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Connection Erases Fears of the Homeless

By Karen K. Redding

It’s that time of year again when I begin to say “good bye” to the MSW interns whom I have supervised over the past academic year at Friendship Shelter. It’s both remarkable and by now almost predictable that what began for students’ as massive feelings of fright and discomfort in working with the homeless has settled into being at ease and feeling sad to leave Friendship Shelter.

Karen Redding

Karen Redding

For the past six years I have been a field supervisor for the USC School of Social Work, Orange County Campus. Generally, two graduate students are placed at Friendship Shelter as a learning experience to go beyond book knowledge of theories and techniques and have an up-close and felt experience of where professional social work “hits the road.” It becomes an opportunity to see where theory about human behavior informs the practice of delivering social services and in the converse, where the practice of actually working directly with people informs our theories and guidelines. Graduate students not only learn in the classroom, but learn from experience, learn from the client.

In attending the City Council meeting on April 22 that heard the Friendship Shelter and Jamboree Housing’s supportive permanent housing proposal, I heard many comments, reactions, and impressions of the homeless that resonate with where students begin at the start of their intern placement.

Often, students will confess to me that they really had not “asked” for this particular placement and acknowledge their fears and discomfort in working with a homeless population. They wonder about their safety; what it might be like to work with ex-felons or drug addicts and alcoholics. They feel bewildered about how people find themselves homeless, particularly later in life. They wonder about the extent of mental illness and what “to say.” They feel uncomfortable asking people who are older, closer to their parent’s age, to be more accountable. Initially much time is spent in my office helping students to land on their feet, catch their breath, and assume not only a new professional role, but to discover how they “see” things. As the saying goes, “what you see, is what you get.” If we don’t know what we don’t know, something remains in place without deeper awareness.

Something magical happens over the academic year: eyes open, perceptions widen, fears soften, connection takes place. The homeless are no longer a frightening population to manage. They become a person with a name and a unique story; a person who also feels frightened but has hopes and fears, successes and failures, losses and disappointments. Students find their way to what they have in common with the homeless person, rather than only what is different.

And, in the midst of this “seeing” wisdom grows. Students learn to honor their needs as much as another person, and get involved in a way that stretches but doesn’t break them. They learn what’s basic for all of us: the need for safety and protection, the wish to be happy and healthy, the challenge to be released from suffering in any of its forms. They learn to be less afraid of their own pain so that they are able to see and witness another’s pain. They learn that healing grows here…that this is the work for all of us.

 

Clinical social worker and psychoanalyst Karen Redding maintains a private practice in Laguna Beach and can be reached at [email protected] or 715-7007.

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