I’ve been the Housing Specialist at Harbor Health Services for almost three years. In this time, I have worked with a variety of clients from different socioeconomic backgrounds, with numerous and various mental health issues, often in addition to substance use problems. I have found that every person and every situation is as unique as the individual. It is challenging and often heart wrenching work.
In our shoreline area of Connecticut, rents tend to be on the higher side of market rate. Individuals seeking housing assistance have often lived in this area their whole lives, and to suggest that they suddenly pick up and move away is unthinkable to them. Often, my painful and difficult task is to remind them of their situation and to point out that their options may need to be quite different from what they want.
When faced with devastating news, it is very difficult for someone to hear that they may need to abandon their home and their belongings in order to downsize or to find lodging in a shelter. I understand their frustration and oftentimes, their anger. I provide what I can, something they may have lacked: a listening ear.
Out of ten clients or community members who call me during a week, I may only be able to successfully house two of them. The other eight I can make referrals for and guide to other agencies better suited for their particular situation, but there may be nothing else concrete that they can take away. What happens during our twenty to thirty minute telephone conversations? What do I do to help them? I listen. Listening is so fundamentally simple and easy to do. Yet it can provide a salvation and a glimmer of hope when everything else looks so dark.
Listening is not just hearing words; it is providing positive and encouraging feedback. It is providing what information you can to someone who is desperate for anything that can be shown to him or her. Listening shows that someone cares and is concerned. Listening is a genuine way to connect with someone.
Recently, a woman named Shelby (not her real name) contacted me for help. She was a community member who had been referred to our agency by the 211 Helpline. She did not have a mental health diagnosis and therefore, was not eligible for any services through our agency. I stayed on the line with her for just under an hour, listening to her describe her situation, her feelings, and her worries. I got as much information from her as possible and kept her on the phone while I searched the internet for agencies that could possibly help her. All the numbers I gave her were ones that she had already tried. I could sense her frustration and I felt my own building.
I never gave up and eventually I found an agency she had not contacted. It was a long shot, but she was willing to try. I also advised her to contact other people in her life, like her son’s guidance counselor at school, the members of her religious organization, and even her private physician. I explained that you never know what resources someone might be able to offer until you make contact.
At the end of the conversation she told me that even though I could not directly help her, I had done what few others had: I had listened. She told me of the pastor she had called for help who said they couldn’t do anything for her. She told me of the agency she called for assistance who told her “we don’t do that.” She told me how she had contacted another local agency that stated “we have no funds for that.” Each one, she said, was very quick to dismiss her as if she were a bother. What did I do differently? I took the time to listen, take an interest, and do a little bit of research.
Two days later, Shelby contacted me. The agency I had referred her to was unable to help, but they provided her with additional referrals, and one proved to be very helpful. In addition, sharing her situation with her son’s school provided her son with support during this trying time. Her personal physician, noting her current hardship, provided her with sample medications and reduced her co-pays. In addition, a family member who learned about her situation agreed to allow Shelby and her son in to live in her basement until they were able to afford their own apartment again.
I believe that the most important action that came of our initial conversation was a rebuilding of Shelby’s self-confidence. Finding someone who could help her to rebuild her own faith in herself was vital. As a result, she developed a newfound surge of confidence and began to believe that she could survive and overcome all the obstacles she was facing.
Listening is not always this powerful and meaningful. Very often, listening may still give you an empty feeling that you have done nothing for the person. Look past that and you will see that making a connection with the person sitting across from you or on the other end of the telephone is what working in social services is truly about. Without a connection and without the ability to listen, we too often become an empty shell programmed to apologize when a situation is beyond our ability to provide concrete services.
Bobbi Jo Evans is the Housing Specialist at Harbor Health Services, Inc., in Branford, Connecticut, where she provides housing assistance to people with mental illness and works in eviction prevention. In addition, Bobbi Jo has worked for eight years in the housing field as a property manager specializing in subsidized housing.
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