Call us : 403-390-7970
Email us :

Collection on Homelessness

Captn Jennifer Cannings

On November 14, 2006 I attended a seminar entitled
“Professional Care Giving”. This was a workshop offered at the Centre of Hope for all disciplines. It was facilitated by Dion Oxford who is the founder and present director of The Salvation Army’s Gateway shelter in Toronto. The seminar was focused on caring for others and also caring for ourselves. I chose to attend the seminar because I recognize that I am very dedicated to this work, and I don’t always care for myself in appropriate ways. I am certainly trying to work on this area of my life, and I realize that if I don’t take care of myself I will be unable to effectively help others. By getting caught in this, I may add more to the oppression of clients than the freedom that is possible for them.

Dion began the session by telling a little of his history, including his faith background and perspective. He informed the group that he began work in the field of homelessness at the age of twenty when he was hired as a cook in a shelters kitchen. At this time his boss told him “I give you two years in this field. The average life of workers in this field is two years, so here you begin…make it two good ones.” Now, over fifteen years later Dion finds himself as the director of a men’s shelter, still able to work effectively with the men. He admitted this is a highly stressful work environment, but the work, in his opinion, is sustainable if we have the right theology and philosophy. I began to get really excited because the reason I do this work is grounded in my theology and philosophy.

Dion believes that the key to working in this field is keeping it real. He stated that he came to the field to rescue and to save others…to help those who needed help. Now, fifteen years later he is realizing that it is himself who is being helped and saved. He is learning of his own deficiencies and handicaps in the process of journeying with others. A large part of this is being vulnerable. To build a trusting relationship both people must in a sense be vulnerable to each other. There must be sharing of both parties to enter into a mutual relationship. As professional people we also realize that there are also boundaries in this relationship. It can take a lot of discernment and wisdom to know what is appropriate to share with others and when it is appropriate to do so.

Dion stated that there are three basic concepts that can help workers in this field to endure the struggles and cope in the helping relationship:

1. Move away from power struggle helping.

2. Move away from thinking we can fix broken people and embrace that we ourselves can find healing amidst the brokenness.

3. Move from thinking we’re bringing Jesus to the streets to discovering that Jesus was already there before we arrived.

These concepts are particularly insightful and attractive for me, but I see them as incredibly difficult in many cases. I have witnessed how so many in the helping professions become burnt out and unable to effectively help people. We then fall into the trap of further oppressing individuals – the trap of giving them a hand up instead of a hand out.

I recognize that many people have two views of those who work with the homeless. Dion mentioned this in his presentation and it certainly solidified my observation. Some people think I’m incredibly crazy to work in this field. They believe that the homeless are difficult people and “just won’t help themselves”. The other group believes that those working it the field are incredibly strong. They seem to put workers on a pedestal and consider us to do incredible work that takes a lot of courage. This can be where many people can get caught in the power struggle.

Somewhere in all this professionals need to realize that we’re not that different from those we work with. There are common denominators of the human race – feelings of separation, aloneness, loneliness, isolation, self esteem issues etc. I think it is common that all individuals who live in what I consider “a fallen world” experience those feelings at one time or another. These are also common feelings of those on the streets. For those caught in addiction and the sex trade, feelings of aloneness or loneliness are common. The stigma that is then attached to those who live lives in bondage as such builds another barrier – another dividing wall – that separates the individual from living what can be perceived as a “normal life”. The concept that is foundational here is the idea of “journeying with people”, or sharing feelings of loneliness and isolation and being real in the struggles that we all have.

Dion spoke of the key to this “journey with people” as relationships. Without relationships healing is not possible for anyone. The five types of relationships he spoke of were relationships with God, with family, with clients/residents, with community, and with each other.

For Dion and myself, the journey must begin in relationship to God. This is where all strength is derived from, and where all sustenance is found. This relationship is foundational to finding the strength to journey at all!! However, as faith believers, we must be cautioned against replacing a relationship to God with service for him.

Relationships with family are very important. Dion quoted an anonymous person, saying “In my drive to do everything, the ones I love the most are left behind”. He cautioned the listener against forsaking family and loved ones for the good of all. This is where the presentation got real for me – there will always be a need for services! Sometimes it may seem that the need is so great and there’s so much work to be done that we forget about those closest to us in our focus on helping. I have witnessed this in myself, as well as many other Officers in The Salvation Army. As a professional, I have been drawing boundaries for myself so that I have time for myself and for those closest to me.

Dion spoke for a long time on relationships with clients and residents. These he considers friends, and does not like the stigma attached to words like ‘client’. Dion uses the word compassion to describe what he does in relation to these friends. The biblical word for compassion means to “feel pain in your guts”. Dion stated that after fifteen years working in the homeless sector, he still feels the pain deep inside for those with whom he journeys. Upon first entering the addictions program back in June, I had this “pain in my guts” over a particular parolee who relapsed and was sent back to the federal penitentiary. This young man was just my age, and had spent six years of his life in prison. I was deeply hurt as I knew the decision of what we would do did not rest with us but was mandated by his parole officer. As I watched the police come and take him away I realized that he was not so different than myself, he had simply had some negative influences in his life, and as a result was caught in the bondage of addiction. The compassion that I felt for him was heart breaking. I asked Susan “When does this feeling go away?” Susan’s response was “When you lose that compassion, you have lost your effectiveness.”

Dion also addressed the problem of oppression, and stated that sometimes in the need to help others we keep them in the cycle of oppression. We have taken the idea that it is more blessed to give than to receive to the extreme. In the need to create a solution to the social crisis problems, we have created a dependence on giving. By constantly asking others “What do you need?”, we have created a dependence on the social system. In other words, we have taught people they are needy. This brings some huge program questions for me. Is it really large shelter systems that we need? Where is the help for those who can live independently with assistance?

Dion spoke of five types of oppression as seen in the Bible.

1. Awnee – the victim

2. Dal – The sick, mentally ill

3. Raeb – hungry, the working poor, whose who are working but can’t make ends meet; those who can’t find meaningful work

4. Rush (Roor) – the dispossessed, those who lose their voice

5. Ebyon – The needy and dependent, the beggar, this is the product of our social welfare system

Each of these types of individuals need, more than anything, exactly what everyone needs – someone to journey with them.

Dion moved on to talk about relationships with the community. This is key from a management and a funding perspective. Partnerships are assets which, when developed, can make our work and the work of other agencies the most effective it can be. By partnering we can offer wrap around services and offer holistic care to those who come to us for help. Competition can be very destructive and we need to work together instead of against other agencies. Dion said “Funders are people too”. Sometimes we tend to look at those who fund our agencies and see them on a pedestal. We try hard to meet their requirements and make them happy so that we can secure the funding in a highly competitive environment. It’s important to remember that through relationships with funders we can educate them about the people with who we work. We can also work with them and invite them to be a part of the journey with us. Through relationships like this healing can continue.

Lastly the idea of relationships with others was discussed. Dion stressed the belief and philosophy which says “I’m not okay, You’re not okay, but that’s okay”. When I first started in the field of social work I just wanted everyone to be okay. I do not like the idea of pain. However, I realize that through pain comes growth. Some of the most tremendous growth I have seen in people has come out of some of the deepest struggles of life. I agree with Dion that it is important to recognize we all have issues and it’s okay to be working through things. Even recently in the practicum I am realizing how my own experience and baggage has implications on the work that I do. This is proving to be a big learning curve for me.

A discussion grew out of this presentation by Dion about people who are perceived to “use the system”, and from the perspective of some of the employees do not need our help. As discussion progressed another social work student spoke up and pointed out that people come to us for a reason. Who are we to determine who deserves our help and who does not? Our mandate is to help those within our influence. With this philosophy that Dion presented we should always meet people where they are and journey with them to where they want to be. This can be very relevant for manager and staff relationships as well.

Dion ended his session by talking about some very practical things that are helpful for self care. Many of these things were helpful for me. One of the biggest things he recommended that I have discovered I need to work on is balance. I need to learn how better to use my time during the day to help others, and take time away from work as time for me and my loved ones. I am working on developing a system that works to help me debrief the day and be able to settle down in the evening without thinking of work again. One of the other techniques that he suggested was self-reflection. One thing I really appreciate about the social work profession is the focus it has upon who we are as professional people and how this impacts our work. Self reflection is a continual practice that can help us do the most effective work with our clients. It is also helpful to get others involved in this process so that we can solidify what’s happening within ourselves.

Dion suggested that learning to say “No” is a helpful technique. I have learned this already as I have been the “new kid on the block” in many situations. It seems as if the clients always think that the new employee can be taken advantage of. I will need to work at saying no to clients, other staff, those above me in the organization, and The Salvation Army. There will always be a need, and as professionals we must be conscious of our boundaries. We must learn not to do too much!

Basic health principles are also important and we often forsake some of the simple things in dedication to the big picture. It is important to take breaks, to eat well and to get adequate sleep and exercise. We often forego these simple things to get extra work completed. However, we need to remember that without these basics of life we will not have the strength to be helpful. A part of this is knowing our stress signs. As individuals we all need different amounts of sleep, food, exercise etc. It is important for us to recognize when the work is taking a toll on us and we need some extra time to self nurture.

I guess the biggest of all of these is giving ourselves permission to care for us. Professionals in workplaces such as the Center of Hope can get caught in the trap of feeling guilty when we take time for ourselves. We must remember that we are human too, and we deserve time and resources to care for ourselves.

I really enjoyed Dion’s presentation. Through his insight I realized a couple of things about myself in relation to the social work profession. First I realized that sometimes I have trouble with combining the social worker and the Officer. Sometimes when I am in the Officer role I feel like it may not totally meld with who the social worker is. I need to further solidify what it means to wear both of these hats at the same time. The reality for me is that I may never be a registered social worker. Unless my next appointment is in Manitoba I may not have the opportunity to practice social work as a registered professional. My social work skills are very useful in the context of social services within The Salvation Army and have given me very valuable insight and knowledge for my work. It also gives me a good base of information as I move forward to choose a masters program to increase my knowledge and skills.

As I listened to Dion I also had the realization again that as an organization we are doing things that need to be changed. In The Salvation Army I see huge power struggles and some of our social work practices may need to change if we are to achieve excellence in service. I also realized that in many ways we are agents of oppression instead of agents of change within our world. I agree with Dion in that we have created a dependency on the social system in some cases. We see the cycle of poverty and how it impacts generations. Through his presentation I am inspired to continue to do the work I have been doing. I am also motivated to look from both a front line and manager perspective to see what we can do differently to achieve the excellence in service that The Salvation Army strives for. Above all, Dion reiterated to me again that care and compassion is the number one characteristic of a helpful professional. As I learn more about the counseling field I am realizing that although counselors bring very useful skills, it is more about who you are that can make the relationship effective. Skills without the care and compassion will not be effective for our residents. This is surely a challenge in our field as we work in high stress environments and there is not a lot of time given for sabbaticals or mental health days.

In conclusion Dion presented a number of ideas which have caused me to stop and think about myself, the social work profession, and the services offered within The Salvation Army. Dion himself is being an agent of change and is a wonderful asset to The Army as he has revolutionary thinking that may change some of our practices to more effective ways of helping. I am very grateful for opportunities for further education like these.