I came into work today with a sprained ankle and a limp. At The Haven, several guests suffer from chronic leg or back conditions that produce a limp. Two men sport broken bones. This week, I entered the canon of visible injury, provoking a handful of bemused comments: “Girl, who’d you kick this time?” or “We should get matching canes.” Joking aside, I have never had more doors held, chairs fetched, or heavy boxes carried for me than today by Haven guests. While the gestures are kind and make me feel accepted, I feel this also indicates that I am still somewhat of a novelty newcomer. Almost halfway into my summer work, I still float somewhere between semi-anonymous college volunteer and respected staff member. A regular guest, who I’ll call Mr. M., remarked, “They made you come in even with a messed up foot? I guess you don’t like to miss much.” In my mind, this suggested that I am entering the realm of a dependable presence, which, to me, is a major affirmation. Without making coming to work with a hurt ankle a bubblegum martyrdom, vocalized appreciation at my basic presence delights me. After five weeks at the Haven, a new sense of trust is being built.
Now a more familiar face, some of the regular guests have begun to reach out to me. Some suggestions of growing relationships are subtle: a returned “good morning” or head nod where before there was only silence or blank stares, or guests remembering my name for the first time. These small gestures are extremely heartwarming. The big gestures are slightly startling: a mostly disinterested teenage girl greeting me with a wave and a “hey beautiful!” from the window, or an around-the-shoulders hug from another female guest.
Last week, I completed my first solo intake interview, in which a Haven staff member sits down with a new guest to assess their service needs. The man I did the intake for trusted me with the secret ups and downs of his past, his personal dreams, and even his social security number. It is amazing how much people open up to you about their darkest secrets when they think you have the answers. I don’t. I just have a pen and a piece of paper. The powerful trust woven into the intake process reminded me of a confessional: lay all your cards on the table with a stranger in the hopes that they might be able to fix something, or everything.
When most of the Haven staff was occupied with attending a board meeting, they trusted me to open the building and take responsibility for an afternoon desk shift. As the most
junior member of the staff , it was a bit odd to jump up to a major leadership role, even if just for the afternoon. Luckily, there were no catastrophic emergencies, and it was business as usual at the front desk. During my two-hour shift as The One In Charge, I reflected on what it meant to be seen as the primary point of contact for guest needs. Although it was a fairly quiet shift, guests approaching the desk to ask for help in contacting the Social Security office, fast tracking their re-housing applications, or young mothers asking for daycare assistance we couldn’t offer had me thinking, “Camille, you better know what you’re talking about.” Just holding the key to the front door produced a new level of trust in my ability to be of valuable assistance.
One of the best pieces of advice about cultivating trust that I have received so far has been from a service provider with office space in our building: don’t filibuster. In working with the homeless and vulnerable populations, he said, you must be as direct as possible. “Young lady,” he said, “either you say ‘yes’ or you say ‘no’. Even if it’s not the answer they want to hear, you will be respected.” In the social service world of complicated answers and red tape, direct answers are a relief from the uncertainties of life on the margins. Part of the responsibility of temporarily being The One In Charge is telling adults that no, I don’t have an answer, or no, your iPod speakers cannot be played inside. Frankly, owning that level of direct authority is difficult for me. As a young college student, I struggle not to feel self-conscious of my youth and relative inexperience. For some guests, I worry that it is like their daughter or granddaughter asking them to follow house rules. Chris Haggerty, a staff member, explained to me that being firm and authoritative in resolving guest conflicts actually strengthens the trust in the staff, because resolutely defending the policies of the Haven translates into resolutely defending the rights and dignity of our guests. When a guest knows he or she can trust a staff member to be honest, direct and consistent, Haven staff note that the guest is more likely to engage with the staff and accept that engagement as a positive force in their life.
At the Haven, we strive to be accountable to one another. We must be resolutely accountable to the men, women, and children we serve. This accountability and trust strengthens the possibility of an open, inclusive community. The luxury of being the reacher in social outreach is that the people you serve depend greatly on your dedication. The Haven does not have any market competitors; we are the only day shelter in Charlottesville. It is still the only place to get a nutritious, free breakfast any day of the week. Our guests deserve to have a place they can trust will be able to provide respite and supportive community. We owe it to our guests that they can trust that our doors will be open every day and that volunteers and staff will show up and offer a caring hand. It is an honor to experience a deepening of relational ties that run thick with respect and compassion at the Haven.