Corporal Charity, Chaos Control

Working on the front lines of homelessness. 

By Michael Brus

Illustration by David Hollenbach

In polite society, your first encounter with a person usually sets the tone of your relationship. If you meet someone and he condescends to you, tries to manipulate you, yells at you, or threatens you, you don’t expect to become pals. In fact, you will probably avoid him. But in my line of work, forging relationships with rude, bellicose, and otherwise obnoxious people is a requirement. Why? Because more likely than not, the person who dissed you yesterday was either drunk, high on crack, having paranoid delusions, hearing voices, or depressed about his lack of money, friends, and family. And today he may sober and lucid. In fact, he may be contrite about yesterday—if he remembers it—and willing to better himself. 

I work in a homeless shelter in downtown Seattle. You learn a lot of things in this job, but perhaps chief among them is how to deal compassionately, or at least tolerantly, with behaviors that don’t naturally elicit compassion or tolerance. Last month, for example, a “client” (i.e., a person who uses the shelter) refused to show his identification card at the doorway and threatened to hit me when I challenged him. I had to bar him for several days, and when he refused to leave I called the cops to have him forced out. Soon he went before a committee of shelter social workers to apply for reinstatement. The committee discovered that he was developmentally disabled, did not clearly understand the ID card rule, and had felt threatened by staff requests to show it. His bar was removed on the understanding that he would not get many more chances. Since that day he has been unfailingly friendly to me, as if our introduction last month had involved tea and crumpets rather than a police escort. (Of course, many clients act insolent not because they are vulnerable or ill, but because they are predatory. It’s our job to distinguish the predators from the prey, and to impose consequences accordingly.) 

I came to this line of work in a roundabout way. In college I aspired to be a political journalist. Upon leaving Penn in 1999, I landed an excellent job. I worked for, the online magazine of politics and culture owned by Microsoft. As if writing for a living were not reward enough, I received a corporate-level salary and was allowed to contribute to the development of a pioneering publication in a new medium. In the two-and-a-half years I worked there, however, my interests changed rapidly. I had suffered a near-fatal depression my freshman year of college and had undergone years of therapy for it. The therapy not only cured me of the cognitive habits that contributed to my illness; it broadened me as a person. Throughout my adolescence I had lived and breathed politics—arguing over current events with my parents, combing the newspapers for the latest bulletins on campaign maneuvers and policy battles. Now I found myself tiring of the affected high dudgeon and reflexive ideological dogmatism that passes for rhetoric inside the Beltway. I also felt a bit too complacent sitting in my office in Redmond, Washington, trolling the newswires and cooking up clever summaries of breaking stories. I wanted to experience something I hadn’t experienced before and interact with people at vulnerable points in their lives. I concluded that I needed to do something completely different—if not permanently, then at least for several years.

I tested the waters by volunteering—four hours a week at a local suicide hotline and two hours a week at the shelter. After several months I decided I was ready to make the plunge, and took an entry-level position on the shelter’s day shift. (Hours: 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.) I took the job partly because it was one of the few I could get without paid experience as a social worker. But it also allows me to work at the front gate of the social-service system—the people who limp through our door often have no home, no legal identification, no health insurance, and no income—and to witness, first hand, the trauma of pervasive mental illness and chronic substance abuse.

The shelter sleeps about 200 men and women and remains open all day. Over 500 people enter in a 24-hour period. In the daytime we provide showers, towels, toiletries, coffee and tea, chairs and tables, on-site nursing, mail service, sick beds, and emergency clothing. My job title is Counselor, but a more apt description would be Chaos Controller. With my four co-workers, I must monitor who enters the building, hand out supplies, reach out to people in crisis, and bar people for disruptive behaviors like fighting, stealing, berating staff, or using drugs.

Ten months ago I told a Catholic friend that I was taking this job. He replied, “Bless you. That’s what we call corporal acts of charity.” As a description of my work, “corporal charity” is both apt and inapt. Corporal is fitting. The first thing that hits you upon opening the shelter door is the stench of urine and BO. (It is not a pleasant greeting, yet after several minutes you stop noticing it.) When interacting with homeless people, you quickly learn to identify corporal warning signs like infestation (lice and scabies) and fluid leakage (feces, urine, drool, and blood), both to protect yourself and help others’ hygiene. Blood, and the diseases it carries, is especially dangerous. Several months ago a client was found dead during morning wakeups. (She had taken too much Xanax and methadone right before bedtime.) The body had been dead several hours when the mortician hauled it off. We had not noticed any blood, but later that morning the mortician informed us that 1) the woman had HIV (we did not know this because our computers were down, so her medical records were inaccessible), and 2) the corpse may have leaked fluids. Luckily, she had slept in a corner of the shelter that remains empty during the day. We quickly scrubbed the area down with bleach.

But the second word in the phrase “corporal charity” is misleading. To me, charity evokes a quaint, Dickensian tableau of nuns ladling out soup to grateful, scurvy-ridden orphans. This is, of course, a fairy-tale image. On the front lines of homelessness you will instead find jaded, stressed social workers trying their best to say no, politely, to angry people who feel entitled to services that often are not available. You will find human-service administrators pulling out their hair as tax-cutting initiatives and an economic recession precipitate yet another round of budget cuts. You will find underpaid, overloaded case managers trying their best to summon empathy for clients whose self-destructive binges negate months of slow, hard-fought improvement. One shelter client, a semi-retarded man with a thin, close-cropped Mohawk, needs such close supervision that he must meet with his case manager at least once a day. Recently, I saw a black man ask him, “Hey, buddy, you a skinhead?” He replied, truthfully, “No, I’m a punk.” I told this story to his case manager, who was pleased and said, “Wonderful. He was accepted for who he is.” An empathetic response. The next day this same case manager was fuming. His punk client had wasted an hour of his morning telling a story that turned out to be full of fabrications. “You want my job?” the case manager asked me, only half joking. A less-than-empathetic response, but a completely understandable one. One step forward, one step back.

Amid this frustration, there are moments of grace. Last week, a man to whom I had supervised a lice treatment some five months ago gave me a boxed Chinese dinner as a gift. When he had submitted to the treatment—under penalty of a bar for chronically bad hygiene—he was suspicious and resentful. But after months of periodic outreach, I had earned his trust.

There are also moments of humor, such as when a mentally ill or blind client dances to the music in his Walkman with un-self-conscious joy, or when a sartorially resourceful client walks in with a new outfit of found objects. (One client, a slightly overweight man with babyish features, came in one day wearing paperclip necklaces and a long, blond wig found in the trash. He looked like a cherub dressed as a glam rocker.) And there are moments of genuine success. These usually occur when a person gains enough insight into his mental illness or addiction to have it treated, or when months of patient waiting on a public-housing list pay off. Occasionally, it occurs against a client’s will. When a person becomes seriously unable to function, a judge can force them to take medication that can relieve them of their psychosis—and, with luck, their resistance to housing and basic hygiene.

By the time this article goes to press, I will have started a new position as a case manager. It will give me the opportunity to make more complicated clinical decisions, and it will afford me the relief of being more of a problem fixer (a “good guy,” in the eyes of clients) than a rule enforcer (a bad guy). (This is not to mention the value of saner working hours and a salary that actually pays my rent.) I have not given up writing, though I have concluded that the education of a writer is less linear than I once assumed. E. B. White once wrote, “I arise every morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy it.” To me, social service is a form of improvement, and writing a form of enjoyment. Before I die, I want to be an expert in both.

Michael Brus CGS ’99 <[email protected]> last wrote for the Gazette about history professors Sheldon Hackney and Alan Kors. You can read a five-day diary of his shelter experience at Slate.

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