Derek Blankenship, Whittier College 2016, QVS Boston 2016-17

I’m going to be honest with you. When I accepted the open site placement at Boston Health Care for the Homeless last year I had little clue what I was getting myself into. All I knew for certain about the role was that I would be working with the homeless, which I was intent on doing.

When I arrived at my site, a little adult day health center in Codman Square, I arrived very early and a whole lot more confident than I deserved to be. In fact, my apparent competency was so over-blown (by me) that I somehow managed to negotiate (not on purpose, I assure you) the first week or two without much supervision. In that conversation, as we were developing an action plan for the beginning of my service, I made the easy suggestion: “How about I just start off by getting to know people?” And so I did, and my supervisor (at the time), went on vacation as she had planned to do. Her temporary replacement eventually became my permanent supervisor and I couldn’t be happier with the match.

Those first few weeks were hectic and fascinating and I learned more in such a short time than I realized I could. I built my days on listening and researching and building relationships with the people I was there to serve (or work with, as many in social work choose to reframe our relationship with clients) as well as with other case managers (people who already knew how to do my job). It was touch and go, but I found my footing in time.

I had doubts, of course, that finding stability was even possible. On the first day, one of the program assistants at the site pulled me into a room after all my supervisors had left. She said, “I just wanted to warn you. These people [the clients] will drive you mad.” I was a bit surprised by her comment. I started to think, “what have I gotten myself into?” She proceeded to catalogue all the things I shouldn’t do. It was a good start, but I was skeptical of her rush to write off the clients, and rightly so. After all, I had just spent a week and a half of site placement orientation hearing a whole lot about the importance of “meeting people where they’re at,” and never assuming that we know better than our clients and always remembering that we aren’t there to set people’s goals for them, but to support them to achieve their own.

There was some truth to what she was saying, though. This kind of work can drive you mad. In fact, she herself was burned out, and left the center about a month later. But people experiencing homeless aren’t to blame for that. Their condition is one fueled by inequality and injustice at a structural level, which is something that victims of that injustice cannot and should not be held accountable for. Rather, the high rate of burnout among social workers can almost entirely be chalked up to the vast lack of resources available for the underserved populations they work with.

And so this work can drive you mad (sometimes), which is something that I understand a whole lot better now that I’ve become a competent case manager. Being present with clients isn’t what drives me mad. They’re genuinely incredible people, and the stories that they have to tell can move me in the kind of deep, spiritual way that Quaker meeting often feels like. It’s wonderful to know them, and they have as much to offer me as I have to offer them.

What drives me mad is their struggle, and the realization that our society treats them as if they were ghosts, or dirt, or broken glass. That realization is disheartening and difficult to bear. Case management can feel like trying to cut through a brick wall with a butter knife. You think to yourself, “We are doing all this work. We are trying so hard and getting nowhere.” Sometimes there are victories, of course, and there are success stories of those who have escaped their condition. But there are many more defeats and tragedies.

It’s very hard to explain the way that it feels to do this work, so I am attaching number of vignettes from my service. In them, you will see victory and defeat, angst and pride. They provide a very small impression of fullness of my experience.

I realize more and more how true it is what my supervisor told me, that “the greatest case manager in the world could not house everyone.” Housing being a stand-in for all the things that we wish we could give to our clients, knowing that housing itself is an imperfect solution to the underlying causes of homelessness, but a noble goal nonetheless. And in that goal, we are wholly dependent on the available resources, which are of insufficient amount in a system that is stacked against the poor. Only advocacy can change this, something which I find pulling me in my search for how it is that we solve these injustices.

But that’s the future, and this is now. Right now, in the role that I have, I make relationships my priority, as Andrew Huff (my predecessor) advised me to do and rightly so. In a day-to-day of being unable to solve a great deal of practical problems that people are looking to me to solve, one thing I can always count on is being able to connect on a human level with someone experiencing hardship. I cannot be a benefactor for these people, but I can be a friend. Sometimes, that’s enough to hold off despair.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to such an essential organization that fulfills the needs of so many, while also growing so much myself.

For more about the work of Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program, visit their website here:

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