If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter
"Isolation and Connection" is the title of the third chapter of Grace Can Lead Us Home and in it Nye gives some pointers having to do with a question that all people ask regarding the unhoused:
How do I interact with and respond to people experiencing homelessness in the here and now?
This chapter is short compared to the others and I'm just now getting over having been sick all week so I'll keep my thoughts short as well.
Rather than provide rules or some formulaic response, the author chooses to give guiding precepts. Given how situations and circumstances can be different given all the different potential factors, Nye chooses a more simple route of general advice. All of it however starts with the following premise:
Solidarity and friendship with unhoused people is essential, and these relationships can interrupt some of the most harrowing aspects of life on the streets for individuals. (p. 70)
Starting from the Genesis narrative, Nye points out that the only thing that God considers "not good" is humankind's isolation. He then goes on to stress the importance that connections and social networks have in the outcomes regarding homelessness but also in mental health. Citing that:
Falling into homelessness requires more than just financial or resource loss. (p. 71)
The author goes on to talk about isolation not only being a part of the cause of homelessness but also a continued aggravating factor in various issues of health. Prolonged isolation can even lead to more dangerous outcomes:
Even in California, where the weather is considered more livable, the life expectancy for an unhoused person is forty-seven years, nearly half the state average of eighty-two years. Homelessness is, in effect, a death sentence. (p. 72)
In trying to give guidance on the answer to "What do I do?" regarding helping the unhoused, Nye gives three things to keep in mind: Boundaries, Assumptions, and Acknowledging Humanity.
Having boundaries defined and set, before we need them, is critical to how we go about helping the unhoused. Given the unhoused population far outstrips a single person's ability to solve the issues, boundaries protect from burnout.
Having boundaries from the outset regarding what you are capable and willing to do takes the stress out of having to do some on-the-spot calculation in an instance. Also, knowing ahead of time how you plan to respond to say someone asking for money, can also help avoid potential biases you may inherently bring to an encounter. The author stresses determining your particular boundaries keeping in mind to reflect compassion and honesty.
Setting personal boundaries ends up also requiring making some assumptions about the people you are helping. Nye juxtaposes two ends of the spectrum people find themselves considering when helping.
On one side, accepting that what a person does with your help is their responsibility, not yours. If they waste it or misuse it, that's on them. What is important in this consideration is that you acted according to your values, not making it contingent on the outcome.
The other end of this spectrum is the concern people have for underwriting or enabling another person's poor decisions. By giving money, am I just furthering this person's bad behavior? Nye dismisses this as being silly and unfounded:
For one, the notion that your money might be the difference between someone using drugs or getting clean is quite silly. Despite knowing hundreds of people struggling with addiction, I’ve not once heard someone say, “I was about to give up and stop using heroin forever, but then that nice lady gave me ten dollars and I was able to score.” That is simply not how addictions work. Only larger interventions like treatment, healthcare, and housing can interrupt something of that magnitude. (p. 76)
In the end, the magnitude of whatever gift you give to the unhoused is very small in comparison to what that person would need to see any significant change in their status. What it can do though is provide momentary respite from a person's situation. Perhaps a good meal at the end of a hungry day or new dry socks.
Ultimately, whether you chose to help or not, interacting with those experiencing homelessness is also an act of acknowledging that person's humanity, and in the end, that's doing something in an of itself.
The author shares the story of Mark, a visitor to The Center who doesn't say a word to the staff but instead makes his way to the coffee urn. Slowly over time, Mark reveals his name, throws around a hello or goodbye here and there and, while attending the discussion groups, never contributes to the discussions. Many years later, Mark is now very talkative, almost at times having to be reined in to give others a chance to speak. It's at this point that Mark eventually agrees to see a Medi-Cal enrollment specialist and begins receiving medical care.
The point of this story is that, by being a continued positive presence in Mark's life, providing low barrier care, patiently and consistently being there, Mark was eventually able to develop mutual trust and move beyond the barriers of isolation.
The method that allowed that to take place is called trauma-informed care. While not a new methodology, little is known about it outside of social work and education settings. Nye says this about trauma-informed care:
The most important aspect of this methodology regards the first word in it: trauma. Trauma is the result of “exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being.” When we recognize the role that trauma plays in shaping people and their behavior and responses to help, it fundamentally changes the way we see and treat unhoused people. In short, it enables us to love better. One training on trauma-informed care I attended described this as “unconditional positive regard”—not unlike the way we understand how God loves. (p. 80)
What trauma-informed care does is provide a different lens in which to see others. Instead of seeing a person's poor behavior or circumstances in isolation, trauma-informed care asks us to dig deeper. Perhaps asking what issues, trauma, or circumstances in this person's life are contributing to these particular responses.
When combined with healthy boundaries and limitations, trauma-informed care is an effective method to use when assisting others. It re-orients our approach away from being one of judgement toward one of seeking to understand and empathize.
The chapter closes out with a discussion on Flourishing and Friendship. The importance of just showing up. Being a presence in the lives of the unhoused.
While short, this chapter gave me a lot to consider. Often times when presented with a problem, I set out to solve that problem. It's always more comfortable to "do" than to "be". But often times, with the unhoused, or even my own wife and kids, what the situation calls for is not someone to "do" something. Sometimes, the best approach is one of simply getting on their level and living there a little bit.