The other day my partner Tony and I were driving along a city street on a rainy day. Our mission was to deliver fresh water and a mosquito net to a known homeless camp in our area. We had just finished a presentation on community based solutions to homelessness and my mind was switching gears as to how I was going to carry two cases of water a half mile into the woods. When suddenly, Tony said, “Hey did you see that girl holding a sign?” I must admit if it was not for Tony, I certainly would have driven right past a young woman holding up a sign saying, “I’m hungry.”I quickly turned the Jeep around and parked in a parking lot near the young woman to plan how we were going to engage. After agreeing how we were going to proceed, Tony and I engaged the woman simply by offering to buy her a meal. She eagerly accepted, hopped into the Jeep, and off we went to my favorite burrito joint just up the street.
After the food arrived we began to chow down. The young woman reported that she had not eaten in three days, so we waited until she had a chance to finish her meal before we attempted to assess and look for possible interventions. While I waited for her to finish, the same thought of, ‘I’m going to help this person’ kept running through my mind. There was no way I was going to let her go back out on the streets where she would be in great danger. Once she finished her meal we began to offer some options that would surly get her off the street and perhaps a fresh start to get back on her feet. I was filled with excitement because I thought I had the solution; however, much to my dismay the young woman declined any further assistance and asked if we could drop her off on the very same corner that we found her. She thanked us for our help, took my card, and promised to call me later to tell me she was ok. As I sit here and write about this experience, which happened over a week ago, still no call from her.
I cannot describe how incredibly painful it was for me to drop that young woman off on the side of the street. If not for my social work education and the sound of my professors’ voices preaching self-determination, I may have tried to convince this person to do it my way. The way that I thought was best for her and definitely safer. The thought of that woman being in great danger haunted me for the rest of that night. Was it me? Maybe if I created a safer environment she would have accepted my help. Thankfully, I had my colleagues to process these thoughts and feelings and it helped relieve the sting of this client’s decision to stay on the streets. Essentially, all I can do is be ready to meet her where she is at, when she is ready. I certainly hope she picks up the phone and calls, but that decision must belong to her and her alone.
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