Monday, November 19, 2007

Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

My job on Skid Row is to work with homeless people who are applying for housing (specifically those with severe mental illness and/or substance abuse problems). What this means is that I get to work with crazy, drug-addicted people who are living on the streets and in emergency shelters. For the most part, they are upbeat and motivated. They come in telling me about all of the programs they're involved in, that they're going to tons of 12-step meetings each week, and that they're seeing a psychiatrist and taking their meds. They insist that they are trying to turn their lives around and that ever since they hit rock bottom they've been gung-ho about making real changes.

However, after talking with other case managers in the organization, I've found out that the majority of the people in our housing are still drinking heavily, smoking crack, and hanging around the streets like before. The only thing that is different is that now they have a bed of their own. All of those people came into our housing wanting to change their lives, but all they've managed to change is their sleeping situation.

Don't get me wrong--it's not that I think those people don't deserve housing. It's just sad to me that they come in with such high hopes only to fall flat. I have to say, though, it is a big achievement for many of these people to get permanent housing in the first place. Many of them have been homeless for so long that they don't remember anything else. They've developed survival techniques--functional dysfunctions--that help them survive on the streets but that work against them in regular life.

When I'm meeting with my clients, I can't help but think that it won't be long before they're smoking crack and drinking again and that nothing will really change. However, I need to be hopeful for them and help them get into housing so that they can have a chance. I have to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I have to wonder what God thinks of my job. If Jesus were a young twentysomething in Los Angeles, would he consider sitting at my desk? If he were like me (no supernatural powers, socially awkward, and financially limited) would he be a case manager or would he consider my work a waste of time? I don't save anyone's souls. I don't help them beat their addictions. I don't feed them or clothe them. All I do is help them get housing. I give them the benefit of the doubt so they can have a chance.

I'm sure there are plenty of important questions I could ask about the intersection of social work with the kingdom of God, holistic soteriology and Christian living, but there is one question I have to ask first:

Is my work worthwhile?

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