How the Other Half Lives

I have never really held a “normal job” for very long. Instead, I have gravitated towards the human service field dealing with crisis situations. As far as “normal jobs” go, I am talking about the types of jobs a majority of teenagers, young adults, and college students work- ones that primarily entail food and retail. My experiences in these are few.

 My stint at JCPenney at 15 was short lived. Apparently I was not too good at this whole customer service thing. I committed retail cardinal sins daily. I set change on the counter instead of handing it to the customer’s inpatient hand (gasp!). I never tried to upsell. I never tried to push people to sign up for credit cards. In short, I was a manager’s nightmare.

Here was a typical scenario. Frantic grandmothers would come in to purchase clothes for their granddaughter’s birthdays. Often they would have no idea what size she wore or how old she was turning. They would hold out their hands, explaining “well she’s this big, see she eats a lot of cake and plays those new-fangled contraptions all day.” They would ask me where the “husky” sizes were, then I would proceed to explain to them that girls’ sizes were called “plus sizes” and fumble awkwardly to find a size.  They would leave frustrated that I was just a kid myself–which I was.

Two months later while shopping, I awkwardly ran into my manger. He informed me that he had to “take me off the schedule”- the PC, corporate way of “letting employees go.” I smiled through the lump in my throat and drowned my sorrows in an extra-large Orange Julius in the mall food court.

Retail was not for me. I found my place in the sun, so to speak, as a youth mentor at a small non-profit. This was a job with more responsibility and more seriousness than I could really grasp at the time. I helped kids from broken homes, kids with ADHD, kids with autism, Aspberger’s, and disorders I did not know how to pronounce at the time, much less what they actually meant.

I will always remember the wild-eyed fire and kind heart of a small four year old boy who was my first client. This boy had stolen his parent’s car at four years old, been expelled many times, and most staff refused to work with him. The first time I went to pick him up at his run-down trailer, I got a glimpse outside sheltered my middle class bubble. Where toys and trinkets lined the shelves at my house, here they were lined with alcohol bottles and garbage. My house smelled like potpourri, here it smelled like stale cigarette smoke and mold.

The boy looked at me with big brown eyes brimming with a curious fascination and excitement. His hair was as disheveled as his spirit. I took him to the park, where we chased each other through the slides on a crisp fall day. We had a blast. Yet in the car I saw a mischievous glint in his eyes. He tried to shift my car into a different gear and jump out the window. Another time he dug his teeth into my arm like it was some sort of teething ring.

 I was firm but fair with him. He was my little buddy. He taught me perseverance, resilience, and about curiosity and imagination. I found working with these kids resonated with me. I was naturally a kid at heart with a youthful energy coupled with patience. Fast forward a few years later, where I went to school for social work and have since worked a spectrum of non-profits from group homes to homeless shelters to treatment centers.

Last issue I discussed how I found my niche in the non-profit world after a few unsuccessful retail stints. While non-profits might not be for everybody, the important thing is that everybody can find a career that they view as meaningful and fits well with their values.

I fervently believe that people deserve to be treated with compassion and dignity–especially people struggling with disability, mental health issues, addictions, or unfortunate circumstances such as homelessness. I think that at any moment if the wind swung the pendulum just the wrong way, the stability could sway in any lives. It could very well be you, me, a family member, or friend in that seemingly hopeless situation. The other half really is not that different than us with more barriers to face on a daily basis–namely, finding a place to sleep at night.

Working with the homeless population of Fargo-Moorhead has opened my eyes to the reality of homelessness in our community. Homelessness might be somewhat invisible or hidden because of people tucked away at shelters or under bridges, but a 2009 survey found that 763 people were homeless in our community (almost half are veterans).

This number might seem low in North Dakota compared to larger cities and economically struggling states, but it is still an increasingly relevant problem. Shelters in the community are bursting at the seams. The homeless population has spiked the last two years because of people coming from other areas of the country seeking employment and then struggling to find it outside of the oil patch.

I have met many of the people who have left behind the shadows of abandoned factories and shattered glass of dying manufacturing cities like Detroit and Cleveland in hopes of starting a new life in Fargo. They come to Fargo with glimmering aspirations of a job and place to live.  I think of one lady in particular with schizophrenia, who had thought moving to Fargo would change things. Unfortunately she found that her demons- the voices that haunted her head, the delusions- followed her wherever she went. Every day she would sigh and ask me, “when are things gonna get better?” I told her I knew it was hard but to hang in there, to be patient.

One day I saw her with her head in her hands, tears streaked across her face.  I asked her what was wrong and she told me, “I guess things really aren’t that different here then all the other cities I’ve been to.”  She was right in a sense. A change in geography does not change the chronic problems faced by many people who are homeless such as mental illness, chemical dependency, disability, lack of education, criminal history. Yet, Fargo does have the benefits of a dedicated homeless coalition and active community members addressing the problem of homelessness.

Working with the homeless population can be certainly sad and exhausting. To be sure, it is the farthest thing from glamorous work. I have cleaned every bodily fluid known to man over the years and come in contact with bed bugs, lice, MRSA, and other creepy crawly creatures. I have worked 80 hour weeks and been paid for 40. I have been called every expletive in the book and frighteningly enough, given death threats. I have spent Holidays with strangers rather than my family.

Burnout happens often in this field. Stress, long hours, and being around chaos takes its toll on people. I have learned to make home as quiet and as gentle as possible. Self-care, reading and doing things I enjoy away from the turbulence are essential to stay healthy and balanced.

Even with all of the downsides of working in human services, I do not know that I would really have it any other way. I feel more comfortable consoling someone having a panic attack or coming down from hard drugs then someone complaining about a fly in their soup. The positives far outweigh the negatives, and through all of the tragedy and sadness I have witnessed there has also been joy, laughter, and growth.

I chose to focus on the growth of my clients. The literal and metaphorical bruises and scars that heal and fade with time are replenished with a new vibrancy. Even when that does not happen, when people repeatedly fall and slip into old ways, I try to remember that the healing itself is a journey, not a destination. And that’s something that everybody can learn from.

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