Guardians of Stories

This is a guest blog by Jeff Standell who is a full-time intake specialist and works part-time for OrgCode doing SPDAT training and advising. On top of that, he is a stand-up guy who teaches me loads about patience and the privilege of service. I am a better person for knowing Jeff. If you like the blog, reach out and send him a note [email protected] or hit him up on Twitter @jstandell

I attended a funeral today, and I realize that by the time this blog reaches the light of day my today will be long past. The funeral in question was not for a loved one, family member or friend, not for a past colleague. I came from a funeral of somebody who used to be homeless, and after crossing my path, and that of other people in our community who battle daily to end homelessness, was not homeless when she passed away.

My job as a centralized intake worker involves meeting people when they are in difficult situations, sorting through their story, and trying to help navigate them to the appropriate supports. Sometimes this is housing first, sometimes rapid re-housing, sometimes to an emergency shelter, sometimes to government offices to try to gain some support. During my time with them, at our initial meeting, I generally complete an SPDAT with them, should that be appropriate. However, in the early minutes of our time together I often ask other questions. This serves two interests, first, I find it helpful in establishing rapport, and second, and perhaps more importantly, I’m genuinely interested and honestly care. When our interaction is done we part ways, sometimes briefly until a program space opens up, sometimes forever as they move on, either to find housing on their own or perhaps into the wind. Regardless of the outcome, that interaction impacts me, it stays with me. Many hundreds of times in the past three years my life has been impacted by these interactions. I have described my position in many ways to many people, but my favorite descriptor is that I am a guardian of stories. Our housing first providing agencies only ever hear the stories from those few who make it into their programs. We, during the intake process, get to hear them all, and I feel it is our duty to make sure that these stories are heard, treasured, and never become just another number.

And then I went to a funeral, and my perspective changed. For all of the rapport I had built with this woman, for all of the times we sat across a table from each other, and there were numerous interactions in the past three years, I learned that I really knew nothing about her at all.

There were over a hundred people in the room, I knew the handful of other service providers, but I didn’t know any of her friends and family. When we had last spoken, about 5 months prior, she shared that she had isolated herself from her supports. Clearly that had changed.

Another thought entered my mind as I watched the slideshow that had been prepared. As I saw for the first time pictures of her as a baby and young child I realized, not for the first time but it is always a good reminder in our work, that when she was growing up she didn’t aspire to the life she ended up living. She had hopes, dreams, goals, and ambitions. I am almost certain that being homeless in her adult life was not part of her plan. Just like everyone else in that room she dreamed of a future, and somewhere along the way that dream turned into a reality that at times resembled a nightmare. Her life took a detour, a rocky road the details of which I cannot share without breaking the trust she placed in me, but suffice it to say it was rocky. By the time our paths crossed for the first time she was focused more on her survival than any ambitions she had growing up. Yet through it all she maintained hope and never gave up. She had found some supports, but the ability to find, secure, or maintain stable housing was, and would remain, difficult for her.

I pride myself on doing a good job, of being thorough while being respectful. I can reasonably believe that most of the service providers that I work with would concur. I love that I have a job that allows me to be curious and genuinely interested in people. I’m good at assessing, at gathering information that is important in determining acuity and prioritizing. I am proud to be a guardian of stories, and today I realized how little of the stories I actually get.

And then I wondered how often this is true of the rest of us?

How often do we forget that the person sitting across from us, whether it’s our boss, our colleague, our client, our best friend, our child, our parent, or just the person in front of us in line at the coffee shop has a story that we haven’t heard?

I went to a funeral today and saw at least a hundred people impacted by the life of one person. I thought of Girard’s Law of 250, even though it applies to sales it still made me think about the number of people we impact in our lives, and the spin off impact that they will have on others if we have had a positive impact on them. If you look at your own work, whatever role you play in ending homelessness, just imagine how many lives you have impacted. Just imagine how far the ripples extend, because you became part of all those stories.

I am the guardian of hundreds of stories.

Today the final page was written for one of those stories.

After I composed myself and got back to work I became a part of someone else’s story.

My pledge to myself is to not forget the people I serve, or forget that even my small part on their journey impacts countless others who I have never, and most likely never will meet. My challenge to you is to do the same.

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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