By Ariel Goodman
On my first day as a Service Coordinator at Pathways to Housing DC, I met a client wearing sparkly magenta eyeshadow who showed a me a blurry picture of her three-year-old grandson on her phone. “When he’s good, he’s so good,” she cooed. “But when he’s bad, he is bad.” Shadowing a co-worker, we accompanied this client to a meeting with her parole officer. Next, we picked up another client at home and took her to a food bank. She laughed happily as we zipped along the highway on that hot September day, saying, “I’m just so glad to be out of the house. [Addressing my co-worker] Janice, you’re like a sister to me.” Last, we assisted a client in grocery shopping and discussed best practices for cooking tilapia.
I left my first day with an aching head and a curious mind. I had been inside the homes of three formerly homeless people, crisscrossed the city from quadrant to quadrant, and glimpsed the labyrinthine world of urine tests and court dates. Despite–and because of–all that, I had little sense of what my job or my year would look like.
On my third day at work, the Executive Director gave a training on Pathways’ mission, beginning with a quote: “If we cannot trust others to know themselves and their needs, we will end by oppressing them.” And with that, the pieces began to fall into place for me. As a Service Coordinator on an Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) Team, my job was not to tell people how to live their lives, or how to live them by my own standards of health, wellness, and fulfillment. My job was to provide services directed by the clients’ wants and needs, and to walk alongside them in their rocky, branch-strewn, twisted, tortuous paths toward recovery. The most useful tools at my disposal were open-mindedness and a commitment to asking questions, rather than making demands.
Pathways to Housing works with DC’s most vulnerable individuals: individuals who experience chronic homelessness, battle severe mental illness(es), and most often suffer from substance addiction. Using the Housing First model, Pathways partners with clients to move into apartments–without any stipulations on their sobriety, legal history, or medication compliance. Once they have housing, ACT teams provide community-based, culturally-relevant services to help clients maintain their homes, their health, and their hope. The job is never easy and solutions are rarely straightforward, but I’ve learned that building trust with clients is the first and most crucial step. However, there is a myriad of intimidating systems to navigate: hospitals, housing vouchers, the criminal justice system, and the Department of Behavioral Health, to name a few.
In my three months at Pathways, most of my team’s clients have celebrated victories and suffered losses. I support clients through the laborious, anxiety-provoking processes of obtaining birth certificates, photo IDs, and food stamps cards. I enjoy daily jam sessions with clients in the car and at the McDonald’s drive-thru. I call landlords and cable companies and I battle with Washington Gas to turn my clients’ heat back on. I celebrate with a client who sometimes manages to save ten dollars from his disability paycheck. I provide tissues and water as a client recently evicted from her apartment cries that she has nowhere to go. I listen to stories of abuse and faith, dealers and lovers, hope and fear. I search for clients in parks and at their regular panhandling spots; I traverse DC with its most resilient residents, the ones who were raised here and have fought to survive on these streets. I watch clients move into homes for the first time ever. I watch clients lose their homes due to incarceration, failed inspections, mental instability–and return to the dizzyingly dark world of streets and shelters.
And then, each day at five, I return to my home, the AVODAH bayit, to a world both separate from work and yet fundamentally connected. Each day I return to comforts that are unimaginable for many of my clients: internet, healthy food, clean clothing, a bed made with sheets and a blanket, furniture devoid of bed-bugs. And I seem to transition seamlessly, fluidly, back into this more familiar world where I have never had to question whether my basic needs will be met.
But that is not the full story. Each day at five, I return to a home that is more than the physical space in which I live. It is a community of thirteen AVODAH participants, each of whom are working in some way to alleviate and prevent poverty in this country. After my first day at Pathways, there was no better feeling than coming home to these people I had only known a week. We were building new foundations together, transitioning together from our former lives to the social justice working world, within and beyond the confines of our new home in Northwest DC.
And then at an AVODAH program one night, the pieces fell into place a little more; simultaneously, the puzzle morphed and expanded. Studying the role of Jewish text in social justice work, we were given the following text (among others) to explore:
The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your land” (Genesis 12:1)…Rabbi Isaac said: To what may this be compared? To a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He wondered, “Is it possible that this palace has no one who looks after it?” The owner of the building looked out at him and said, “I am the owner of the palace.” (Bereshit Rabba 39:1)
As with any Jewish text, many interpretations surely exist. Here’s mine: The owners of the palaces are my clients and the palaces are their lives, no less precious or complex or valuable or broken or meaningful than the lives of anyone else. I am the stranger traveling from place to place, navigating what is, for me, new territory in the spheres of homelessness and mental illness. And–as I learned in training on my third day at Pathways–I must trust that the clients know what is best for them; these are their palaces to burn. I may watch and question and partner with them, but their lives are not my palace, I do not hold the keys or the matches.
Burning can be a destructive act, certainly. For the last two months I saw a favorite client of mine, Marcus, enter our office each day intoxicated and hostile, with bruised eyes and bleeding hands, wanting his check in order to purchase more alcohol; he was unable or unwilling to sit down and talk about potential next steps. I watched his palace burn and felt deeply saddened, clinging to the flickering hope that he would come around eventually and seek treatment.
Burning can be regenerative, as well. Fire burns until it burns out, and underneath the ashes lies the potential for a fresh foundation. Two weeks ago, Marcus came again to the office, saying he was ready to go to detoxification and from there, rehabilitation. I transported him to detox and felt loath to leave as I watched his shaking hands and depressed affect. A week later, I brought him from rehab back to Pathways for a brief visit. The security guards greeted him with hearty handshakes and cries of, “You look so much better, man. It’s great to see you again.” Marcus smiled. I took him to the liquor store to cash his check and buy snacks. He joked about buying vodka as he picked up packs of peanuts and chips. Then he turned to me and said he needed to stop drinking or he knew the alcohol would kill him.
I believe that Marcus will complete his rehab program, and I believe that he might turn again to alcohol at some point. But I also know that within him–and within all of my clients–there is a spark that refuses to give out, despite the challenges of living in a system that often disadvantages those most in need. In the three months that I have known Marcus, his spark has erupted cyclically, into flames that both destroy and recreate. His journey has not been easy and his recovery process is not yet over, but Marcus still has his palace–and that is no small thing.
For my part, I will continue to navigate my relationships with the owners of these palaces, even as I set fire to my own assumptions, biases, and notions of correctness. In doing so, I hope to build a palace within a community of palaces, within a world that is just.