“Namaste, Dear Athiest”

Namaste, Dear Atheist
by Christina Tello

Why does my heart long for the stars
If God did not make the sky?
Why do my eyes tear at the sight of a bird
That has just learned to fly?

Enthralled by the beauty of the trees
Bewitched by the feel of the breeze
In love with the sand beneath my feet
In awe of branches rustling sweet
Amazed by the flight of the bee
Betrothed to the waves of the sea

I am indeed a free-thinker
Not akin to default compliance
And my heart tells me that
This is all more than just science
That miracles are possible
To shatter what we thought we knew
And though you do not believe,
The God in me greets the God in you.

“I’m Sorry for Bothering You”

A client came to our office last week with no identification and no place to stay. He lost his job and apartment this past December. Since then, he first stayed at a shelter which is known to be particularly violent and got in a fight there. After that, he stayed at a local drop-in-center overnight for two days, which is set-up like a cafeteria and has no beds, but does thankfully serve food. He then went to another shelter, and his 30-day time limit expired two days before he came to our office.

He came to us because he needed a shelter placement and when he applied earlier in the day, he wasn’t given a denial or callback sheet (so there’s no record of him applying and no concrete requirements for him to meet to be approved). He said if he was placed in the shelter where he had gotten in a fight, he would refuse shelter placement because he is scared to be there.

I helped him meet the documentation requirements for placement and referred him to go apply again today and get something in writing. He came to my office and said they gave him nothing. I called a coworker who was at social services, and she said she would help him if I sent him over. I got some tokens to give him for bus fare to get to a job interview later in the day.

When I sent him to meet up with my coworker, he said, “I really do appreciate all that you’re doing for me. I’m sorry for bothering you.” His eyes were getting watery and I could sense he was very sincere. As I put the tokens in his hand, I said, “Hey. You are not bothering me. Good luck.” He smiled and left my office. Ten minutes later he was placed in a different shelter than the one where he got into a fight. This is fortunate because my office has no control over our clients’ placements unless there is a specific request on file from a doctor.

This interaction with my client led me to think about self-worth. Had he learned that asking for help made him unworthy of others’ time? As Americans, we are taught from a very young age to be independent and prosperous. As Christians, however, we are taught to be interdependent, and this would help us become prosperous. This puts Christian Americans in an interesting spot. The truth is that everyone needs help at some point. It’s humbling, and it reminds us that we are not perfect. And I think that those who are happiest are those who just focus on treating others right rather than being perfect all the time. Interdependence teaches us a different kind of self-worth. No one is better, and everyone has their special God-given gifts.

I try my best to show my clients that we are a team. Though our roles in the world are much different, I want them to know that I am working with them, side-by-side. Unfortunately our world works in a way where I have certain privileges that enable me to do things my client’s can’t. I don’t like that I have it, but at least I can do some good with it.

Peace,

Christina 🙂

“Snoop Dogg”

I have full knowledge how popular and somewhat cliche this is, but nothing could be truer. Do not judge a book by its cover.

On Monday, my first day back from my two weeks home for the holidays, a tall, thin, African-American man in his mid-40s came to my office as a walk-in. He seemed very quiet and sort of intimidating. He looked just like Snoop Dogg. He came to us because his public benefits were cut off for neither not satisfactorily participating in assigned work program, addiction or mental health treatment, school, or volunteer activity.

He said was addicted to drugs for many years and said he has never held a job. He recently completed a treatment program, has been clean for one year, and his worker recently moved him into the work program. He has been dealing with issues in drug court for some time, and on the day before an appointment he had for the work program, a warrant was issued and he was arrested. He remained in the holding center for about one week.

When he got out, it was Thanksgiving and his worker was not in the office. The next week he had many appointments for drug court, and called his worker the week after that. He was told to call back the following week. In the meantime, he attended all of the recovery group meetings for which he was scheduled. That following week, he received a notice discontinuing his benefits. He immediately went in to see his worker and brought his papers from the holding center, verifying the dates he was there. He was told, “It’s out of my hands. You’ll have to call a hearing on it. Are you using?” to which the client replied, “No, I haven’t for over a year.” Then the worker said, “Oh.. okay. If you were using then there would be something I could do.” “So, you’re telling me because I’m not using, you can’t help me?! I’ve been clean for a year and I can’t get any help?! And now I have to call a hearing?!” “Yes. There’s nothing I can do.” Which is NOT true. Notices can be withdrawn in certain situations when it is proven to be incorrect. This saves everyone the time and money for a Fair Hearing.

The client then went right to the recovery group and spoke about this. He was then referred to the hearings floor in the building. A week later, it was now the beginning of January. His Landlord came to him and threatened to kick him out because he didn’t receive rent. This is when he came to us.

After the client told me his story, he began to cry softly and covered his face. And I honestly think this wasn’t a fake, pity cry. To me, this was an “I’m overwhelmed and I don’t know what to do” cry. This wave of emotion came over me, and I thought about how I will never know what this is like for him. He said “I thought once I turned my life around things would get better. I don’t think I’m ready for any of this.” We sat in silence for a little bit, not an uncomfortable one at all. Then I said, “I know that I don’t know you, but from just what you told me, it seems like you are really on top of things and are making a lot of progress to recovery.” This seemed to comfort him more than I thought, and that made me really happy. I sort of said it for him, and sort of for me since I was so inundated with compassion for him. Then he said, “I’ve never had a job, I’m working really hard in treatment, and I don’t need this trouble. I don’t think it was right to sanction me, I was in jail!”

He had already called a hearing before coming to our office and requested to continue his benefits until an outcome was reached. Note: If the client wins, they don’t owe anything. If they lose, they have to pay it back.

Update 07/14/10: We assisted him in providing documentation and representation, and he won the hearing! So he was able to keep the benefits he received from the date of the discontinuance. He remains in permanent housing with correct benefits.

Think about what it must have been like to be an addict until your 40s. He must have felt like he was starting all over. Most likely everyone in his social circle was still addicted, leaving him isolated with no support system. Addictions are one of the hardest things for me to deal with. I understand it’s a sickness and feel so much compassion, but I lack direction in how to work with the people those issues affect. This case shows how important it is to have an advocate. He may have been able to win the hearing on his own, but this guy was an emotional mess, and very susceptible to relapse. It was obvious that he has had a hard life, and actually asking and receiving help was unfamiliar territory. I think about him a lot, and I pray that he continues on his path to recovery.

Grace,

Christina

“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.

****

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.

“I Couldn’t Have Done it If it Wasn’t for You”

I have been working with this particular client for the past month, and she has faced many obstacles. She is homeless, has a learning disability, was treated very rudely repeatedly by her shelter staff, and doesn’t have the necessary documentation to open a benefits case for her child. She has said numerous times, “I just feel like quitting. I don’t feel like I’m making an progress. People try all the time and they aren’t put through as much as I am. It’s always one thing after another. I’m so fed up, I just want to quit.” I would then tell her that she is making so much progress and is working really hard. I would also tell her that I have had plenty of other clients that had a lot of work to do, and she isn’t the only one.

She would stop in to see me or call me every other day, always with something for me to add to her file or a question to ask. She would call me really upset from the shelter when the staff would say rude things to her. I would always look at the variety of issues with which she was concerned, speak with my supervising attorney, and form a plan for the two of us to work on the things that she needed to get.

My clients with learning disabilities mostly need help with phone calls and verifying information with workers.. but what a difference it makes! It’s a combination of the client not understanding what the worker is telling them and the workers not explaining requirements clearly enough for the learning disabled person to comprehend. Knowing the law and resources available to the workers also comes in handy.

With this client, her worker said he needed a government document to which she did not have access to open her case. I said, “Isn’t there a government-only copy that you could gain access to as a social services employee? You could verify the information that you need that way.” The worker paused for a few seconds and said, “….Yeah. I could do that.” He seemed like a really nice guy, and I really think he honestly hadn’t thought of it. But the worker tells the client “I need this document,” and they’re firm with the client because they want them to know it’s important, and the clients don’t know that there are ways to fill requirements if you can not obtain them. Also, it’s the social services workers’ responsibility to help the client obtain documentation to open up a case if they are eligible, depending on the documentation. The clients don’t know that either.

This client had an apartment in the works a few weeks ago, but the landlord gave it to someone else while she was trying to get an inspection set up. Two social services workers were also advocating for her to get the inspection. I told the client to contact a certain agency to help her find housing, and I got a call today an hour after the client left my office, stating that the agency had found an apartment for her, and was putting the paperwork through today.

I called the client right before I left the office, and she answered the phone with a tone in her voice I hadn’t heard before. Mind you she has an adorable southern accent too!

Client: HEYYY!!!!
Me: Hey there!! How did it go??
Client: I’m gettin’ the apartment!!
Me: Yayyyyy!!!!!!!!
Client: ::laughs at my excitement:: Yeah!! I am so excited! I just got here with the lady from the agency, they’re helpin’ me get furniture!
Me: Are you going to stay there tonight?
Client: Yeah! Thanks to you!!
Me: Me?! Thanks to you! You did all the footwork, all I did was help keep you on track.
Client: Yeah but you was making all the phone calls, findin’ out information and everything.
Me: Well, it’s my job and it was easier than what you had to do. You did all the really hard work! What’s going on with the furniture?
Client: We’re getting everything we need! Thank you so much!!!
Me: You’re welcome, but the lady from the agency actually got you the apartment, make sure you’re thanking her too!
Client: Oh, definitely!
Me: This is so amazing. Congratulations!!
Client: Thank you!! I’ll come in tomorrow to give you a copy of the lease!
Me: Okay, great! See you then!

I am so proud. And not even of myself- I know I do a good job, but that’s not what it’s about. I’m proud of her. I hope she’s proud of herself too. She is really an admirable lady.

We all have things to be thankful for. Right now, I’m really thankful for my clients. That I can have any small impact on their lives and propel them into motion to accomplish great things with their many skills. That’s what I appreciate. It truly is an amazing thing to witness someone at their lowest point and see them soar. It is a gift to serve in this capacity.

Update, 07/12/2010- Since then, the client has remained in permanent housing. I helped her request copies of her child’s documents, so he was added to her case and she received the correct benefits for her household size.

This interaction with my client leads me to think about “accepting responsibility.” I’ve always heard the term in reference to something negative, as in accepting responsibility for mistakes or decisions that did not turn out to be very helpful. But do we accept responsibility for the good things we do? Do we accept responsibility for our hard work? Accepting only the negative seems awfully one-sided to me. It’s a challenge to accept responsibility for all personal decisions, good or bad, but it has helped me to become grounded in a different way.

For example, if I miss something cool because I’m volunteering at a shelter, I might say, “I missed it because I had to volunteer.” This is a completely false statement. People never HAVE to do anything, they CHOOSE to. In this case, I would have chosen philanthropy over entertainment, which makes me feel better. If someone says they have to give their wallet to a robber because they were going to shoot them, I believe that’s incorrect as well. They chose to submit to the robber because they chose life over death or harm, with which I completely agree. My client wasn’t accepting responsibility for the work she put in to gain access to housing. She was cutting herself short by giving all the credit to the people around her. Sure we helped, but it is impossible to help someone who isn’t fully on-board and willing to put in the work.

It is in that complete acceptance of responsibility that we can fully understand our self-worth and dignity.

Grace 🙂

Christina