Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Comments on Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America

[For folks who haven't read this book, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich narrates her experience (experiment) working various minimum wage jobs in a few different states in her quest to find out if these jobs are enough to make ends meet]

A friend was looking over my copy of the book and said Ehrenreich preferred to live on her own, a decision that meant that a good deal of her income went towards housing, while having a roommate could've significantly cut her housing costs. Many of Ehrenreich's coworkers, my friend pointed out, shared their housing with other people. Not to mention a shelter option -- something a social worker had recommended at one point to her. Sardonically I replied to my friend her decision not to live with a roommate was offset by the fact she started her experiment with money -- not common for the people working the jobs she took.

Though I have my critiques, I've reread this book many times. A lot of aspects in it appealed to me -- one, a person takes on a new persona. Second, I wanted to explore the story of the people behind these jobs. And of course, though it's strictly anecdotal (based on Ehrenreich's experience) I wanted to know how she got to her conclusion and the process it involved. The process in itself was engaging and Ehrenreich's shared some thoughtful insights. I'd recommend this book not as a bible but a valuable read. Some things I liked was that Ehrenreich succeeded in describing her coworkers' characters in a way that allowed me to relate and empathize with them and put personalities to workers of jobs that aren't typically seen -- maids, waiters, and housekeepers.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Let Me Verify That

In the process of filling out a food stamps application with my new client Jeff I asked him how much he had earned at his job in the past month.* Jeff said, "About $200." I asked him if he had his most recent pay stubs and he said he'd get them. We meet again a week later and Jeff said he wasn't able to find his statements. I say, no problem, could I call his company and find out, and he says sure. I call HR, they check, put me on hold, check, and after being transferred from one worker to another, I finally speak with Kayla who says, "Oh, here it is. His last work day was June 5, 2008." You don't say. I ask Kayla to wait for a moment and ask Jeff if that makes sense. Jeff looks at me a bit sheepishly and says, "Yes."

I go about it one more way and ask Jeff if he remembers getting a check for work during the past month and Jeff says no.* Well, now that we got that cleared up, onwards we go.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Discovering New Sites

I was surfing the internet when I suddenly thought how cool it would be to find a stuntman's -- or woman's -- online journal. Read about his experience doing these cool feats in place of an actor, meeting other actors. The topic didn't seem too eccentric, especially since I keep coming across  journals about every topic under the sun. After several attempts, however, I still came up with nothing relevant. And then I thought, maybe in this case a video journal would be more interesting to follow anyway. Then I started searching any topic that sounded intriguing, figuring that I would likely come across something related to it: From runaways to nurses to hoarders to 20 more topics. I even found a few purposefully fake actors' blogs that were more or less amusing to read. I did find a few relevant sites, some I would return to after my first visit.

I wanted to share one site that isn't a blog but does relate (if only loosely) to my original stuntman search. Called The Editing Room, it's a collection of abridged scripts that, in a nutshell, poke fun at the original films.* Most have been written by Rod Hilton, an aspiring script writer himself. I've been reading this site for over 6 years now and it still continues to periodically be updated with new scripts. I warmly recommend it.

* Site uses some profanity.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

My Client Wanted New Shoes

I have an elderly client who mostly keeps to himself. Though he has a couple of close friends who live out of state and check in on him by phone frequently he seems to enjoy his solitary life. After his friends, his main social contact is with my agency. Both my coworker and I alternate visiting him a few times a month. Each time I've visited him I find him reading something, from a book to a newspaper, once it was a can label. Over the last couple of months he and I had been talking about going shoe shopping, but the shopping trip kept getting postponed -- one time because it looked like it may rain, another because it was too windy, in short, it didn't seem he was ready to follow through once the trip day came. Though this was a bit discouraging I still looked at it as me visiting him and checking in. Last week he asked me "When are we going to go?" and we made an appointment for this morning.

I come in to his apartment today and he's drinking his morning tea. I sit beside him and chat about something or other when he says to me with a huge smile, "Like my new boots?" and lifts his left foot up. Putting aside the embarrassing fact that I didn't even notice that he was wearing new shoes and I was sitting right there beside him for 5 minutes -- he had bought them on his own! I commended him for doing it on his own. I was looking forward to the experience of shoe shopping with him, I admit, but that was real cool. And I'm sure he enjoyed my reaction as well.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hoarding: Background and Link

I was doing some research on hoarding when I came across Obsessive Compulsive Foundation's (OCF) hoarding site. It provides background as well as research articles. What I've written below (not including discussion of A&E's Hoarders) is drawn from this site.

An important aspect in the definition of a hoarder is a person who acquires and doesn't throw away items which appear to be useless or have little value (italics added). Now, while I was researching this topic I initially had a problem with the last part of this definition. Items that appears useless to whom? I'm using my own bias to say I'm not talking about hoarding empty cardboard boxes or 50 copies of one newspaper. Rather, in cases of folks who strictly collect hundreds of books or troll dolls, well, what’s the difference between that and stars who collect items in the hundreds but those items happen to be more commonly accepted as luxurious or rare items? 

There’s another aspect to hoarding, however. And that is that hoarding takes over one's life to such a degree that it interrupts daily life. Items engulf every free space and take over rooms to a degree that it's not possible to use them for their original purposes. Due to stuff taking over, folks aren't able to sleep in their beds anymore or be able to cook in their kitchens. It may cause them to quit their work and stop interacting with other people. Just managing hoarding may consume peoples' days. Significantly, hoarders start to have relationships with their belongings.

Since we’re humans we like to ask why. Where did this behavior come from? A&E's Hoarders’ participants sometimes talked about a family member, often a parent who hoarded. So maybe modeling took part in it for some folks. However, many children of hoarders don't necessarily hoard themselves. a person going through deprivation is not more likely to hoard.

In A&E's second episode, the psychologist talked about the significance of the hoarder to be the one who goes through her belongings and makes the decision of what to throw away. Just throwing away everything is traumatic and doesn't solve the problem. Hopefully through the process of discard and decision making a person is able to improve these skills. As seen on the show, though, this process is painfully arduous.

A hoarder has little intrinsic reason to change his hoarding behavior. Usually it's an outside influence, like a spouse threating to leave or eviction that causes a person to want to take action. In case of eviction a client may be under a tight time constraint to clean out his apartment. So, as case manager advocating for a client, what should happen? From my experience I would argue that if a person faces eviction it's more important to do what I can to make the process go faster and make sure my client understand that she's in danger of losing her housing if she doesn't take action. Truthfully, though, my one experience with hoarding was fairly easy to tackle compared to most of the situations I saw on Hoarders. One reason was because it was a studio apartment but another was that the client I worked with was open and very cooperative. That made a huge difference.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I Know I've Been at the Office Too Long When

I try and record every contact relating to a client (either directly or on behalf of) right after the interaction. Staff has to record every contact. Sometimes after finishing a conversation with a coworker about something completely casual like her vacation, I find myself instinctively thinking, "I should log this contact." Some days this happens more than once a day.

Sunshine is only a nickname a client calls me by.

When someone mentions plants I think of bamboos.

Calling my landlord I say: "Hi, this is Anatolia from [agency]."

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Gwen Thompson, the Doll Experiencing Homelessness

American Girl recently released a new doll, Gwen Thompson (source and source). Though American Girl has been around since 1986 I didn't know much about this company. So I didn't know that each new doll is accompanied by a paperback that teaches kiddies a little something (standing up to bullies, experiences of a Jewish girl to Russian immigrants, and so on). I wasn't able to read Gwen's full story, but one repeated fact was that she and her mom became homeless after Gwen's dad left home. Gwen sells for $95.

I thought a lot about this, how it glorified homelessness, specifically in the fact the doll was so expensive and it was possible to get her accessories but didn't seem to deal with the meat of her story. Admittedly, I haven't read her actual story but from AG's press statement it looked like the focus of Gwen's story was elsewhere.

American Girl issued a press statement reaffirming that Gwen is part of its 2009 Girl series that focuses on bullying. The statement didn't reflect on Gwen's homelessness experience, but AG did reaffirm its fundraising relationship with HomeAid America. None of Gwen's sales go towards homelessness prevention.

On the other hand, I thought, AG will continue to sell dolls, why not have a doll with this particular backstory? Maybe it will open a few minds. Aren't books a great way to do this -- and in this case they're sold as part of a package alongside the doll. But in the end, despite any possible good intentions, it ends up as another piece of consumerism that seems more superficial than anything else.

One statement that struck me as thought provoking (though I don't think I read it the way it was intended) was, in reading feedback on Gwen on AG's site, one mom wrote "Gwen didn't come with much" and went on to write the clothing she bought her. Another doll to buy and accessorize.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Dealing with Walk Ins

I'm finally getting used to accepting walk ins as part of my day -- and without it meaning that I see every walk in right away. Thankfully most of my clients don't do this often -- often being once a week (emergencies notwithstanding of course).

Walk ins come in two groups: Folks who stop by to make an appointment, and folks who want to be seen right away. Some of the time clients who want to be seen right away have an emergency situation a la "my heat is off" or "I got locked out of my apartment." Types of situations that require immediate (or day of) attention. Most walk ins, though, are more mundane. A few examples are asking for a bus card to travel and see the doctor, asking to use the phone, or understand what on earth a social security letter is rattling on about.

Here's the thing. It's pretty unusual to be seen right away in most agencies. I can't think of too many times I can walk into an office without an appointment and be seen right away. And sure, not all case managers, for various reasons, are able to see clients immediately but some do. Being seen right away doesn't necessarily mean to meet with the client in my office, but rather meet with the client in the lobby to find out why she has stopped by.

I do understand that for some clients who don't have a phone (or have ran out of minutes on a cellphone), it's not easy to call and make an appointment. And of course not all clients expect to be seen right away. But those who do are sometimes quite perturbed, as if finding out that they aren't the only client on my caseload. Which is when I get a look to the effect of "What do you mean, but I'm here now!"

My problem was initially that while I was concentrating on something or meeting with another client it would throw me off to get a call from reception that a client was in the lobby asking for me. A regular phone call goes to voice mail, but a a client's physical presence means it's a situation to be dealt with immediately in some way. In my first months especially I would think, well, the client made the effort to come here, I should just go downstairs and talk to him. I also thought that it may be urgent if he had walked from his apartment to see me. But then I learned this wasn't usually the case (and if it was an emergency reception would tell me).

Now when I get a call I try to give a specific time that I can see the client. Some clients accept the appointment time; some want to negotiate the time through our receptionist and to his annoyance; and some I know I would likely need to go to the lobby and talk to because that's just how it is. It's the deciding-right-away-on-a-plan-of-action that may seem straightforward but to me took time to learn. I see it similar to learning a dance.

I've gotten better used to accepting walk ins as part of the flow of the day. But I was never such a great dancer.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I'm flattered to be nominated the Over the Top award by Ash at Be The Change. I myself have been a reader of her site for some time and enjoy reading her thoughts and insights as she leads an ever busy schedule -- read more at her site.

The award comes along with a few rules that include answering a short questionnaire with one word answers and nominating 6 favorite blogs. I'm putting off the questionnaire for now but I did want to give recognition to 6 favorite online journals of mine. Six is not enough to include all the journals I faithfully follow but respecting this limit I would include:

Eyes Opened Wider
Fighting Monsters
CJ Social Worker
Awake and Dreaming (because 6 really isn't enough. Also, I want to give another plug to this great resource for social work blogs, both on the site and through other folks' links. I've discovered great reads here)

My plan is to continue to link (through my posts) to journals/posts that I find thought provoking or entertaining. This will take some time.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Book Review: Learning Joy from Dogs without Collars

Learning Joy from Dogs without Collars is Lauralee Summer's memoir of growing up while experiencing homelessness. Reading its sleeve I misconstrued its intention and thought she would describe it as an idealized upbringing. I got ready to read it with an open mind and expected it to challenge my views on what a healthy environment is for a child -- specifically experiencing instability in terms of not living in a physical home, a constant and safe place to come home to each day. I read it also to explore a world that is in large part foreign to me though I've worked with families in similar situations.

Summer doesn't paint the ideal life that I had inadvertently expected. Her mom was the sole provider and parent in her childhood, though Summer also talks about an important role a teacher played in her life.* Summer and her mom moved frequently (20 times before Summer turned 12) covering four states.

What drew public attention to Summer's story was the fact she overcame homelessness and attended Harvard ("Homeless to Harvard"). Cue the "Oh see, if she was homeless as a child and went on to attend a prestigious school then why don't--" Yet Summer chides the reader not to take too far this accomplishment. She notes her mom's support and love as well as encouragement to learn. Summer consumed books as a child which seemed to give her a head start for school in early years. Though Summer's relationship with her mom was described as tumultuous at times it seemed she was also a rock for Summers – importantly, at one point she confesses to thinking of home as a person, not a house.

Summer's vivid storytelling and sober insights made this a great read. It certainly challenged me. Learning Joy brings to light the reality of families experiencing homelessness and, though maybe not explicitly, reinforces the idea of how easy it may be to become homeless. If a family becomes homeless, what should a parent or guardian do? Keep the child or give the child to another person who may provide better? I raise this question since for some period Summer stayed with a foster home and relished the stability that gave her (interestingly, another girl at the house hated the home's rules). I tried to relate it to me. If all other variables were true the same and my parents loved me the way they did, would I prefer to live with strangers rather than my parents, though it meant staying at a shelter? No. (Important to note to that in reality family experiencing homelessness would likely change a lot of the variables around) Would it be healthier for me to live in a more stable life? In many ways, though a foster home would not necessarily be a guarantee for it.

As always, I'm a fan of books that make me think.

* Summer eventually reconnects with her father her sophomore year at college.

For more book reviews, go here.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

"Do Your Programs Later in the Month"

We have a monthly program that's along the lines of an open mic night. When we started it was well attended but over the last year numbers have been down. We have our regulars, but usually no more than 6 clients. A few days ago a client took me aside and said, "You know, this isn't my place, but I wanted to suggest that you have these events later in the month. In the first week everyone gets (government checks) and they're off spending them. That's why you have so few people."

Great point, I told her, and said I'd pass her advice on. It makes a lot of sense. Sometimes it's hard to change the scheduling of an ongoing event once its dates and times have been established (meaning there may be resistance on staff), but I think it's worth changing and seeing if attendance increases.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Exercising Free Will to Sign Up for Case Management Services

"I told my friend/daughter/grandma about your program and I want to sign her up for services." Don't get me wrong, I love when folks in our 6 buildings spread the word about our supportive housing program and tell them they could get a case manager at my agency. But usually when an established client calls on behalf of another person to sign her up for services the other person doesn't follow through. I'm not necessarily doubting the sincerity in my callers or their friends' interest in the program. But after a few no shows (when I had relented and set up an appointment for the new person without having talked to him) I started redirecting callers to have their referral person call me directly.

A more extreme case happened to my coworker. Apparently someone had brought in a resident (over 18) and told her, "Here, these people can help you" and left. When the lady met with my coworker to do an intake she refused to give any information beyond her name, birthdate, and address. I'm presuming some mental health issues were at work from the way my coworker described their interaction. For example, after the third time my coworker explained what services our department provided the client looked around her and asked, "so what is it you all do?"

Situations like this make me see the advantages in the fact that folks living in the buildings we serve people aren't required to sign up for our program (specifically case management services) so they come of their own free will. Though we focus some energy in drawing new folks in.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Moments When it Feels Good to be a Case Manager

Note: I work in a supportive housing program. Our main goal is homelessness prevention. Compared to other departments at the agency my program tends to work with clients on a long term basis (sometimes over a period of several years). Read more about it here.

It's a good feeling to see clients come back. When they make their appointments -- services are free so they have no fine to pay if they miss an appointment. That they return because they find meeting and collaborating with me helpful to them in some way. Of course a few come back with specific requests along the line of busfare or gift cards, but not all do.

And of course, though I try not to expect it (admittedly this is hard), it also feels good to hear thank you -- makes me be even more sensitive to tell others thank you and be appreciative to folks who work with the public, customer service, and the like.

It's great to know I can joke around with a couple of clients who initially looked at me with not much more than disdain.

That moment that I know there's a connection, that rapport has been established -- it's rewarding as well as at times a relief. A connection meaning that there's an understanding there. I may have mentioned before that I knew a case manager who had the knack of creating rapport quickly, sometimes during intake appointments. I sat in on a few sessions with her and was in awe at her ability to do it. For me it seemed to take longer, but it's rewarding when it happens.

Not to mention it's cool when new folks come in and ask to become a client and I ask them what brought them to the agency and they say "I heard about this place and I just wanted to hear what kind of programs you have. I want to get involved."

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Healthy Level of Insanity at Work

This is a classic list that I can't take credit for -- nor am I sure who's the original source. Regardless, I could read it hundreds of times and still laugh. Co titled: Fun things to do at the office to the amusement of your coworkers:

1. Page yourself over the intercom. (Don't disguise your voice)
2. Make up nicknames for all your coworkers and refer to them only by these names. "That's a good point, Sparky". "I'm going to have to disagree with you there, Cha Cha."
3. Send email to the rest of the company telling them what you're doing. For example "If anyone needs me, I'll be in the bathroom."
4. While sitting at your desk, soak your fingers in "Palmolive."
5. Put mosquito netting around your cubicle. Play a tape of jungle sounds all day.
6. Put a chair facing a printer, sit there all day and tell people you're waiting for your document.
7. Arrive at a meeting late, say you're sorry, but you didn't have time for lunch, and you're going to be nibbling during the meeting. During the meeting eat 5 entire raw potatoes.
8. Every time someone asks you to do something, ask him or her if they want fries with that.
9. Send email to yourself engaging yourself in an intelligent debate about the direction of one of your company's products. Forward the e-mail to a co-worker and ask her to settle the disagreement.
10. Encourage your colleagues to join you in a little synchronized chair dancing.
11. Put your garbage can on your desk. Label it "IN."
12. Develop an unnatural fear of staplers.
13. Send e-mail messages saying free pizza, free donuts etc... in the lunchroom, when people complain that there was none... Just lean back, pat your stomach, and say, "Oh you've got to be faster than that."
15. Reply to everything someone says with, "That's what you think."
16. Adjust the tint on your monitor so that the brightness level lights up the entire working area. Insist to others that you like it that way.
17. As often as possible, skip rather than walk.
18. Five days in advance, tell your coworkers you can't attend their party because you're not in the mood.

I laughed when I first read the list and saw that something I do is actually on there -- namely calling some coworkers by random nicknames. I would probably try some of these for laughs -- which may say something about my weirdness. Seeing other peoples' blank stares of disbelief is entertaining by itself because of my tendency to seem serious at work.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Comparing Client's Financial Choice with My Own

I had a client in my office who was talking about difficulties in making ends meet, especially considering around half his income goes to rent. During our conversation he mentioned going shopping and getting pants for $30. Then he said he spends about $75 on clothes every month. Since I know this client I knows he sometimes spends money on things he want before things he needs -- meaning occasionally not paying his rent in full (to the annoyance of his landlord), choosing instead to get something he wants (DVDs, eating out at restaurants, and so on). I asked if he sometimes buys clothes at thrift stores. "Second hand clothes?" He shook his head, "No I don't like getting used clothes," and I thought to myself, "Hey if it's good enough for me..."

We all compromise in things we want. I will probably not be able to get the car I want. However, I know I have a lot more freedom in options of purchase compared to most of my clients because of sheer difference in income. I actually understand there are lines people don't want to cross -- I have a friend who won't buy used books. Yet it seems the logical choice: With less income choices need to be more thrifty. On the other hand, with less income and less opportunities to entertain yourself every little bit goes a really long way. Doing anything, though, that jeopardizes your housing (by not paying rent first when you get your check) is harder for me to understand.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Post Bell Jar Thoughts

I did move on to a lighter book since Bell Jar but some of it stayed with me. Plath's writing made me think a lot about what it's like to look inside a mind of a person who has mental illness. I'm not a clinician -- my knowledge about mental illness comes from college classes, reading, and of course, the media.

Reading Bell Jar was hard for me because I sometimes empathize so much with the protagonist that I almost feel like I'm going through what she's experiencing. After finishing it I caught myself thinking about how she was feeling so much that a thought crossed my mind -- could thinking about it like this make me become mentally ill -- slightly similar to how med students start thinking they have the illnesses they're studying.

The fact Esther didn't go through a particular event that made caused her to start the path to a mental breakdown was eerie but made it easier to relate to her. From a state of 'normalcy' -- whatever this is -- to imbalance. This got me thinking about the fact many of us have mental health issues but some are able to mask them better (or deal with them more effectively). I contemplated the definition of a normal (mentally healthy), or a well adjusted person, in societal terms. Is it the ability to have a long term relationship? Hold a job? After all, in the US the definition of disability is inability to work for one year or more. So are we mentally 'normal' as long as we can work?

Also see Book Review: Bell Jar