No Pity Policy

I am catching some flack, on Twitter – @sonyakeith, FaceBook, and in blog comments, for being a Social Worker who is not sorry for my clients and not sympathetic to their situation. I also get attitude whenever I tell a client that I won’t be their friend… in real life, on FaceBook, I won’t follow them on Twitter and No, they should not try to text me.

Am I heartless? No. I am successful at what I do, and being your friend is not going to benefit you at all.

You have friends, you have people to cluck and coo over you and hold your hand, and tell you how bad they feel for you. You don’t need me for that.

I believe in you. I don’t need to get wrapped up in your drama or feel sorry for you in order to do my job. I know that some events have gone horribly wrong in your life or you would not be hanging out with me. You don’t need me to feel sorry for you, and you should not want me to. I am a drama-Free Zone and I don’t do Deliberately Pathetic People. (Jenifer, are you listening – you big Drama Drop!)

My job is

  • To help you out of your situation,
  • to step back, out of your circle of passions and see you as you are placed in the surrounding world. I need enough distance and perspective to help you find paths you don’t see.
  • I will show you that you HAVE problems – and that YOU ARE NOT YOUR PROBLEMS.
  • I am your cheerleader: if I did not think I could help you – I would walk you right out the door. (believe me, I have done that several times. I won’t waste your time or my energy on someone who is not trying to achieve or maintain their idea of personal success).

Am I cold hearted? Not at all. My personal work space is bright, covered in pictures of current and past clients, my personal friends and my daughter. People who have seen me at work will tell you (I assume, because they tell me all the time) that I am unexpectedly hysterically funny and irreverent, and warm and friendly. They will also tell you that what looks like playtime in my office is some hard core change at work.

I think everyone gets to define their level of personal success and should be able to live their life however they want and no one else should tell them what “success is” – it can not be measured in dollars and cents and a man who is content living in a cardboard box is more successful than a man who is miserable in his mansion. Success is not financially measurable. Success is personal. I will be happy for you is you are happy. I will work with you to keep that level of stability and success – if that is what YOU want. What I want is not an issue – I am a social worker to help YOU out, not to get a power trip and feel all controlling and mighty. I don’t have a God complex – although I am pretty awesome.

But get this. If you are at my desk, you are here for my skills and abilities – and they way I help you is that I expect you to act like the grown up you are. I expect you to ba accountable for your own current and future actions and choices. The past is the past – and if the past is still weighing heavily on you : I will help you find the mental health or domestic violence, or substance abuse therapy you choose to use as a tool for your future success and peace of mind.

Everywhere I have worked offers services to folks who walk in and ask for the help. I don’t force anything on you. The help you are asking for may come with strings attached – but I will show everyone of the strings and caveats, and rules you are agreeing to – to you. I will always tell you your rights, and your responsibilities. I will show you how to complain about any mistreatment or with holding of services. I will treat you with dignity and torture any social worker I see disrespecting you.

What you do on your own time, and with your own money – well: that is up to you. Don’t break any laws and do what you see fit to do.

What you do with the time that we have agreed you will spend on the plan YOU and I created: that’s a whole ‘nother deal. I respect you and expect you to keep your word as best you can.

  • If I ask you to achieve small goals – and you say you will try: I expect you to spend the agreed upon amount of time trying to keep your word.
  • If I give you funds for a specific purpose – to buy clothes, diapers, food, transportation, etc and you accept those funds and agree to spend them accordingly – I expect you to do so and will be shocked if you don’t.
  • Also, though, if you misspend the funding, I will expect you to be accountable for your actions and I will tell you to pay it back. This is true if you are my personal friend and I give you money for new tires but you get a manicure and go to the club (*ahem, Isabel), if you are my kid brother and I give you money for your telephone bill but you buy your girlfriend dinner instead (Kenny), and if you are a client who has asked for transportation money for a bus pass but buys weed and alcohol with it.

There is something called an “Opportunity Cost” in Economics. You choose the opportunities you will take and sometimes that means you are not able to make other choices you want to make at the same time.

The opportunity cost of asking anyone for money, time, or assistance, is that they will expect you to use those commodities in rigid specific ways and will not just blow it off if you make other choices.
If you want to spend $7.00 a day on weed (for sanity) and beers – recognize that the weed is illegal and accept responsibility if you are arrested, ticketed, or removed from a program with a no-tolerance rule. And, buy your beer and weed with your own money that you earned – not public or private assistance funds that are not intended for alcohol and drugs (if your brother gave you money for your Miller Time – have at it!).


I don’t want anyone to get good at being homeless – unless that is their personal goal.
I want the men, women, and children I see in my day job, my volunteer work, and every day life to be resistant to being walked all over. Demand to be treated with dignity and addressed as a thinking, capable human being. In return, I will expect you to act like one.

10 thoughts on “No Pity Policy

  1. I don’t believe most people would have too much argument with what you write here but this is not why you are taking flack.

    The gentleman in question has not asked for nor does he want your help or money. You made prejudicial assumptions about him and that is offensive.

  2. I agree with some of what you have to say and not about other prevalent social “attitudes” you’ve taken on. So I’ll break it down.

    “being your friend is not going to benefit you at all.”

    Agreed. In social services we are NOT “friends”–we are “paid care”. In other words, we are *not* an essential part of anyone’s day to day living experience and we shouldn”t be.

    Therefore, believing we have more power over their lives than their circumstances is an arrogance to be thrown aside. As such, instead of power-mongering the wiser choice of action is to teach them how to find their own supports, politics and communal resources. Of course, that eventually puts social workers out of a job.

    “I will always tell you your rights, and your responsibilities.” Truly? Are you telling your clients that under the law, if they disclose information about their children, they can be subject to social services apprehension? That if they tell you they are suicidal you must have them committed? Or any other laws and variances that exist in your area? Do you tell them that “confidentiality” is a myth? That you must share their information with your team/agency where it can be accessed by other agencies/funders/governmental bodies, depending on how your organization operates?

    “I am a drama-Free Zone and I don’t do Deliberately Pathetic People.” Maintaining one’s wit and common sense in the midst of another person’s personal tragedy is one thing. Slagging those you cannot work with because they don’t fit into your personal code of “worthiness” to get your services as “Pathetic” is quite another.

    I see you pass off or refuse to work with those you find “difficult”. Too bad for you. Seriously. I learned the MOST from those people I thought I could never work with successfully. Maybe in 10 years you’ll understand that statement. That doesn’t mean “don’t refer” to those of greater knowledge–it means chuck your personal biases and your middle class Victorian social work perspective or stay in your brain rut.

    “If I give you funds for a specific purpose – to buy clothes, diapers, food, transportation, etc and you accept those funds and agree to spend them accordingly – I expect you to do so and will be shocked if you do”

    “Shocked”? Because someone did not meet your personal expectations? Your emotional state is a problem here. If someone does *not* spend whatever, on whatever they were supposed to then justice to your other clients, states you don’t give it to them, again. Action speaks.

    A wise mentor once told me, “People will lie to get their needs met. It isn’t personal. Accept that and don’t set them up to lie to you. You’ll find trust will build both ways.” I found that to be a sensible way to operate.

    Yes, I believe we need to treat people like adults. On that, we agree. Street credibility however, comes from treating others *justly* because unbiased fairness is a rarity in social services.

    Part of “treating people like adults” is NOT climbing up their butts and treating them like recalcitrant children if they don’t spend their money as *you* see fit. It is pointing out when *asked*–that “if you’re going to buy that beer, make sure you bought your groceries FIRST unless you plan to go hungry. If there’s a dollar leftover because tuna was cheap this month, that’s your call.”

    I’m sure you’ve studied Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What is often *not* pointed out is that some painters will buy paint before food, or some musicians will buy strings and forego fresh fruit. Why? Because in *their personal hierarchy* [which you claim to be supporting] those are *basic* needs. For someone living in isolation or who needs access to forums to discuss mental health struggles, etc. internet contact may be their only means of socialization. Because YOU cannot be there 24/7.

    “I want the men, women, and children I see in my day job, my volunteer work, and every day life to be resistant to being walked all over”

    You’re *saying* this–but you’re not *living* it.

    Otherwise you’d stop walking all over people who are collecting disability payments, or people with part-time incomes like Steve about what THEY choose to do with their own money unless they are directly asking you for help with their household budget. You’re dishing it out, but you can’t take it.

    And for the record, ‘resistance’ does not belong to the *client* it is caused by a lack of skill on the part of the worker.

    What I do NOT see in any of your missives [speaking of “entitlement”!] is *any* gratitude or sense or honour that people will put their hearts in your hands.

    The people I worked with often gave more than I could *ever* return. I am grateful for their stories, their trust, and astonished not by their violence or bad behaviours, but by the many, many times their good judgment, common sense and compassion outshone any expectations I could have anticipated, given their circumstances. I appreciate how many times I erred and they were forgiving, and how many times they came back to tell me something *good* they accomplished because that made it all worthwhile.

    Clients don’t owe “gratitude” or “compliance”. We get paid. If it’s there, it’s pleasant but if it’s an expectation? That person is in the wrong line of work.

    .

    1. I have moved 215 adults and 394 families from homlessness to a situation of being permanently housed. over 70% of those peolpe are currently still housed. My prevalent social attitudes seem to be effective. It used to surprise me that clients would be shocked by my attitudes and expectations of them. For the most part – everyone else has written them off and given up on them and seems content to feel sorry for people who will not change their lives – especially adults. Social Workers who address adult homelessness, we get attutude from other professionaqls and the public at large because our client base is seen as a “lost cause” and adults are soo much less sympathetic than cute babies, little children and even homeless pets who are adorable and also can not be held accountable to their situation. I don’t expect to be popular with anyone who doesn’t work in the field, or anyone who hasn’t been the focus of my work. I do expect you to get that I really know what I am talking about. You don’t need to agree with my views, but my track record is undisputable. Surely I must know something and am doing something right.

      1. Whatever housing sources were available to you, kudos because they simply don’t exist in *this* city. The waiting list is 5-14+ years for any kind of affordable housing.

        “I have moved 215 adults and 394 families from homlessness to a situation of being permanently housed.”

        You have? Personally? Or your agency’s contacts/resources/connections have put you in the position to be able to do so?

        In all seriousness, what you have done is arrange the resources to house people. That doesn’t negate your hard work because that is another part of the story [obviously your faith in your own abilities is playing a large part in why de-housed individuals believe you can help]–but without those resources, *you* would not be responsible for housing anyone.

        My job was not housing people although I did it sometimes because it was necessary and somebody else wasn’t going to carry the ball. Other times, I managed to *keep* people housed from illegal eviction proceedings and such through lawyer contacts and such.

        That was with a client load of 200+ per month. Ridiculous. That’s the sort of “crisis management” I’ve fought against because ultimately, it leads to chaos.

        I never saw anyone as a “lost cause” and with the [not my words, find it ridiculous] “extremely hard to serve” aka my specialty was illicit drug users who were, for the most part, living with mental/cognitive struggles as well.

        I agree that adults are not considered “cute” and publicly, garner far less public sympathy for their situation than their pets, do. [see article on stupid surveys]

        What I find repellent in the extreme is that social workers are spending their days calling OTHER social workers for benefits, housing, etc. etc. because the bureaucracy is so astoundingly inefficient that the average person can’t maneuver it without a pack mule and Sirpa guide.

        There are far better uses for people’s energy.

  3. I am never astonished when someone makes good choices. I expect them to. I celebrate the smallestof their successes and goals with them. I put down the phone so I can applaud when they tell me they got a call for a secon interview – I spent my lunch hour holding a clients hand while we waited for the H.I.V. results on her toddler,a nd I bought them lunch to celebrate.

    I also expect them to make bad choices and to have to start all over again. I am as welcoming the 43rd time you come to me as the first – because I understand people “cycle” in their determination, their addictions, their mental health, their focus . . . etc. It doesn’t frustrate me because I am not overly emptionally involved. I am pragmatic and predictable and a safe person to come to when someone thinks they have “failed”. I don’t ever tell someone they have failed, I discuss the choices they made – where the plan went south and we start again with more information and experience. However I do expect poeple to come in adn speak to me in person and see themselves in teh choices thay have made. I am not into humiliation – and there should be nothing embarressing in saying “Can I try this again a different way because ______, _________, and my approach to _________ interrupted my success.”

    I am sincear in what I do, and sincear in my belief in the clients I come across and work with – in a volunteer capacity as well as paid.

    Am I honored that anyone comes to me for help?
    – probably not any more honored than Mobile is when I go to them for gasoline. They have something I need, I go to them to get it. I have tried other providers – Exxon, Shell, Arco, Union 76 – but I like the product they have and the customer service with which it is delivered. I tell everyone that they hgave the right to ask for a new worker or complain about me. Within five minutes of sitting at my desk I will have given you the Legal Aid Number, the civil rights information and the phone number of my supervisor.

    Do I love my job, actually I do – it’s also my hobby and my passion and I really enjoy it. I enjoy talking to people and watching them transition. I remind them that everything is transitory and being poor doesn’t have to be a life sentence.

    Do my clients like me – I almost said I hope so – but I really don’t care. I care that they find me approachable, sincear, and effective. I care that they can trust me and that I work hard to keep my part of whatever plan we make. I hope they remember that THEY are in charge of their case and not me or or any other social worker – I care thet they feel empowered to make their own choices and comfortable enough with me to discuss them. I adore the kids that come through my office and “help” me type, who bring me school pictures and art for my walls, and chatter about the new friends at day care or show me report cards.

    This is not a popularity contest – it is serious buisiness effecting lives.

  4. ““Can I try this again a different way because ______, _________, and my approach to _________ interrupted my success.””

    Whoa there. Social service speak. I used to say, “Maybe we should go for a “do over”.

    “It doesn’t frustrate me because I am not overly emptionally involved.”

    Everyone is “emotionally involved” at some level and sometimes, all of us step in it. That’s human. Otherwise you’d be selling shoes for a living or something else that pays equally well.

    “Do my clients like me – I almost said I hope so – but I really don’t care.”

    Yes you *do* care. “Caring” doesn’t mean you will necessarily respond from that place. You’re trying too hard to play “tough chick” here.

    “I care that they can trust me and that I work hard to keep my part of whatever plan we make.”

    I can appreciate that. Worked with too many fools that were angry when clients were no-shows or couldn’t keep up, while being completely irresponsible themselves as to keeping whatever promises they made.

    “This is not a popularity contest – it is serious buisiness effecting lives.”

    Which is precisely why I suggested a larger, global understanding of history, world economics, community led initiatives etc.

    The “social work world” wants to believe it exists out of time and space instead of interconnected with huge forces at work across the world. It believes itself to be “special” as well as having little comprehension of the myriad other solutions that have existed across time and space, solutions that are not ” Victorian social work” based.

    All I’m saying is broaden your outlook. Millions of de-housed in North America [and growing] aren’t de-housed due to personal failings.

    I’d also suggest some serious other cultural training including anti-oppression study. Not because I think you lack competence, but because you are, whether you like it or not, the member of a highly privileged class of people and the culture of belief you are bringing into your work, is not necessarily the same experience or culture that others bring into similar work, or their lives.

    1. Hi MetisRebel,

      I just wanted to drop in and tell you how awesome you are, and how everything you type goes right for the gut and really makes a deep impression on me. I was telling Matt earlier how you’re my idol and I wish I could speak or write even 1/10th as eloquently as you can.

      I commend you for always striving to acknowledge fair points or areas of shared agreement when debating with someone who has not returned that courtesy in a single instance that I can locate above. It is to your credit that you can locate positive qualities in this woman, because in my immediate gut reaction, I could not.

      I have never done a drug in my entire life. I do not approve of drug use. However, Dan is an adult and an amazing writer, and I would be proud to call him a friend, or at the very least a Homeless Tales/Street Voices comrade. I do not judge him for what he chooses to do with his own money, whether it be gained by his music, by a part-time job, by panhandling, by UI benefits, whatever.

      If I give someone money, whether it be a gift or a loan, I have relinquished the right to pull my weight around and spell out what they can or can’t do with it. I may not like what they spend it on, and am not obligated to give to them again. So be it. But it is not my right to huffily make moral judgment calls on someone for spending their own money, and it is definitely not my place to treat them like a child if they make what I would consider a poor financial decision, whether it’s with their own earnings or funds that I offered them. I don’t get to demand my money back or berate them if I don’t agree with their priorities. I simply don’t give it again; they can look to another source for it and I wish them the best, and truly hope that life works out for them. Never mind what homeless people “should” spend their money on – everyone has done something that they “shouldn’t”, and I do mean EVERYONE. Mistakes and unpopular/controversial choices and priorities are not limited to the homeless, by any means. This isn’t about what a homeless person SHOULD do, by any means. This is about what a homeless person has the RIGHT to do, whether their freedom of choice should be limited or harshly judged by others due to their circumstances. It is also about pre-assumptions and prejudices voiced without even knowing the facts first.

      If Dan chooses to spend $5 a day on a baggie of weed, then that is his decision and none of my business. As a homeless woman (with a full-time job) who craves her $4 daily frappucino from Starbucks – “the price of sanity” – I do not begrudge him his own indulgences. My knowledge of the various drugs and their effects is scant so I will not argue the safety/mildness of cannabis, but if there are detrimental effects and consequences, they are Dan’s alone to deal with, and I do not see any instance in his article where he hints otherwise. I also do not see any instance in his article where he states that he claims any sort of benefits whatsoever, which was immediately pre-assumed by the blogger, when she might just as easily have asked if that were the case.

      The underlying issue here seems to be that this woman WANTS Dan and those like him to ask for/need her help, and he seems to be doing quite well without it, thank you very much. It’s more about a power trip and an ego boost on her end. You feel honored that these people would put their trust in you so completely, while this blogger comes off more as enjoying the feel of their lives in her hand, the sense of control that it gives her to wield her own moral code over them rather than helping those who are the most in need of it – those she describes as “pathetic”, as if that were her judgment call to make. No, no God complex there 😉

      I too wish that nobody had to be “good at being homeless”, but… guess what? We ARE homeless. Am I working fervently towards reversing my position? Absolutely. But in the meantime, I want to be DAMN good at being homeless, and I wish the cultivation of such survival skills upon anyone in my position, because they have served me well thus far. I have not attempted to utilize the social services system, as I am quite self-sufficient, but if this woman is an example of the prejudice and bigotry so prevalent in the system today, I would imagine that being “good at being homeless” is quite important, as I would sleep in a gutter before I would lower myself to work with an individual of her ilk, if it means genuflecting and submitting myself to her personal ideas of morality and kindness.

      I am no bleeding heart, I am actually quite caustic and sarcastic by nature – Matt can tell you so – but a semblance of emotion and feeling towards the downtrodden is important in making headway, I believe. No, you don’t need to friend them on Facebook/Twitter and have dinner with them if you feel it’s breaching the client relationship; but these people are not statistics and check marks on a chart – “housed, housed, housed, lost cause, housed”. They are human beings and it is the “pathetic” ones who need compassion the most. Not me, who by all accounts would probably be this woman’s wet dream as a client (job, education, skills, motivation, no substance issues, strong personal sense of ethics, determined to work my way into a more stable situation). Because I am all of those things, I can help myself. Dan also seems to be helping himself, and bearing it all with a sense of humor and dignity as well, whatever his personal financial priorities. He has not asked for this woman’s help.

      So 70% of those she’s housed have remained housed – big deal. What about the other 30%? They are the ones who need her the most, as are the ones that she chucked out the revolving door the first time around. The retention rate of Matt’s favorite program is over 90%. No doubt many of those clients she would also find “pathetic”.

      In the end, however, the numbers aren’t what stands out to me the most. What majorly bothers me is that this person is paid to help the needy and place them in housing, not to judge who is worthy of being helped at what stage of their life, regardless of their circumstances. She has shown already that she is a person who will make pronouncements and judgment calls on a person before she even knows their full set of circumstances, before she has even met them. Having pronounced her verdict on Dan (who isn’t even on trial, seeing as he’s not in her office asking her for funding), it seems nothing can change her mind now, regardless of his true circumstances or how he earns/receives his funds.

      This is why I appreciate you so much, Boni. You live to do good in the world, raise awareness, and you are truly grateful for the trust that others put in you. I know that I personally would feel safe and free of judgment, were my safety entrusted to you. You can find positive attributes in even the lowest of the low (and I’m not talking about my fellow homeless, either *eyebrow raise*). You are unfailingly kind and tactful in your assessments, even when you feel the need to make an unpleasant point, you never come across as lording it over others or enjoying taking them down a peg. You will even concede a point rather than going on the defensive as this woman does. I have not seen her admit to or agree with even a modicum of the truth you have spoken; not even once. This alone says more about her than I think anything or anyone else could.

      There is only one point here where I disagree with you here, and that is this: I 100% believe her when she says she really doesn’t care. That is why you are a better person than me, Boni.

      I have stayed up late trying to set out exactly what I wanted to say (I told you I’m nowhere near as eloquent as you!) Now I’ve said it and I’m going to bed. I wanted to address my response to you and not to the owner of this blog, because I honestly have nothing to say to her, and whether she responds to this comment or not, I will have no reply for her because I believe her to be a total waste of breath and – wait for it – a “lost cause”.

      Looking forward to seeing more of your fine work at HT, MetisRebel! 😉

  5. Well I do have to give kudos to our hostess here, for posting opposing viewpoints because not everyone does.

    Bri, thank you for the kind words but I am not the second coming of Pallas Athene. *chuckle* I believe we all have moments of whatever crap goes through our brains. I believe that the “shadow side” is important to contemplate and sometimes, that driving force is just as important to human development as what we perceive of as, “Good”.

    homelessinla has some strong attributes to contribute to the field. I also think in 10 years, much will change or you will leave. I did not start with the same attitudes as you do, but I had others –experience is either a great teacher if you let it–or it will bury you under the weight of your own judgements.

    I was fortunate in having two exceptionally wise supervisors and a brilliant mentor. Not all workers in the field are that lucky. My uncle, a medwewin taught me early, “Do not give them anything to fight.” [regarding people in a clientèle position].

    1. Sorry, but I TOTALLY believe you’re the second coming of Athena, and possibly a few other kickass goddesses all wrapped up in one 😉

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