#7D4H - Guest Blogger Brian King #MentalHealth

7 DRESSES 4 HEALTH: Day 280 - Day 286 ~ October 7th - October 13th ~ 

Guest Blogger Bio: Brian “BB” King holds his masters degree in Educational Psychology from the University of New Mexico and is working on his PhD in Counseling Psychology at the University of Denver. His research interests include the therapeutic alliance, the role of feedback in education, training, and supervision of therapists, cognitive development in therapy, as well as psychotherapy outcomes.

Title: How do you react?

Guest blogger: Brian King

Growing up in a small, mostly-white, agricultural, college town, I was very much isolated from and unaware of many “big-city problems.” When I left my small-town bubble for college and landed in Colorado Springs, I was particularly struck by how many homeless people panhandled in the downtown area and how strangers, friends, and even myself, chose to interact with them. I believe my first experiences with homeless people are fairly stereotypical of the kinds of interactions many Americans commonly face with the homeless, that of the panhandler asking for spare change, wearing dirty, ragged clothing, holding a worn cardboard sign with a message asking for help. 

One simplified view of homelessness is that if only these people would get a job, then they wouldn’t have to depend upon the generosity of society. However, this belief belies the complex nature of the causes of and issues concerning addressing homelessness. Though these external cues often indicate the housing-status of these individuals, what may not be immediately apparent on the outside is the fact that approximately 26% of homeless adults who stay in shelters live with severe persistent mental illness (SPMI), and a full 46% live with SPMI and/or a substance use disorder. In fact, mental illness or substance use may be more of the cause of homelessness rather than an effect of it. Homeless people with mental illness often “encounter more barriers to employment, tend to be in poorer physical health, and have more contact with the legal system than homeless people who do not”. In other words, living with mental illness as a homeless individual can have a drastic effect on one’s day-to-day functioning that may prevent them from establishing employment or maintaining interpersonal relationships. If you don’t know where you’re going to sleep tonight or where your next meal might come from, you may not have the ability to focus on bigger picture questions. 

While this is a topic that I’ve reflected upon at a personal level for some time, my emerging professional identity as a counseling psychologist has helped to cast the subject in a new light as I’ve begun to critically examine and question the world around me as an individual, as a psychologist-in-training, and as a member of my community-at-large. All of which has helped guide me to the question: what is the “right thing” to do here? Ask yourself, when faced with interacting with a homeless person on the street, how have you usually responded? Did you give them some spare change or a couple dollar bills? Perhaps you gave them some food or drink- an energy bar, a Gatorade. Or did you acknowledge the request but politely declined, or even just ignored the question and continued about your day? Though this is not an exhaustive list of hypothetical options, these are certainly common reactions, and the truth is there isn’t necessarily a singular “right” way to respond.

For example, I remember one time when a classmate gave her dinner leftovers to a homeless woman and you could hear the sheer gratitude in the woman’s voice as she thanked my classmate. Alternatively, there was the instance where I witnessed a homeless person outside of a McDonald’s ask a friend for money so they could buy a meal there. When my friend returned having purchased food for them, they scoffed at the gift- they clearly had other plans for the money than to buy a hamburger. In each instance, humanity was given, yet was received differently by the individual for whom it was intended. 

There are some who argue that giving away leftovers may create the condition where the homeless begin to rely upon/seek out such intermittent gifts of food from individuals rather than the more consistent community services provided by governmental and non-profit entities. Likewise, there is the belief that giving money to panhandlers enables risky behaviors including substance use. So does that mean one should never give gifts of food or money to the homeless? I believe that’s a very personal decision. Though one may be able to make a greater impact on more individuals by donating one’s time or money to local charities, those aren’t always options for everyone. There is also the question of level of intimacy and immediacy; when giving directly to the homeless, there is often more of a feeling of personal connection with the individual, as opposed to being more removed from that if one gives money to a charity. Also, the instant gratification of being able to see directly where your gift has gone can be personally satisfying, which isn’t always the case when only donating money to a charity. 

So what should one do? For me, I’ve struggled with knowing how to respond in such situations. I typically choose to not engage in giving money, because I don’t want that money to potentially support substance use while also acknowledging the personal request in a kind manner without being curt. At the same time, I’ve become more aware of my own sense of duty, obligation, and guilt regarding homelessness to do more to address these questions, thoughts, and feelings I’ve reflected upon. I want to be more directly involved in being a part of the solution in a way that is able to both make an impact on more than just one individual while not removing that personal connection. To this end, I want to begin volunteering with local homeless advocacy organizations to gain more firsthand experience to learn about other possible avenues for creating change within my community. 

Still, I remind myself that when interacting with the homeless, especially knowing that so many struggle with SPMI and substance use, that at any given time that person may be experiencing a really bad day. Perhaps they weren’t able or willing to take their medications that day or they just experienced a setback in their search for housing. I intended this discussion to be provocative, to challenge your beliefs, thoughts, and actions, and to hopefully establish a framework for personal reflection on this topic. Taking all of this into consideration, I suggest that however you choose to engage or not with homeless people, I think it’s best to begin with humanity and empathy. Because if someone catches you on a particularly bad day, how would you want to be treated?

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