I have now been working with the homeless population in Austin, Texas for one year. Before I started this job, someone told me, “You can never change a person. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped.” I understand these statements may be true. I also understand this person meant, “There’s no point in trying; let everyone take care of themselves.”
At the time, I did not have a very good rebuttal. But I have learned a lot. I have learned about what people need to be happy, healthy, and safe in this world. And the truth is we do need more than just ourselves. To pull oneself up ‘by your bootstraps’ becomes a really difficult endeavor when you account for the fact that human beings aren’t perfect and that systems created to help people often become oppressive. We can always argue the details, but I have also learned that these arguments are eventually just excuses to do nothing. I have also learned that for the most part people don’t want to be helped as much as they want to be empowered. And they may not even know that is what they want until someone TRIES.
I have a better rebuttal now. It would be that you may not be able to change a person and you may not be able to help someone who does not want to be helped, but you can be a source of change in anyone’s life. You can say, “I’m glad you’re here,” when they may have never felt welcome before.
This year, I had a client who was continually difficult to work with. She was verbally aggressive with staff, not cooperative, and came in and out of the shelter without ever staying long enough to accomplish any goals. She consistently returned to abusive relationships. I volunteered to take her on my case load the last time she came in and decided to throw the book out the window. The first thing I said to her was “I am so glad you are here. I know this isn’t an ideal situation for you, but I believe in you and I think we can find a safe option for you. Tell me what you want your life to look like right now.”
The client told me she had never been asked that before. Suddenly, there was a crack in the aggressive exterior that showed a very vulnerable human being whose primary relationships with other people had all been abusive or oppressive in some way.
The tiniest crack is enough to let light in. You can always say the thing that has never been said. You can always give a chance that hasn’t been given. What I have learned is to keep giving, keep loving, keep trying. You never run out of capacity for these things. I often feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the poverty, homelessness, and violence problems in this country and in our world. I allow myself to mourn these issues, but never to feel helpless.
After all the debate and all the worry, it still comes down to one thing you can always do: TRY. This is just to say…what we do matters. And with that in mind, I hope to devote every move I make to a better world for all of us.
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