I was a skinny and reluctant social worker when I first started out. I was working through an eating disorder. Initially, I didn’t really believe that taking home a middle-class salary for nickel and diming those less fortunate was my idea of contributing to the world.
I guess, I’d gotten the idea that that was what the field was like during interviews I’d held with middle-class white women who worked down the street in government agencies during a social welfare class. I’d set up residence where I was finishing up my schooling, in Camden New Jersey. I needed money to stay independent from my parents.
Then, I took a computer test that suggested that I should become a cop in the career development office. I’d worked under-the-table at a local Korean deli for several years. Most of my neighborhood friends had pointed to the vice squad when they came in under cover and took coffee from us for free and told me they were the real bad guys. Sure enough when we were held up at gunpoint, the cops were scared to come around.
“Yeah, picture me as a Po-Po,” I said to my best friend, an English major who used to sell drugs and was going back to school.
“Well, actually, you always have had a cop mentality,” said my friend.
I shot him a look that said he was insulting my intelligence. I started looking at social work internships.
During my second job, I worked at a day program that was connected to a 30-day crisis house. Since I was only just entering a master’s program, I felt extremely privileged. As a result, I aligned myself with my supervisor and other more experienced workers. Without credentials, I was focused on working with people who would get my back.
One day, I received a client and was ready to get to work on housing issues, when I found out that she came attached with a more experienced case manager. Though not very talkative, she did tell me very clearly that she did not want to go to a particular boarding home, the largest such facility in the county. When I talked to the case manager, he was clear about the woman’s future. She had to go to the unwanted boarding home.
“Wow, that girl is really sick!” I heard a coworker who worked the graveyard shift at the crisis house say.
“I don’t get it,” I said, “I don’t see why she can’t live where she wants to. I help other people find housing, why can’t I help her.”
“That girl is very sick, I can just tell by the way her eyes roll to the side” said my co-worker
I deferred to experience. Sure, I had been hospitalized for six months myself, but I knew better than to make waves that would impact my work reputation. My therapist was teaching me that I could be a little paranoid and I wouldn’t let that affect my clinical judgment.
The woman was shipped away to the very place she most did not want to go. I can now see that she had been right not to trust any of us. For us, she was just protocol.
Once I graduated my master’s program and was promoted to a case management position, I visited the infamous boarding home which was buried in the New Jersey Pine Barrens in the far reaches of the county. Out in the pines, there were few stores, lots of sand and aged pine trees whose growth was stunted by fire. The pines were where most boarding homes in the county were located. I admired the scenery as I drove out.
The home’s one-story buildings were made of quarter inch plywood and styled in rows like chicken coops. There was no insulation from the elements in any of the buildings. Corridors were long and full of small rooms with cots and no furniture. At the end of each there was an open rec room where open vats of warm, iceless bug juice sat out under the dim lighting. There were no fans to drown out the buzz of the flies. These halls reeked of sickness. The chipping linoleum floors were being mopped with cheap chemical stink water that reinforced the sick feel. Almost all the clients were either gone to a day program or had walked the three miles to the store. I could not even begin to picture what the place looked like when it was full.
When I finished I followed the owner to the front office. The owner’s daughter had been in my sister’s class at our posh private school before male anorexia had drained my bank account and lowered my social standing. Back at the office, the owner had barraged me with gossip and information about the school.
Once freed to collect my thoughts, I recall betting to myself that they treated mentally ill better back in the Middle Ages.
A year later, I made enough money to fund a move to the west coast. Within six months of moving, I made a job transfer into setting up services in a section eight housing authority facility.
Here, I was reminded a lot of my ghetto days in Camden. I got to know a more urban style of warehousing. The project was scrutinized by the local media in the City of Seattle with its large homeless population. To get section 8, a homeless person had to spend time in this project.
I witnessed quite a bit in the six months I worked there: thugs tearing down doors and emptying apartments in broad day light; stabbings of impoverished addicts that were barely sanctioned; a suspicious death by heroin overdose; vulnerable individuals’ going to jail for being bullied into letting their rooms be used to deal drugs. And some of the things the residents said were even more eye-opening. I figured it was finally time I do something!
When I found out my supervisor had a significant drug habit I became suspicious of her intent. I stopped heeding her. Like a vigilante, I leaked info openly to a community activist and to newspapers and was starting to face unforeseen levels of threats.
One day, a resident with a job who had pointed out the local drug kingpin to me, told me, “It’s true we all love you here, even some of the shady people like you . . .”
“It’s just that we are afraid of losing our housing,” added his partner.
“You see,” continued the resident, “we all know this guy who came to work here and was just like you, fighting for all the residents. And he ended up having to come and live down here. I am just worried that that is going to happen to you . . .”
Shortly after this interaction, I received an unsuspected threat from my best friend from my ghetto college days who I called to consult. I found myself in a unique state of crisis. Was the threat real? He paid for college by working surveillance for a bad lieutenant friend. I matched up stories and began to see the world from a new nefarious perspective. . .
Three days later, I was picked up out of a ditch on a mountain pass outside of Butte Montana. I had been harassed by police for the past two days since they had violently halted my escape to Canada and separated me from my car. Finally, I surrendered to them.
Two months in, I was transferred to the most chronic unit. The temperature inside was below freezing. There were icicles inside the window that sat above my head. It was almost as bad as the boarding home in South Jersey.
When I first entered those dank halls, I felt destined to behave with the subservient merriment of the thirty-year residents. I was given old, dirty clothing so that I could layer up among the crowded halls. My appearance and sense of self declined. Fungus off the bathroom tiles grew under my toenails and warts covered by hands.
I still remember waiting outside the ward in the freezing Montana winter, staring at the cash cattle in the field. I’d be waiting for the staff to return via bus, late from lavishing with their lunch.
There I was determined to stay hopeful, industrious, and independent as I weathered the biting chill and it only annoyed the staff to no end. They all rolled their eyes when they returned as if to say I was entitled.
“That’s what they all say about you,” said my psychiatrist who I finally got to meet with her two and a half months in. I had put requests to meet with her in writing, but it never worked.
The staff didn’t have any hope for me. They all knew I wanted to take down the mob for what they were doing to me. The Cowboy Security Squad even gave me a beat-down to discourage me. Maybe I was a little entitled because I kept mouthing off.
Meanwhile, other patients told me the mafia really was following me. Many said they were in the mafia. One even tried to lure me to join a local gang for protection.
All this I went through was just the beginning of some very hard times that would last for two years.
Discharged to the streets I moved to Fresno, California and the temporary work I landed to get an apartment to let me go when I ran out of my month’s supply of medication. I started to feel I was being harassed in the streets. I didn’t know what to do. Somehow, despite extensive efforts, the only other job I could find was at an Italian Delicatessen.
Working at the Italian Deli forced me to move from the Central Valley to the outskirts of the Bay Area. Only then, was my family who I believed was connected to the mafia was willing to do what they could to support me. I had no supporter who seemed to believe that anything that I went through was real. They only treated me as though I needed tough love.
After ten months of employment, I finally learned to stop being bullied by drug-dealing, suburban kids who were half my age. I stopped letting my white shirt wrinkle during my rainy twenty-mile bike commute (and two-hour-long BART ride) to work; I accepted that I had to be polite to the Republican clientele that wanted to know all the ridiculous details about which farm their fine fucking olives came from. Finally, when I got insurance and could afford medication, I was able to get the anger and paranoia out of my eyes.
I believed people were entering my apartment during this time. Mail from job interviews would come to me already opened in spite of my complaints to the mail service.
Now, I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who works in an inner-city psychiatric day program, primarily with warehoused individuals. Boy, did I find it difficult to return to my career after being warehoused? It was a real uphill battle. I even lost a per diem job at one point and nearly landed back on the streets.
And the survivor’s guilt really keeps me up some nights.
Don’t worry! I have learned my lesson about being an advocate. Additionally, I know better than to try to educate the public about the evils of stigma and mental health warehousing. Research says that this will only make the problem worse.
Sure, I feel bad that twenty years ago a woman was committed to squalor and I did nothing. But I learned advocating for the mental health of the vulnerable needs to be done carefully, one case at a time. Alerting the press and crossing the police is a good way to lose your housing and end up destitute yourself. I learned first-hand about how arrogant my actions were when I thought it couldn’t happen to me.
In these days of escalating disparities, I am grateful now to respectfully extend my therapy skills this forgotten about population which is growing exponentially in our local homeless encampments, our flooded shelters, board and care homes, our county jails and over-crowded prisons. When I think of all I went through and still go through because I was warehoused for one month, I am amazed to see people come back and do better and better. There is a lot to know and respect about them. It is important for social workers just starting out to learn from them. They know an awful lot about their situation.
I think in this era, losing housing could happen to many of us. Try attaching schizophrenia to your name and see how many people stick around to support you and listen to your woes. Some days I come home distressed that I cannot do more to help, but over the last sixteen years I have learned how to share my story and develop programs that do help people. I am extremely lucky!