoel.'
Inside, there was six dollars.
The first six dollars I have ever recieved from anyone for a reimbursed police report.

Later, BobbyJoel told me he turned it in himself because he wanted me to know that I could trust him.

26 May 2009

Of Course.

Rob is more depressed than usual lately, and we ask why.

"I'm having a hard time getting over the loss of my son," he says, "He was killed in an automobile accident."

Of course, of course you're having a hard time getting over the loss of your son.

"But you know, it's just hard, because I'm reminded of him every time I pay child support. Because I still pay child support for him, even though he's gone. I mean, I know I owe her something, but when will it be enough?"

14 May 2009

Class, Dismissed

I do not understand any other class than my own.

I don't understand why anyone would pursue matching Nike's and painted pointed studded nails, let alone chandeliers and convertibles. I can't imagine another set of rules where a patient, obedient, polite demeanor can't get you exactly what you're going for.

I used to think Maslow's "Survival Needs" category held a pool of universally understood resources, but I started to question that when I realized that a well-placed punch to the face didn't fall under mine.

The budget where I work is dwindling--no surprise there--and we need to figure out how to serve the people around us in the most responsible and helpful way with what we have. The problem is, the answer to the question changes drastically depending on who you're asking. If you ask us (the white ladies, born and bred middle class and well versed in the language of our own culture), we'll assume that medication co-pays and government-issued identification are going to be top priorities for anyone, and so if someone comes to us for assistance with that need, we can safely say that if they don't have money to pay for these things (after taking care of their housing costs), they don't have the money. Our problem (my problem) is that we are placing the class that we predominantly serve (the lower class) under the values of the class we participate in. We readily project the "what would I do in this situation" onto everyone we meet, thinking that humanity is humanity.

If we ever suspect that those we serve have spent a hundred dollars on a purse, we call them foolish, we call them irresponsible, lazy, manipulative, and tell them they should have thought of their asthma inhaler when they bought the purse.

I am learning. They are not foolish: they know where they are. They are not irresponsible: they are making sacrifices. They are not lazy: they are living. In a culture completely different than my own, completely foreign to me, it is more important to have a brand named bag than an inhaler. I don't understand this, because where I live, status symbols take the form of interesting conversation sooner than they take the form of a certain material or print. Let's face it, no one forgets they have asthma. Somewhere else, a purse means belonging--a more basic need than breathing.

This is the same reason that kids in poor families in America ask for donated Ipods while kids in poor families in Ghana ask for school uniforms. We all want the gift of participating in the communities we live in.

So, as we evaluate how to put guidelines on our services, we have to figure out how to help across class, which means completely challenging the way I look at service, at necessity, at a world that I have only seen through middle-class logic. I want to learn to love what I don't know.

12 May 2009

No Room at the Grand Rapids Inn

Rita is beautiful.

She has long, straight black hair, huge eyes, an incredibly wide smile, and a wonderfully pleasent and joyful demeanor. She doesn't talk very often because she is not very familiar with the English language, but she radiates light in a way that convinces you that speech is hardly important at all. Lately, she has been even more excited than usual; she is eight months pregnant with her first child, and needs to prepare a place for herself and her baby before it arrives.

The father of Rita's child, Greg, has frequented 144 South Division for over a year, requesting medical help, making long distance phone calls, and translating for Rita whenever she has any questions. Rita has been staying in the Women's Drop-In shelter, while Greg has been in a recovery house for men. I have never seen him smile, especially not today, when he escorted Rita, considerably further along than she was last time I saw her. I was happy to see Rita, but her silent smile seemed to mock the gravity of the situation, as Greg's straight face mirrored it--Rita had nowhere to go--she has no Social Security number.

Greg called the DHS about a month ago, when their options seemed to be pretty slim as to how they would care for their child when it was born. They filled out all of the applications for State Emergency Relief, but were turned down because the blank next to the prompt "SS#" had not been filled. They then called the Salvation Army, who informed Rita that if she had no income, they could not find a place for her to stay. They didn't even know about her Social Security Number.

Greg and Rita are left to beg agencies and churches to help them, somehow, to have a place for their child--putting aside any thought of the joy of pregnancy, or the excitement of starting a new family.

While Greg bangs the phone against his forehead, Rita just smiles; perhaps she can see past the situation, and can only feel the joy of life inside of her... or perhaps she knows exactly what is going on, but she only knows how to smile.

07 May 2009

Life and Death in the Men's Bathroom

On Tuesday, my supervisor walked into my office while I was meeting someone and asked me to follow her out into the hall.

"There is someone dying in the men's bathroom," she said, "I thought you might like to know."

There have been a number of dramatic death imitations in the past year (Robert slumped to the floor after repeatedly calling me a son of a bitch when I told him that we would not call 9-1-1 for him because there was nothing at all wrong with him (luckily, we have a previous paramedic on staff). He eventually got up and took the stairs out... "You sonofabitch!").
Because of this, I wasn't sure right away whether or not the situation was of an actual death.

You would think that I would be able to tell by my surroundings, right? By the behaviour of others on the floor, or the mood, or the feeling in the room, hushed whispers, somber faces, etc. etc.

But I couldn't. In fact, all of the surrounding evidence pointed to another theatrical display of false symptoms. Men were still going in and out of the bathroom, washing their hands, and glancing over the shoulder at the gentleman on the floor, in cardiac arrest. Another came around the corner to check and see if he was naked or not. He was not. It was a fully-clothed Joe, face blue, not responding, with a crack pipe to his left and a roach clip around his neck.

We kicked everyone off the floor, thinking that this might be the best way to preserve Joe's dignity and privacy since none of our verbal reprimands seemed to help. Some refused to leave "My laundry is done drying" and some complained "How will I do my chore?" They finally retreated as the paramedics arrived.

The only other times I have witnessed possibly the last minutes of someone's life were at the beach when I was in my younger teens, and a man drowned in Lake Michigan. I watched as they dragged his body from the water, and I swear the entire beach was still. I had always thought that the frailty of humanity was a significant to others as it was to me.

But living in the streets must be different, though I can't describe it, because things happen. People come, and people go, and people overdose, and others are jumped, and there's too much danger everywhere to be shocked by death. You have to live, instead.

As the staff prayed for Joe, we heard him revived by the Narcon he was given by the medics. They carried him out to the ambulance as we, as a staff, felt relief. I have to wonder whether or not Joe was also relieved.