Someone recently came to my office and told me, “I am homeless.” I was caught off-guard at the simplicity and power of this statement. You don’t know me or anything about me, but “I am homeless” and that is the only thing you need to know. Was it the circumstances or struggles of his life that made him self-identify as “homeless only?” Or had someone told him, “You are without a place to live and that make you only ‘homeless’?” This is something we all do and it allows us to use a social short-hand; but what if that identifier became the definition of who we are allowed to be and become?
The person who came to my office had been a teacher for over 15 years, loved jazz, had 3 grown kids and had once owned a home and had a dog named Max. His lack of a home did not define or explain who he is, what he had accomplished or what he could still become. The self-definition of “I am homeless” seems strangely like a life sentence instead of a stage of walking through a challenge. Would I want to be only defined by my mistakes or by the challenges that confront me?
I have been thinking about this for weeks. This morning I was attending a Quality Assurance Committee meeting and we reviewed our client consumer satisfaction surveys which we send out to our clients monthly so they can tell us if we are doing a good job and how we can improve our services. A response from one of our clients made me reflect even more deliberately on my encounter with the client in my office. The question on the survey was number 4: “I was treated fairly and with respect.” This client responded simply and profoundly, “I was homeless but not treated as such.”
You were not treated as such because homeless is a condition of your housing and not a lifelong definition of who you are. I was so deeply moved that one of our clients had felt the impact of our staff and volunteers all attempting to say, “You are more than your housing condition or your problems.” To the staff and volunteers of St. Martin’s…job well done!
August 30, 2012