When the People Needing Help are Providing the Help

To avoid offloading labour to service users, we need funding for the homelessness sector

Imagine a young harm reduction worker in training, a young man only months out of the shelter system himself, choosing to stay in a youth shelter overnight to help a young woman he’s known for a couple of months. Imagine this girl is shaking like a leaf because she’s fighting cravings for crack while also being overcome with fear of a repeated sexual assault by her crack dealer. There’s no beds, so the shelter staff let them both stay in the living room overnight. He stays next to her all night, one arm around her shoulders, pulling zero moves.

She makes it to morning without giving in.

I am describing two youth in a peer training program I ran a couple of years ago. This young man made the choice to help his peer knowing he wasn’t on-shift and wouldn’t get paid. He recognized that she needed this kind of one-on-one care, and that neither the shelter staff nor the sober house where she was living could provide it.

I’ve worked in social services for fifteen years, and have always been amazed and inspired by the way struggling people look after each other.

I also think this shouldn’t be happening. The funding should be available to provide folks like this young woman with proper care.

The Covid-19 epidemic has shown that our government can come up with money in an emergency. Homelessness, addiction, sexual violence and mental illness have always been emergencies. But these are the folks that are judged, oppressed, dismissed, and forgotten. No politician would admit that, so when we’ve asked for more money for social programs, the answer has been dodged with another question, “Where will the money come from?” Meanwhile, the wealthy get tax breaks and bailouts, hide their money offshore, use donations to charities to reduce their tax contributions, or somehow don’t pay their taxes at all. And billionaires become billionaires.

While the money flows up, the difficult labour of ameliorating poverty and suffering trickles down. Shelter workers make $17-$22 an hour in Toronto. They struggle to pay rent and almost always have a side hustle. Many of them work casually, on contract, or part-time because the shelters use precarious employment structures to save money. They also use profit agencies where workers fill in at shelters around the city. The shelters pay the company more than they pay their own staff, but the companies pay the workers minimum wage and pocket the difference. In addition, shelters often engage residents in training programs or hire current or ex-service users as workers. Those workers then help provide services for less compensation, despite the evidence that “peer workers” are often more effective than highly credentialed workers.

Finally, when social services are understaffed – and the workers under-skilled – the labour gets offloaded to the service user. The service user, then, is an essential part of the nonprofit industrial complex. They are at the very bottom of the ladder of progressively devalued labour.

Staffing social services requires people who care to step forward – people who care more about other people than they do their own income and health. At the end of the day, though, they do care about their income and health. Because the work is highly stressful and underpaid, the best workers move on. Unfortunately, worker turnover seems to create space for people who shouldn’t be there at all - people who don’t know what they’re doing, or don’t seem to care at all.

The practice of using “agency staff” to fill labour gaps is an expensive, ineffective and unsafe “solution.” The agency staff don’t know the shelter policies, processes, passwords, or the locations of any item from the salt shaker to the stash of transit tickets or tokens. They don’t know the residents, so can’t follow up or use rapport to intervene in crises. Just when they start learning from having a few shifts in a row in one place, they might pick up shifts elsewhere. It’s not their role to do case management. They don’t have the same training or ethics in cultural sensitivity, harm reduction, mental illness or other areas essential for serving folks with complex needs. They’re more likely to speak to clients in a condescending, aggressive or apathetic manner. Then when the clients are understandably triggered by this and dish it back, the agency staff decline to return.

This context of understaffing, poor approaches, and undertrained staff forces clients to step in.

Clients teach staff about harm reduction. They wake each other up. If they don’t or can’t intervene in fights or attacks, clients usually do instead. Clients often get to the scene of an overdose quicker than workers, and administer Naloxone. If someone is wilding or crying, a friend or partner is more likely to successfully calm them down. They take out their peers on little excursions to cheer them up. If someone is making risky choices with drugs, their friends are more likely to stop them. Clients teach new workers the rules. Sometimes, they tell them how to work the security system and the computer. The agency staff unlock the kitchen door but the clients serve dinner. Clients run these shelters.

Imagine being in crisis – no shelter, no job, no family support – and you go to a shelter for help, only to end up serving yourself and your peers. Imagine receiving little compensation or recognition, other than perhaps being nominated for awards or being hired for volunteer advisory committees.

This is capitalism. For some to profit, we rely upon cheap, exploited labour. We rely upon the free labour of people who need help themselves.

For all the credit I give the service users for helping each other, what I really want for them is to be helped by a large, skilled, well-paid team of social workers. I want for them to be able to just work on themselves to achieve wellness and stability. When they feel sorted, when they have the power to choose, then they can become helpers.

Audrey is an educator, counsellor, and curriculum developer running her own business in Toronto. She writes about social services, mostly. audreybatterham.com.

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