Essay: On gaining trust with those out and alone – a Sacramento social worker’s lens

Photograph by Scott Thomas Anderson

By Holly Calderone

“Them are us too,” my friend’s then-teen daughter noted, driving through Sacramento and seeing people living in the streets.

This is truer for some than others, like my partner, peer specialist Frank Fawcett. He was 9 years on the streets, or in prison. Now 25 years sober, he’s gone from homeless to homeowner. I am a Mental Health Counselor on Sacramento County’s Encampment Services Team (EST). Frank works with me. Together, we have been serving our unhoused neighbors these last few months. And they are your neighbors too. Because most of the folks we work with are camped close to where they grew up, where family and friends are still housed. Frank observes there are benefits to staying near where you were from.

Mostly, Frank and I visit homeless encampments, seeing how we can support people in coping with their circumstances and toward changing them. One day I was telling Frank how another peer specialist, Amelia, and I met a guy in a park. His leg was in a brace and he was suffering severe depression. Frank was silent as we crossed the field, attentively scanning the ground for hypodermic needles. I carried on about having completed a mental health assessment and calling about orthopedic follow-up for his leg, then, never reaching this hopeless man again. It happens. It’s hard to ask for help, much less to stay in touch when you’re sharing your cell phone with other desperate people. Some of them may feel they need that phone more than you do.

But now, after receiving a hopeful phone call from the man, I was feeling self-congratulatory.

“This guy used his safety plan and called for help when he felt suicidal. I couldn’t get ahold of him because he’s been at inpatient mental health treatment for a month and just got out!” Frank seemed to be listening now, “I mean, that was the first time we met him and I was the first person he called out of the hospital. We really are making a difference.”

My colleague stopped beside a dirt-filled swimming pool. It was full of weeds like the rest of the abandoned mobile home park we had been canvassing for weeks, now home to twenty or so homeless people in tents. With some consideration, he replied, “Great work, Holly. Usually people have to meet you several times before they want to kill themselves.”

Now, I’ve been roasted by some of the best, but Frank beats all. Week after week, we came back to this field, alternately showing each other earnest compassion and giving each other holy hell. Because this work requires more than appreciation of the absurd luck that leaves some homeless and others housed. More than grit and humility. It requires a full-on appetite for rejection. Because we visit and re-visit people who have no reason to trust us, nor the systems we work for. They have no reason to believe we are actually here to help, so many do-gooders have come and gone before.

What does help is that our Behavioral Health Services’ team works in partnership with Department of Human Assistance and Sacramento Covered, as well as City of Sacramento’s Department of Community Response and the numerous citizens’ groups like local Homeless Assistance Resource Teams (HARTs). Finally, it helps that we support our homeless neighbors in their own mutual aid. Like, how Frank and I met a longtime resident of this encampment who was very worried about a pregnant woman there. He shared our cards and reassured her we were okay. Earning trust is a process. I completed her assessment and referred her to a mental health provider. It fell through because she was feeling overwhelmed just then. Still, we count it a success because we were also able to support her obtaining CalWORKs and a motel voucher for two weeks prenatal. Finally, we supported her through CPS and reconciliation with her family.

Anyone of us can lose our housing, but it is ultimately the loss of belongingness in society that leads some individual to be living on the streets ten or fifteen years later. In moving our social services toward whole person care, we look at the social and political context in which our neighbors become homeless, not just the very real challenges of poverty and trauma, mental illness and addiction. And when we offer help, it is by asking individuals what they want to work on and tailoring our services to meet their needs. For example, my literal job is conducting mental health assessments in the field and referring eligible people to local mental health providers. But most unhoused folks want and need shelter and so we work on that a lot. Our peersSpecialists have navigated the shelter and affordable housing systems themselves and, coming from that perspective, they are uniquely positioned to offer necessary support.

We measure success by the positive outcomes for our community. And is going to take you, me and our whole community coming together to address the affordable housing crisis in Sacramento County. We can join our neighborhood HART, engage in supporting unhoused neighbors through our churches or service clubs. In our workplaces, we can organize and insist on every staff member there be paid a living wage. Because what is the cause of homelessness if not being unable to afford a place to rent? And we can accept that the folks who are camped in our neighborhoods deserve to belong there as much as we do. Please advocate for homeless shelters and affordable housing in the neighborhoods where you live and work. There’s a lot we can’t do as individuals facing a homelessness crisis, but what we can do is create conditions for the possibility of change.

Holly Calderone BSMSW, is a Sacramento-area health educator and social worker.

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