Resiliency in Homeless Service Providers: Going Beyond Self-Care

“I have nowhere to go tonight. I am a 73-year-old woman who must now sleep in my car. I never thought I would ever become homeless. What do I do now?”

These are the deeply distressing words that homeless service providers often hear from those who come through the door of our agencies every day. “What do I do now?” Sometimes there is an answer, such as a referral to an emergency shelter, and other times there isn’t anything much to say.

Those of us who have worked directly with persons experiencing homelessness know the heartache of bearing witness to someone struggling during the worst moment in their life. Experiencing homelessness firsthand is overwhelming. Uncertainty of the future can quickly lead to despair. And it can wear on providers: as much as we encourage trauma-informed care for the people we serve, we should also encourage it within ourselves. Doing so will help us to become more resilient homeless service providers, and more resilient people overall.

Trauma-Informed Care and Resiliency

Aiding those who are unhoused can be taxing. It is incredibly hard to see another human being suffer. It can take a toll mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally. Several of my colleagues and I over the years have found that difficult to admit. We did this work because we cared. We also knew in our hearts that taking on the weight of the world was too much for any one of us to handle.

COVID-19 has added an extra layer: those in this line of work continuously see coworkers going to other jobs, leaving those left behind with extra work and an uncertain future relationship. Employees of color face another layer of adversity. Historical trauma cannot be ignored. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities disproportionally represent direct service professionals. Not only do we contend with second-hand trauma, but also the unwavering hardships of racism and inequality in everyday life. Encouraging self-care and ensuring resiliency are critical steps to make sure service providers are cared for in their workplace, especially in the midst of these difficult times.

When Self Care isn’t Enough

Self-care is a buzzword that often floats around. Taking time to read a book, spending time with friends or family, taking a walk outside or creating art are all wonderful activities to take our minds off work. However, there is something even more that can be done to refresh ourselves and heal from the vicarious trauma that employees constantly face. Not only do we need to care for ourselves who work in the homelessness field, but we also must look after one another.

Resiliency is the missing link. Resilience is defined as “the ability of individuals to not succumb to adverse experiences and is the typical response to adversity.” The pathway to resiliency is trauma-informed care. Trauma-informed care, in its essence, is the blueprint for how an individual and their community can overcome adversity. Its key principles involve compassion, trust, collaboration and empathy.

On the organizational level, colleagues can come together to assess the work environment to make sure it is safe and healthy for every employee. The workspace, whether virtual or in-person can then become a support system where coworkers can lean on each other. I often found solace amongst my peers, which helped to foster resiliency. In these spaces, I did not have to explain myself or what I was feeling. They already understood the source of my anger, anguish and fear.

Celebrate Good Times… Come On!

Acknowledging the good times is just as vital as expressing stress and discomfort in bad times. Celebrating victories, such as a client moving into a new home or reuniting with long lost family, can help heal and comfort. If you have like-minded people to surround yourself with, then it makes the tougher days at work much easier to handle. With the pandemic, many employees in the field are working remotely and it has been harder to make those connections. Virtual activities like happy hours, coffee gatherings and affinity groups are still impactful. Sending a coworker a funny meme, text, or email as a means of checking up on them can brighten up their day.

Lean on Me

Forming meaningful relationships with unhoused persons is imperative to ending homelessness. However, seeing those we care about being in a state of despair and hopelessness is daunting. It is okay to admit that this work is not easy. Having others to lean on builds resilience and heightens a sense of belonging amongst colleagues. When you hear the dreaded words “I don’t know what to do,” you can be comforted by knowing that you have others to turn to if you don’t have an easy answer. We are all in this together.

“Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.”

Maya Angelou