By Jarrod Sanderson, LCSW
When you think of social services, you might assume it’s all about emergency assistance – in other words, distribution of goods. It seems simple enough: people are hungry, we give them food; people are cold, we give them clothes; a new mother has no supplies, we give her diapers and formula. Undoubtedly, this kind of emergency assistance is important. But at Catholic Charities, we don’t view this process as the last step with a client. We view it as a first step.
While there is value in helping someone meet an immediate need, long-term impact comes in helping someone alleviate the root cause of that need. For Catholic Charities, emergency assistance is an initial contact with a client that creates a bridge of stabilization and trust. Then, the client can travel across that bridge toward dignity and self-sufficiency.
The First Step: Asking for Help
In January 2015, a 59-year-old man named John came into our Welcome Center. Through teary eyes, John told our receptionist he had just been released from inpatient psychiatric treatment for a suicide attempt the previous week. He was living in his car and he was hopeless. Our receptionist recognized immediately the dire nature of this man’s spirit, and after offering John a cup of coffee, we went to work.
Sitting down to talk with John wasn’t easy. The pain in his eyes was clear, and I wasn’t sure what we could do to alleviate such pain. John shared that, until the age of 52, he’d had what most people would consider a very, very good life. He started his own cleaning company at a young age, and over the years he built a dynamic small business. For most of John’s adult life, he made well over $100,000 a year. John married in his early thirties, had two children, and he described himself as “happy as a person could be.”
When he was 52, his wife asked a divorce. This caught John off guard, and he said the event sent his life into a tailspin. Within a year, John was homeless, jobless, penniless, living in his car and heavily abusing alcohol. For seven years, John maintained this pattern. In that seventh year, John’s spirit was so weak that he began having self-harm thoughts. When John came to us that cold January day, he was coming off his second attempt at suicide.
The Next Step: From Crisis to Stability
When I asked John what he needed, he vacillated between saying “everything”, “nothing”, and “I don’t know.” John seemed profoundly introspective; he was a great communicator, and he was clear in saying he felt he would waste any help he received because he was struggling to find joy or purpose in anything.
As John and I talked about potential assistance options, I pointed out to him the obvious skill set he had as it related to talking with people. John straightened up for a brief moment, sharing how his communication skills were what made himself successful in business and sales.
After an hour of conversation, we gave John a $25 gas card – classic “emergency assistance.” The gas card would keep John’s car warm through the cold weather so that he had a place to sleep at night. (Like so many people with mental health diagnoses, John did not feel safe staying in shelters.) The only condition John had to meet to get the gas card was to agree to call us the following day so we could know he was safe. The receptionist and I were worried when John left that day, because we weren’t sure what his future would look like.
The next day, as he promised, John called. He said the meeting he’d had with us the previous day was the first time he felt he’d been cared for in a long time. He said it made him feel like he should care for himself. From that point on, John’s perspective was unshakable.
Continuing the Journey through Adversity
Three weeks later, we helped John check into inpatient substance abuse treatment. After the four-week treatment, John enrolled in one of our housing programs. Shortly after that, he enrolled in one of our workforce development programs. Within four months of that fateful first day, working with our housing team, John secured an apartment. Shortly thereafter, our workforce development team helped him land a job.
Today, John is doing quite well. He loves his apartment, he has a dog and he works at two jobs. John has relapsed twice; each time, he’s overcome the challenge stronger than before. John continues to be a beacon of hope for our team. He has shown all of us true perseverance in the face of adversity.
While John’s efforts to overcome great obstacles is incredible and inspiring, it’s important to recognize it started with one $25 gas card. Perhaps some social service agencies stop there – certainly, there’s no shame in helping someone stay warm through the winter months. But for Catholic Charities, the gas card was simply an initial gesture of hope – a first step on a mutual journey.