Monday, May 16, 2011

On Entering an Unfamiliar Community

I spend one morning per week at a homeless kitchen in Tacoma. The kitchen has been feeding around 400 people per day until recently, when state budget limitations began to reduce the amount of assistance to persons not eligible for Medicaid and SSI. The numbers are accelerating now.

I have been active there for seven years. I do several things there. I circulate among the guests wearing a name tag that also says I am a psychologist. I speak with whoever wants to talk with me. Some do; many do not, and I don’t intrude. I am available to conduct psychological evaluations that guests want to help determine their eligibility for state financial assistance, and ultimately for SSI. I am available for street-level brief counseling. When needed, I help serve food, mop up liquids on the floor, and offer advice/consultation/referral suggestions to guests who have questions. I offer advocacy assistance, and occasionally I walk with guests who want to go there to the local community mental health center two blocks down the hill from Hospitality Kitchen. I provide support to kitchen staff and participate in some staff meetings.

All of that sounds pretty mundane as I re-read the above. However, if has given me entry into the community of the homeless and credibility with its citizens. I have been there so long they know they can count on me when they want something I can help with. Also, I know I can count on them. Acceptance, mutual respect, and trust are valuable gifts!

So what have I learned? It takes time to get known and trusted. Patience and persistence are virtues when entering an unfamiliar community while hoping to be of service. It is important to learn what is wanted rather than to assume I already know. It is important to speak plainly rather than in professional language. It helps to ask guests to teach me about their community and/or their individual circumstances. It helps to respond with visible action when guests need something, even if the action is an honest statement that I cannot or (sometimes) will not help. It helps to say “Keep me posted” when guests will need time to take actions in their own behalf, and to offer further assistance when needed and I can help. It is important to remain involved if I want to be an effective part of the actions to improve things, rather than just an observer or evaluator of interventions.

My experience at Hospitality Kitchen also has been valuable to me as a member of the City of Tacoma Human Services Commission. That commission advises City Council on policy questions and also screens applications for city funding grants by nonprofit human services organizations. I can participate not only as a community psychologist, but also as a person who continues to accumulate “street experience” and can help to improve outcomes purchased with city grant funds.

Post by Al Ratcliffe, Ph.D.
Tacoma, Washington

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Al, for posting your experiences working with folks through the Hospitality Kitchen. I very much appreciate the services you offer this community. Your ongoing commitment is inspiring, and calls us all to examine our level of "street experience" -- past, current and future.