There are five things I know to be true after decades of working in a homeless shelter:
FACT #1: HURT PEOPLE HURT PEOPLE
People who are hurting often hurt other people.
Consider Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), which effects 53% of the homeless population:
One symptom of TBI can be “disinhibition.”
Disinhibition is the inability to filter out inappropriate/vulgar/sexualized comments.
Thus, many people with TBI say offensive and disrespectful things… because they have suffered brain damage.
Many people emailed me to say, “disrespect is one thing, but verbal abuse, sexual harassment and prejudicial language should never be tolerated.”
Unfortunately, people struggling with various issues (TBI, trauma, severe mental illness, homelessness, etc.) are more likely to say abusive, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-Semitic, sexually harassing things.
And they don’t do so because they are “bad people.” It is a symptom of their brokenness.
If you divide the world into “good people” and “bad people” based on what comes out of their mouth, you will write off a lot of marginalized people as bad.
FACT #2: YOU CAN REDUCE PROBLEM BEHAVIOR
Last week’s email was not meant to imply that staff should just take abuse and do nothing.
OUR ENTIRE MISSION is to give staff the tools they need to manage problematic behavior effectively and compassionately.
Staff can dramatically reduce the amount of abuse they receive by doing things like:
- Getting “pennies in the cup.”
- Managing their nonverbal communication.
- Controlling the tone of conversation.
In my experience, a well-trained staff can eliminate 80% of problematic behavior.
FACT #3: YOU CANNOT ELIMINATE ALL ABUSIVE BEHAVIOR WITHOUT ELIMINATING VULNERABLE PEOPLE
No de-escalation training can stop 100% of abusive behavior.
The ONLY way to eliminate all abusive behavior is to eliminate vulnerable people.
For example, if you cannot handle any inappropriate/vulgar/sexualized comments, then you cannot serve people suffering from TBI.
Sadly, many organizations have abandoned their mission to make their staff more “comfortable.”
FACT #4: OUR DISCOMFORT CAN BE OUR GIFT TO A HURTING WORLD
It is easy to romanticize saving the world.
When staff first come to work at a homeless shelter, library, hospital, school, nonprofit or government, they imagine that it is going to feel great.
The reality, though, is more complicated.
Saving the world requires sacrifice.
It ALWAYS requires sacrifice.
It is impossible to change the world in a meaningful way without giving up something yourself.
Let me say this emphatically:
- If we choose to do work that matters, we choose to sacrifice.
- If we choose to work towards a better world, we choose to sacrifice.
- If we choose to serve people that have been cast out by society, we choose to sacrifice.
If you are reading this email, you chose work that matters. You chose to work towards a better world. You chose to serve those that everyone else cast out… You chose to sacrifice.
Your sacrifice is being comfortable with the uncomfortable—discomfort from the hurtful words you receive from hurting people.
FACT #5: I AM ETERNALLY GRATEFUL FOR YOU
Not everyone cares about the suffering of others. You do.
Not everyone is willing to serve others. You are.
Not everyone is willing to sacrifice. You are.
Our humanity depends upon people like you…