Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. — Karl Marx
Working for CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, a program of White Bird Clinic) people often ask how we are able to tolerate the bad behavior of some of our clients and still provide them with respect, patience and compassion. They are usually referring to homeless alcoholics and other addicts we serve, not necessarily the many other people we assist with their medical and emotional needs.
They are referring to our “problem clients”; homeless people who are chronically intoxicated and belligerent. These aren’t necessarily people who are temporarily homeless while they work through bad circumstances, such as a foreclosure, a disabling accident, bankruptcy from hospital bills, etc. (though many homeless do fall under that category). These aren’t necessarily people who are homeless as a result of mental illness (though many homeless fall under that category too).
These problem clients are the ones who “give the homeless a bad name”; the ones who “choose” to be homeless (or, more accurately, have resigned themselves to it); the drunks and aggressive panhandlers; the ones you find passed out on the lawn or fighting in the alley; the ones who spend their SSI checks on liquor when they haven’t eaten in days.
Working on CAHOOTS, we know these people well. Difficult as it may be at times, we try to treat them all with unconditional positive regard. We are paid, to some extent, to root for the underdog. We take our role seriously: Everyone needs an advocate.
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. ― Oscar Wilde
We all have low points in our lives. Many of us have had periods of extreme depression or excessive drinking due to whatever crisis we were in (a breakup, the death of a loved one, financial woes, etc.). Most of us can tap into our personal and social resources to get through it and move on. But not everybody does: Some people enter a vicious cycle of crippling self-loathing and self-destruction that doesn’t end for a long time, if it ends at all. Some people seemingly had no chance to begin with. Imagine, for instance, that as a child, your parents passed you around to provide sexual favors to their “friends” in exchange for money or drugs. Imagine if you grew up living in motel rooms watching your prostitute mother have sex with strange men; or going on drug-fueled crime sprees with your father instead of going to school. Imagine if, as a child, your punishment for mistakes was being burned with cigarettes.
Hopefully, you can imagine how enduring such experiences might lead somebody to having little confidence in or allegiance to a society that maybe they never really understood or fit in with, and how those experiences might cause somebody to mask their emotional scars with substance abuse and antisocial behavior. You can also, I hope, imagine how carrying those experiences around with you might seriously interfere with your ability to be a functional person by societal standards.
If you’re going through hell, keep going. ― Winston Churchill
There’s only so much that any person can endure. Each of us has a breaking point. I believe the horrors some of the people I’ve described have suffered could cause any of us to end up in similar circumstances. Many people fall apart from much less.
It is easier to be compassionate to people when you know what hell they’ve been through, even when they are behaving poorly and may even be heaping abuse upon you as you try to help them.
I’ve seen people spend years, maybe even decades, digging themselves into a deep, dark pit of addiction and homelessness and criminality and sickness, decide they want something better for themselves and finally change, seemingly moving on without looking back.
There are people nobody believed were capable of changing who proved everyone wrong by not letting the tragedies of their past taint and define their present and future. These people inspire me to continue rooting for the underdog.
About the Author: Brenton Gicker has worked for White Bird Clinic (whitebirdclinic.org) for eight years and CAHOOTS for five years. His views do not represent those of White Bird Clinic or CAHOOTS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.