Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Job Gets Real

I had worked with him before.  He was never exactly a pleasant client, one who was increasingly frustrated by the slow progress of finding housing.  I never expected to hear what he had just said to me.
In my six months I have had clients who have died, clients who should still be in high school, clients who were on so many drugs they couldn’t even walk, let alone talk, clients who have been homeless longer than I have been alive, clients who are clearly disabled but have been denied disability several times, clients clinging to their last shred of hope, clients just trying to feed their children, clients who have PTSD from witnessing the murders of family members.  I thought I had seen almost everything.
Not quite.
He looked at me with the saddest look I’ve ever seen in another human being and said quite bluntly, “I’m going to kill myself.”
I stared at him wide-eyed, surprised by what I had just heard, everything racing through my mind except what I should say.  I hadn’t been prepared for this, I hadn’t been trained.  I didn’t know what to do and I have no problem admitting that.  It shouldn’t have shocked me as much as it did, I have had countless clients telling me they’re suffering from depression.  But it did.
“Oh no, Mr. B, you don’t want to do that.  We’re going to help you.”  That was all I was able to spit out.  All I could hope was that my client trusted me to take care of me.  
I sat staring at my computer for a minute, thinking desperately of what to do, acting like I was looking for certain resources.  I had to get this man to someone much more qualified than myself to work with him.  I found one of my coworkers and had her sit down with him in her office.  This coworker has an amazing skill in being able to relate to our clients like no one I had ever seen, I knew my client was in good hands.
The next thing I knew my client had agreed to go to the hospital and was going to be escorted there by a police officer specifically trained to handle people facing mental health crisis.  
I saw my client a few days later and he was in much better spirits, seemingly comforted by the fact that we were trying our best to look out for him.  
I desperately wish this could be the end of my experiences with clients facing the idea of suicide,  that I could end this blog here, but I can’t.
“Rick, could you come to the front desk?”  That exact phrase, uttered several times per day by the Beans and Bread receptionist is often an annoyance brought on by a client that I won’t want to deal with.  I thought this would be the same last Friday.
I go to the front room and the receptionist asks if I can see a client, even though they did not sign up on the case work desk.  Beginning my usual explanation of how I can’t see someone who didn’t sign up, I am stopped by the look of pure desperation on the man’s face.  “of course,” I say, “come on back.”
I sit the client down, a client whom I had never seen before, and ask him what’s going on.  Suddenly he breaks down, tears streaming from his face.
I do what I do best in a moment like this; I listen while the client describes how his mother just died, how he just got robbed, and (he is a man with a severe mental disability) he is tired of people calling him retard, leading him to want to kill himself.
Quick tangent:  this is just one of millions of reasons why people need to be aware of the words they are using, the context they are using them, and how the use of these words can effect people.  This cannot be tolerated.
I listen to his story, I speak with him along with another one of my coworkers who immediately came to my assistance, and get him a new set of clothes.  After about 45 minutes he’s calmed down and I am finally comfortable in trying to get him to go the hospital.
Bad idea.
He again starts panicking and begins telling me all of the reasons why he cannot go to the hospital.  He clearly wants to leave and there’s not a lot I could do about it.  I tell him the importance of getting back on his medications, it is the first thing that he must do.  
He calms down and agrees to go immediately to his doctor.  He leaves in clearly better spirits, but leaves me with the troubling thought of whether I would ever see this man or not again.
One of the biggest surprises I’ve had this year with working with my clients is the large number of people with mental disabilities.  Major depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar, and mental retardation are prevalent throughout the homeless community but are often times not readily addressed.  There is a shortage of locations for homeless men and women suffering from mental illnesses to get proper treatment and a shortage of housing programs in general.
It is a common stereotype that all disabilities are visible.  Obviously this is not the case.  Next time you pass a homeless person, and before you just assume they’re crazy, ask yourself what they could be suffering from, how their homelessness is even more crippling to their illness, and what they would be like if they had access to proper treatment.  You might be surprised by the answer you get.


  1. Rick, this is awesome. Thanks for sharing this experience - we need to learn how to bear witness to this reality. Take care!

  2. I'm not sure why it took me so long to read this one, Rick. Such a great post...thanks for sharing. I feel the same way every day at work, as I witness such similar things. Thanks for making such a great statement.