Sometimes the hardest thing about being the director is maintaining hope in the face of what seems like overwhelming odds. I feel as though it is my job to encourage and motivate my staff and board to do what is necessary. But what about when one feels not-so-hopeful himself? It is hard to be the motivator when it seems like all the news you are getting that will affect your ability to operate the agency is dark. State funding cuts, individual donations down, corporations not giving, demand for services tripled, staff stretched thin, foundation giving decreased or not at all. The numbers are maddening. You can only have a contingency plan for so much, but when everything goes south it becomes a real challenge. The state budget issue is the most frustrating. The uncertainty and the promise of late or non-payment is totally disruptive. I know that if we decided not to pay our staff or our creditors they would leave or cancel our account. And it is all about maintaining political power for those who were elected by the people. Yet, what they don’t realize is that the people are the ones who are going to suffer and are suffering. The people with money will have to deal with it as well. We have created in our society the idea that we all “should” the haves, so when people are the have nots, they will do whatever it takes to become one who has.
Sometimes I think that businesses can lay off staff and produce less “stuff” and then rebound when people are spending again and they can then rehire staff. In social services we are facing all those people who have been let go, and we all know that the low man on the totem pole is always the one who gets the ax first. As I have said before, we are trying to do this with fewer dollars and fewer resources. So, we end up with a lot of unskilled, undereducated and working poor who are now the unemployed poor – soon to be homeless. People really are hanging on by a thread. So are we.
I am proud of the people I work with, my staff, because they work REALLY hard and are dedicated to helping people turn their lives around and attain stability. So, the one thing giving me hope right now, that lets me be a leader who motivates, is the people we serve and their will to overcome.
There is so much to do and so little time. I had a good book recommended to me about time mangement and it really helped. I must finish it some day. I always end my day with so much left on my to do list I feel as though I could work until midnight every night just to keep up. I find the most difficult thing to decides is what not to do. What do I put off until another day. The prioritizing is the challenge fo me. There are so many committes and activites outside of actually running the agency that end up suffering. In the end I know I should be more active with these groups, but just run out of minutes in the day to do it correctly.
I just read a nice article on change.org’s website about how staying in a shelter, especially for families, costs more than paying for an apartment http://homelessness.change.org/blog/view/shelters_cost_more_than_apartments. They do not include the cost for supportive services in housing in the article, but for most homeless families long term services are not required. Housing with supportive services is best suited, and designed, for people with disabilities. The cost of a homeless disabled person to be on the streets or shelters is a lot more than for the non-disabled homeless. I have found that the average cost of getting a family where the head of household is disabled off the streets and providing services to ensure they never enter the homeless system again for our agency is from $5,000 to $7,500 total. That is the cost for our agency to get someone off the streets into housing and get back on their feet.
Why do I talk about cost so much in my blogs? I guess because I find it hard to believe that we as a society spend so much money to keep people homeless when we could spend less money and have a better society. I have heard it said that “desperate times call for desperate measures.” When are things more desperate than when you are unsheltered or sleeping on the floor surrounded by tens or hundreds of other people. So by providing a roof over a person’s head we are making their situation less desperate, and they are less likely to take desperate measures. We ALL want to live in a safe place, so let’s work to create a place that is safe for everyone, not just the privileged.
I can’t tell you how much I hate that name. I could not believe it a few years ago when I heard they were changing the name for an ICF (Intermediate Care Facility) to IMD. What are we, living in the 1950’s? The people who are living there are not mentally deficient, they have an illness that affects their brain, which affects their ability to interact with people in society. We don’t force people who have lung cancer to live in an institute for lung deficiency where they cannot leave except with permission from their oncologist. Not only are these places where people are labeled and robbed of their humanity, but some are fraudulent money making schemes for the owners. The challenge is where do you house people who have severe mental illness and need a lot of help with daily living issues, without warehousing them and where they can be safe. Some of the residents in the IMDs can be aggressive in public, and so there is the fear that they will hurt someone.
I argue that with enough services, say in more of a group home setting, people can be successful. I remember a person I worked with in college who had a violent past and was still actively psychotic. But we worked with him, treated him with respect and made sure he took his medications. He did well and never hurt anyone. He had the support and the supervision he needed to live in the community.
So, there is a lot of movement right now in closing down IMD’s and moving people back into the community. This can be a really good, humanizing thing to do, but needs to be done correctly. I have been involved in a conversation with SHPA and other community providers who are talking about how to deal with this transition and how it can be successful. All of us recognize that have the proper level of services is going to be the difference between a successful transition of people and another example of deinstitutionalization gone wrong. Keep a look out for updates in the future.
The other day a woman came to our office and since I was the only one available I brought her into my office to see how we could help. She had been referred by a neighbor who told her that we had helped her out with a crisis. The woman told me her story. She was not a legal citizen, but had been working as a housekeeper and nanny for many years in the U.S. She had recently lost her job doing housekeeping because of health problems and was out of money, could not pay rent, and did not have food. She had been spending her days looking for work, or in bed recovering. She realized she was not young anymore and was not a desirable employee for the work she did, especially when there were so many young, able-bodied people willing to do the same work faster. I gave her the number for 311, Chicago’s help line. and asked her if she knew about food pantries. She did and was relying on them for sustenance. She had no family and no other resources, and her landlord was threatening to evict her if she didn’t pay. All she wanted was a job. After many questions and much exploring I was left to say the thing that people in this field hate to say, “There is nothing I can do for you right now.”
I know that she is one of many people in similar situations, where the little things, the small problems get amplified into bid deals. Would things be different if she had healthcare deal with her problem? Probably, yes. Her problem was easily resolved for someone with health insurance and she would have been able to look for work full-time. Would a working wage with benefits have helped her? Yes, she could take a week off and get the surgery she needs and recover and be back on her feet working again. Is she to blame for coming to a country and staying after her visa expired? Yes, she had nothing to return to and so made a choice to stay in the land of opportunity, where she had been able to find work. Is she going to end up costing us all a lot of money? Yes, she will probably end up in the emergency room many times, may end up on the street in a shelter and trying to get public support via food stamps and cash assistance. She will need help getting her health back, finding employment, getting another work visa, getting another apartment, etc. These will all take time and money, publicly funded support money.
These are all things that she wants to and could do herself if she were healthy enough, and there were jobs that paid a living wage.
So, what bothers me about the debates over healthcare reform, minimum wage increases and immigration reform are that the people who are affected by our current system are not just those who show up on the doorstep of a non-profit social service organization. We are all affected by the cost of all of those ancillary services needed to pick people up after we have let them fall. It will cost us all more in the long run unless we help with those little things…a little less profit but a living wage for workers, a little higher taxes for health coverage for everyone and a little less xenophobia and a little more of a global family. It’s not much to ask.
As the February election draws near I find that I am eager for the election to finally happen. Not because I believe that there will be a big change in how things run in Springfield, but because I am hoping that some work will actually get done on fixing the deficit in the state budget. The article this weekend in the Chicago Tribune about Michael Madigan was interesting. Mainly for what it did not say. While it did talk about the power Madigan wields that ultimately benefits him and his friends, it did not talk about the power he wields in order to maintain his control. The lack of action on the state budget, mainly passing an income tax increase or borrowing money, seems to fall squarely in the lap of Madigan. Last summer when rallying for a budget that included funding for services in supportive housing, I was told by a legislator that they could not vote for a particular bill because Madigan told them not to, despite the legislator’s personal desire to pass the bill because it was the best thing for the people in his district. Madigan wanted the legislator to win the next election and felt that if he voted for the bill he would be at risk of attack by a republican opponent.
When the concern in the legislature is for keeping your job and maintaining power and NOT for what is best for the people of Illinois, then there is a problem.
I am hoping that after this primary election the legislature will finally take some action to create a sustainable budget. One that doesn’t leave the poor and homeless out in the cold.
After hoping to hear some sort of plan from the Governor’s state of the state I am left, as are the rest of the service providers with state contracts, in limbo. There were no details about how the state was going to pull itself out of a multi-billion dollar deficit, just recycled ideas that are vague and have no timeline. I am left not knowing if we will receive funding for the rest of our contract, or if there will be funding at all for the rest of the calendar year. Are we supposed to kick people back out into the street? This will end up costing much more, not just in dollars, but in humanity.
Awhile ago I scared RSSI’s new development director by proposing to write a letter to the editor in the style of Jonathan Swift. But instead of proposing to eat poor people I would suggest hiring buses to move the poor and homeless from the city into the wealthy areas of the state, since obviously those areas are doing so much better than Chicago and could more effectively deal with people in need because of their over abundance of resources. This became obvious to me after the legislators and voters in those areas made it clear that raising money from tax increases was not needed. They must have all the resources they need for the people in their communities who fall on hard times or are disabled. I resisted the urge to send these thoughts to the newspapers for fear that it would bring more trouble to the staff and clients or the organization.
Meanwhile we are all hard at work to provide more services with fewer people, yet maintain high quality services. Social Services are antithetical to a good business model. In fact, a trully successful program is one where the people who use it, no longer need it. I believe that the ultimate goal of a good social service agency is to put itself out of business by curing the ills that create the need for the organization in the first place. Therefore, we will continue to work to improve our programs, serve more people and do what is right, not necessarily what is easiest.
As we wrap up 2009 I have to say that I am not sad to see it go. This was probably the most diffcult of the 8 years I have been the Executive Director of RSSI. With all of the cuts to funding and personell, my staff and I have worked really hard to buffer our clients from everything that has been happening. After all, they have had enough instability in their lives and we are here to be a stabilizing force. This was supposed to be a year of growth, but ended up being a year of contraction. Some of our biggest concerns have been with the State of Illinois funding. Not only for our programs, but for organizations we interact with and depend on for services we cannot provide. Let’s face it, the state has been slow to raise the funds necessary to balance the budget, even when they had the opportunity. The blame for this rests primarily on the heads of the legislative leaders and the governor. Their self interests, for maintaining their own power, have outweighed the needs of the people of Illinois. They are more worried about keeping their jobs than doing what is needed. I have heard it said that the measure of a society is how they treat their most vulnerable. If this is true than Illinois does not measure up.
But, as an optimist I see hope around every corner. The staff of RSSI are involved in ongoing training on Motivational Interviewing techniques, the restructuring of our Life Skills Training program is almost complete, and the issues of homelessness and poverty are getting some attention in the media. 2010 looks to me to bring an increased focus on prevention, new partnerships and intiatives to serve populations that are underserved and improving out ability to track the effect we are having on the lives of our clients.
Some of the most hopeful occurrences are when our clients move on from our program into new futures of autonomy and growth. This year we had a couple such instances that were meaningful. The first was a couple who both have chronic health conditions that can be life threatening. Both have learned how to manage their health, attain stable employment and start saving for buying a house. Another client who grew up in “the system” decided that it was time for a change for her entire family and moved to independent housing. This was a bold and positive move after working very hard to achieve personal stability and the social supports necessary to be outside the system. These stories are what make it all worthwhile. The perseverance, strength and heart of the people we work with reminds me of how important the services we provide are. By providing hope and opportunity we CAN make a difference and people will rise to the challenge.
Another shooting in Logan Square. How do we keep the families in our program safe when there is so much violence around them? How do we keep this influence away from the kids we serve? I think the answer is hope. Hope for a better life and a future that does not have to incude drugs or gangs. The best way I can think of offering this hope is to provide them with the resources and counseling they need to have a future, a path to walk on. Working with families is a lot more complicated than working with singles. It isn’t just the parents that you are working with, it is the children as well. That is why having a family service plan that includes the children and education goals are so important. There has to be opportunities in order for there to be success. It is a rare child who can fight his/her way out of a hopeless situation, but what about the rest of those children?