Posted on December 9, 2010 by Pat Hartman
At Stone Soup Station, we find an eloquent description of compassion fatigue, which anybody who helps the homeless is prone to. It’s written by Veteran’s Services Coordinator Steven Samra, who puts together Operation Stand Down Nashville. Here it is:
The rate of burnout for those of us in street outreach and case management is high, and a large part of the responsibility of this is vicarious trauma; that is, suffering trauma from hearing, feeling and dealing with the trauma of our clients, consumers, customers, fellow human beings. It takes its toll on the soul, the psyche and the spirit, chipping steadily away until one day you awaken with irreversible compassion fatigue and basically, you just can’t take any more trauma.
There is a good reason why the average person can benefit from hearing about this. The reason is, it enables us to realize what it means when we send in a check, or donate a pair of socks, or volunteer for a shift at the soup kitchen. See, we’re used to thinking, “I’m glad my donation could help that vet,” or, “It’s not much, but at least some homeless person got a meal.”
But there’s more to it than that. Every time we pitch in to help, even if the contribution seems small, keep this in mind, and don’t forget it. Our contribution doesn’t only help a person experiencing homelessness, or even a whole bunch of them. It also helps the people who do this work full-time. Every kind of social services worker, whether paid or volunteer, is a soldier at the front. They are in the line of fire, day after day, week after week.
Any little bit that we can help, it removes part of the burden from the people whose lives are immersed in helping. It takes some of the weight from a compassionate, hard-trying person who wants to hang in there but fears the approach of the breaking point.
Samra talks about the frustration of having to tell needy people that you just can’t do anything for them because the resources simply are not there. And even worse is knowing — absolutely without a doubt — that just a small amount of help could get this person’s life back on track.
Fortunately, now there is a program that looks promising, SSVF or Supportive Services for Veteran Families. The details are on the website, and there’s also a link to the same information in a PDF file. Here is what Steven Samra says about it:
I’m holding my breath and crossing my fingers that those holding the purse strings have finally figured out what those of us in the field have known for a long time now; help those folks before they are considered ‘chronically homeless’ and once they get back on their feet, just get outta their way…
Meanwhile, we learn from Alexandra Zavis that veterans are one of the major subgroups of people experiencing homelessness that the city of Los Angeles is determined to help. Government and private enterprise have gotten together and come up with a five-year plan. The chronically homeless and homeless veterans, two groups that have a large overlap factor, are the focus of this effort.
Their plan seems to involve reallocating existing funds, and that type of decision must be so hard to make. When there are only x dollars, who gets them? The person in worst shape, who has been suffering the longest? Or the person who is just on the verge of losing his or her dwelling place and belongings, and could be saved by the application of some ready cash? The word “reallocate” is a scary one. Reallocate from where? Being in charge of decisions like that could give you a pretty good case of burnout, too.
Looked at from one angle, there is sound economic common sense behind the decision to put $230 million into supportive housing for the most long-term and seemingly hopeless street people. As Zavis explains,
Although the chronically homeless make up just a quarter of the homeless population, they use up a disproportionate share of services, including beds in emergency shelters, hospitals and jails.
She quotes an official who says it is 40% cheaper to create supportive housing with treatment and counseling than to abandon the chronically homeless to the streets. Other cities have found this to be true. Hopefully, the tax dollars freed up will then provide more services to the other three-quarters of the homeless population.
As always, there are several sides to the issue. The most extreme form of the “housing-first” philosophy insists on just that, taking people as they are, getting them housed first, and then dealing with other problems such as alcoholism and drug addiction. The opponents would prefer that the clients clean up first, and show that they deserve housing. And a strong faction believes that veterans of our armed forces should be given any and every kind of help, immediately, unconditionally, and with no questions asked.
And, of course, as always and everywhere, Los Angeles would have to deal with the “Not In My Back Yard” problem, or NIMBYism. But that’s a post for another day.
Source: “Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) Program: Finally, “Sumthin Comin” To Those Who Need It NOW?,” Stone Soup Station, 12/03/10
Source: “Plan to house homeless vets and chronically homeless gains wide support,” LATimes.com, 12/02/10
Image by foxtongue (Jhane), used under its Creative Commons license.