“Managing Emotions, Fighting Privilege”

It’s hard not to get emotionally involved when advocating for clients. I meet with them, listen to their stories, and want to help them make it better.

My clients are the hardest working people I know. They call me frequently, come into my office to see me, and are always asking what they can do next, not what I am doing next. They are always thanking me, when they should be thanking themselves that they are coming to me for help in the first place. They want to work for themselves.

When I call a worker about a denied application or change in benefits when there has been a mistake, I am angry. I am mostly angry at the oversight of the worker and that they haven’t reached out to the client for valid information. I’m angry because my client is without their basic necessities because of someone else’s mistake.

On the flip side, I have about 40 cases, which consist of all ages and family sizes. Some are ready to be closed, and for some I am just waiting for the 30-45 days for their public benefits case to open. I can not imagine what it must be like to have an active caseload of 100 or over. So I understand that the workers’ jobs are in no way easy. However, if I were homeless, and had all of the baggage that came with that (stress, anxiety, anger, sadness, hunger, lack of sleep, dirty clothes, lack of proper hygienic resources, lack of support), I can not say I would be as open-minded to what my worker was going through. It takes vulnerability to ask for help. It takes showing yourself at your weakest point to prove that you are actually in need of assistance. It must be emotionally draining. As a “helper,” that is, the person that has somehow been designated with a position of power, I do not need to make myself vulnerable at any point. I am secure. I cite the law and know that it is right, according to the book of regulations on public benefits. At the end of the day, I know I have access to food, shelter, and basic living needs. I not only have that, I have the support of a group of people who would bend over backwards to help me. This angers me too. What makes me so special that I can have these things and my clients have to fight, day after day, for them? I know what it is- it’s privilege. It’s race, it’s class, and it’s my mother. My mother worked for me since the day I was born so that I would be safe and happy. She made sure I felt good about myself and received a good education. She worked 2 jobs to put me through school. She taught me to be independent, and to fight. If I did not have that, I can not say I would be as successful, and in a position of power over these people who are pure fighters. From this perspective, people are being punished for the family they were born into.

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I’ve been in the Catholic Charities Service Corps for three months as of this past Monday. I am placed at non-profit legal agency, under a team that specializes in preventing homelessness. I help people who are homeless gain access to emergency shelter and public benefits. There are seven other volunteers in my program, and they are all amazing. Each brings a different set of talents to the group. We really support and care for one another. At my placement, the attorneys and other intern are so supportive. They make themselves readily available for questions, and when they ask me how everything is going, they genuinely care and listen to my response. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

My work at the legal agency has taught me so much thus far. It has taught me to get a handle on my emotions when I encounter a client with a very sad story. At the beginning, my job was very intimidating, but I was up for the challenge. It freaked me out how much power I had to potentially do a lot of harm or good. I’m aiming for the latter, and a ton of it! I spend a lot of my time advocating for clients through social services; calling workers for details, requesting and examining notices, questioning notices, calling fair hearings, etc. Luckily, most of the workers with whom I’ve interacted have been extremely helpful. Not everyone is going to be perfect at any agency (except the one where I work, haha).

A lot of the time, details just aren’t explained very well to the clients. The majority of my clients have anxiety, depression, and/or a developmental disability. I remember at the beginning, when I would get phone calls from clients who were near tears or crying, I would just want to hang up and withdraw. Then, I would gather my emotions say to myself, “It’s their time to be weak right now. You have people who are strong for you when you are weak. Be strong for them.” So I take a deep breath, and continue asking them things I would need to know in order to help them.

It’s scary to listen to someone who literally has nothing. It’s scary to not have any place to go. It’s scary to call a worker who is possibly not very nice and ask them why they cut off my client’s benefits, because now they don’t have any food for the month and/or can’t pay their rent. It’s scary knowing that I might screw up. But at the end of the day, I know I have a safe place to go to. It’s not fair, and it keeps me motivated.

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