How the Other Half Lives Part II
Journeys through the non-profit world
Published: Monday, October 22, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 22, 2012 16:10
Last issue I discussed how I found my niche in the non-profit world after a few unsuccessful retail stints. While non-profits might not be for everybody, the important thing is that everybody can find a career that they view as meaningful and fits well with their values.
I fervently believe that people deserve to be treated with compassion and dignity-- especially people struggling with disability, mental health issues, addictions or unfortunate circumstances such as homelessness. I think that at any moment if the wind swung the pendulum just the wrong way, the stability could sway in any person’s life. It could very well be you, me, a family member or friend in that seemingly hopeless situation. The other half really is not that different than us, simply with more barriers to face on a daily basis-- namely, finding a place to sleep at night.
Working with the homeless population of Fargo-Moorhead has opened my eyes to the reality of homelessness in our community. Homelessness might be somewhat invisible or hidden because of people tucked away at shelters or under bridges, but a 2009 Wilder point in time survey found that 763 people were homeless in our community (almost half are veterans).
This number might seem low in North Dakota compared to larger cities and economically struggling states, but it is still an increasingly relevant problem. Shelters in the community are bursting at the seams. The homeless population has spiked the last two years because of people coming from other areas of the country seeking employment and then struggling to find it outside of the oil patch.
I have met many of the people who have left behind the shadows of abandoned factories and shattered glass of dying manufacturing cities like Detroit and Cleveland in hopes of starting a new life in Fargo. They come to Fargo with glimmering aspirations of a job and place to live. I think of one lady in particular with schizophrenia, who had thought moving to Fargo would change things. Unfortunately, she found that her demons-- the voices that haunted her head, the delusions-- followed her wherever she went. Every day she would sigh and ask me, “when are things gonna get better?” I told her I knew it was hard but to hang in there, to be patient.
One day I saw her with her head in her hands, tears streaked across her face. I asked her what was wrong and she told me, “I guess things really aren’t that different here than all the other cities I’ve been to.” She was right in a sense. A change in geography does not change the chronic problems faced by many people who are homeless such as mental illness, chemical dependency, disability, lack of education and criminal history. Yet, Fargo does have the benefits of a dedicated homeless coalition and active community members addressing the problem of homelessness.
Working with the homeless population can be certainly sad and exhausting. To be sure, it is the farthest thing from glamorous work. I have cleaned every bodily fluid known to man over the years and have come in contact with bed bugs, lice, MRSA and other creepy crawly creatures. I have worked 80-hour weeks and been paid for 40. I have been called every expletive in the book and frighteningly enough, have been given death threats. I have spent holidays with strangers rather than my family.
Burnout happens often in this field. Stress, long hours and being around chaos takes its toll on people. I have learned to make home as quiet and as gentle as possible. Self-care, reading and doing things I enjoy away from the turbulence are essential to stay healthy and balanced.
Even with all of the downsides of working in human services, I do not know that I would really have it any other way. I feel more comfortable consoling someone having a panic attack or coming down from hard drugs then someone complaining about a fly in their soup. The positives far outweigh the negatives, and through all of the tragedy and sadness, I have witnessed there has also been joy, laughter and growth.
I chose to focus on the growth of my clients. The literal and metaphorical bruises and scars that heal and fade with time are replenished with a new vibrancy. Even when that does not happen, when people repeatedly fall and slip into old ways, I try to remember that the healing itself is a journey, not a destination. And that’s something that everybody can learn from.
Tessa is a senior majoring in English.