This week at Bethesda Cares’ Drop-In Center for people experiencing homelessness, a lumbering man I’ll call “Ralph” came in to check his mail early one morning; like many clients of no fixed residence, he uses our office address to get correspondence. Our volunteer checked the files; nope, nothing had arrived for him.
“Check again, will you?” he asked, voice rising a bit. “Please,” he added.
She double-checked, again told him he had no mail.
That was when everything went to H, E, double-hockey sticks.
“Whatchoo mean, I got no &*%% mail?” he shouted. “I’m waitin’ on a (*_&^ check. Look again. It gotta be there.”
The volunteer checked a third time as our office manager, Linda, half-rose from her seat. When the volunteer confirmed that Ralph really had no mail, he swore again, went into the client-bathroom, slammed the door and let loose a stream of profanity like few I have ever heard. The other clients at the center fell silent; after a few tense minutes of this, Linda went and tapped on the bathroom door.
“Ralph?” she said. “Can you please watch the language? And maybe keep it down a bit?”
Ralph returned more invective, and Linda calmly repeated her request. Ralph came out of the bathroom, a towering figure, shouting, “‘Watch my LANGUAGE’? What the &*^(&*^* are you talking about, ‘watch my language,’ you don’t give me no *&)*^ check.” Despite the hour, the alcohol from his breath wafted all the way to my desk.
At this point Sue, our Executive Director, walked into the room. Standing firm, she said, “Ralph, you need to respect this space, or it’s time for you to go.”
He swore at her, swore at everyone. I felt suddenly and uncharacteristically aware that all the office personnel present were female, and my anxiety started to rise. The guy was working himself into a O&&*^&* rage.
Sue continued to repeat her request for him settle down or leave, and he starting shouting, “Why don’t you get me a house? You wanna help me? Get me a *(&)& HOUSE. THEN maybe I’ll watch my (&_(*^ language.”
His anger escalated, but Sue pointed to a large notice on the wall, house rules, posted. “Respect this space, and those around you.” Rule number one. She told him she knew he knew the rules, and again told him he had to leave. Glowering, he suddenly did, while I exhaled and took my finger off the emergency-call screen of my phone.
I don’t know where Ralph sleeps, but I do know he is unsheltered and it is pretty darned cold out this month. And when his check did not arrive that morning, I totally sympathized, wondered what other miserable dominoes that lack of funds would push over. So I didn’t blame him when he totally lost it in a room full of people who are actually on his team.
Frankly, I thought Linda and Sue were being too harsh.
But it didn’t take me long to see that I was wrong. Our “low demand” approach to people experiencing homelessness is not “no demand,” and expecting adult behavior from adults, regardless of choices they have made or circumstances they face, is necessary for our center to function, and actually furthers them on their paths out of homelessness.
But even more importantly, I realized that our treating our clients as the adults that they are (albeit ones currently facing serious challenges) rather than infantilizing or otherwise treating them as damaged goods, not only elicits respect from them, but also gives it to them as well.