Monday, November 22, 2010

A Rough Day at the Office and a Call to Action

Last Thursday, the 18th of November, I arrived to work about a half an hour before I’m supposed to.  This isn’t anything rare, as my arrival time is influenced solely by what time my bus picks me up.  As busses run on schedules, 8:30 is becoming the time I now start work.  Anyway, I showed up to work where things were on the brink of chaos, due to none of the security cards being there yet.  After I helped one of my coworkers Carl, who is an incredible man with an incredible story, set everything up, I walked back to my office thinking that this was surely going to be one of those days.  I had no freaken idea.
As soon as I got to my office I got a Carl who was working at the front desk saying that there was someone from John Hopkins Hospital on the line wanting to speak with a social worker.  As I was the only social worker there at the time, the call went to me.  I answered the phone, introduced myself, and asked what I could.  She replied, “I’m a social worker in the Emergency Room at JH, I have a Mr. (name omitted, sorry guys), and I need to get in touch with his next of kin.  The address for Beans and Bread was the only contact information he had on him.”
Oh shit I thought.  It is not a shocking statement to say that a lot of homeless die for various reasons; exposure, drug overdose, murder, malnutrition, or any other of the numerous causes.  I had wondered at various points in my first three months in Baltimore if I was going to have to experience the death of any of my clients.  Obviously that answer is yes.
With the social worker from John Hopkins still on the phone, I looked up the client’s information on our online database.  I didn’t recognize the clients name, we literally have over a thousand clients, with hundreds using our address as their own, and I wondered if I even knew him.  The information provided by our database proved to be of no help.  I then asked the social worker for a description of the client so I could go around to my coworkers and ask them if they could identify the man.
The first two people I talked to were one of our case managers for our permanent housing program and one of our security guards, both of whom had been at Beans and Bread for several years.  They quickly identified who the client was and in saddened voices told me who he was.  It was with great astonishment followed by sudden sadness that I realized who the client was.  He was someone who came to Beans and Bread everyday for apparently many years.  Minding how own business he came in not saying a word and slept for a couple in the exact same chair until we had to kick him out when we closed.  It then dawned on me, as we were standing in the front room, that I had seen him in that exact spot the day before.  It was a really weird feeling for me.
To this day I am surprised by how much this has been affecting me, I barely knew the man and don’t think I actually ever spoke with him.  This was an important moment for me because if I want to keep doing social work and working with the world’s poor I have to see this side of it.  One of the biggest things that struck was when a coworker responded after finding out by saying “There goes another name on the memorial wall.”  The death wasn’t a surprise, it was almost routine.  This situation really started getting to me as I found out more details about the death.
Every morning our clients line up to be either the first in line for our meal program or to sign up for casework and the other things our outreach center offers each day.  Since we do not open our doors until 8:30, many clients wait for quite a while to get into our facility.  From what I understand, the client collapsed while waiting in line on Thurday morning.  An ambulance was called, but didn’t show up for a half hour!  By that time it was already to late.  This is unacceptable.  Ambulances are often called at Beans and Bread due to clients going through withdrawal or having mental health breakdowns, and it would seem the dispatchers thought this was one of those times.
But I can’t get the thought out of my mind that they simply did not care, that a homeless man’s life is less important than the “average” mans.  Like so many times in our clients life, the system had failed him.  I do not know anything about his background but I am now mostly speaking in generalizations.  His education system failed him when they failed to provide an adequate education, quality teachers and equipment.  The prison system failed him when they locked him up for drugs or alcohol instead of helping him get treatment and kick his addictions.  His economy failed him when there were no jobs available for people with disabilities or addictions.  His city failed him when they were unable to build new houses to replace all those that had been torn again.  We failed him when we walked right on by without a word, or a smile, or even a quarter.  I failed him as his case worker, when I never reached out and try to provide a service that could have saved his life.
The time must come when we reevaluate our priorities as a society.  There is often a saying about the people of our generation who are interested in social work in that we really only care about the topic we are working on.  Like in my case, homelessness.  If we can realize that all the problems of our society are interrelated then maybe real progress can occur.  We can not continue to live the lives we living, because they directly lead to the suffering of others.  Changes have to be made.  And these changes need to be drastic.  But more than anything, we have to care.  We have to care about the lives of every single person we encounter and to do our part to improve the lives of those around us.  If every single person in the United States found even one cause and contributed, what a difference it could make!  Apathy can no longer be the defining adjective for our country, it must be love.  As someone much wiser than me once said, you don’t have to like everyone, but you do have to love everyone.
Thanks for reading, God Bless.  Please comment if you have any questions, comments, or concerns.


  1. Thanks for writing, Rick. This one hit a special place for me.

    -Brittney C.

  2. Great writing and reflection friend. I am sorry about that man. I hope you are taking it well. That is an incredible couple paragraphs at the end.

    ben adam