The Uptown community was a mishmash of cultures, lots of recent immigrants, alcohol and drug addicts, the homeless, and the mentally ill. Most were living in rundown apartment buildings. Some of the street dwellers occasionally scored a “room”– really just a 6’ x 6’ section of a larger space, with chicken wire separating areas barely big enough to hold a cot—for $1.50 at a single-room occupancy “hotel,” for the night. Lots of people lived on the street, the largest numbers being the addicted and the mentally ill. They were everywhere, sleeping in the doorways of buildings and under viaducts. The one thing every Uptown resident held in common was poverty. The other was they were all trying to survive in Chicago’s Uptown. This was not your movie version of a poor neighborhood, where everyone looks out for one another. This part of Chicago demanded a personal level of struggle that eliminated the energy to act on concern for your neighbor. This was my “beat,” and it is where I learned an important lesson, a piece of wisdom and humility I have carried with me ever since.
I was new to social services and the field of addiction. My boss, Jack, was a Lutheran minister and one of the best men I have ever known. He was the director of an outreach, detox and treatment center in Uptown, and had been working in the field of addiction for many years. He was a first-class teacher, which was good because I had a lot to learn. I was so sure I could change the world, and I was chomping at the bit to get to it. I was such a newbie and so full of myself. Now, it’s good to understand what belongs to you and what belongs to someone else, to accept that you don’t always know what is best for others. People in the helping professions sometimes blur the line between walking alongside someone on their journey and carrying them someplace they may not want to go. We’ve all known helpers or social workers who tend to cross lines that leave those being helped feeling unheard, incapable, disrespected or just plain stupid. This was me when I began working for Jack.
In my job as an outreach worker, my primary focus was to keep track of and provide assistance to our clients, most of whom could also be identified as the end-term addicted, which basically meant they were in the terminal stages of their disease. Time was running out for them, and these were men and women whose addiction had long since separated them from family, friends, a spiritual life, all the typical support systems we tend to take for granted. So it was pretty much just Jack and his staff trying to save some lives or, if we were unable to accomplish that, to offer as comfortable a death as possible. Alive and living their addiction, there was little comfort available to them. They were the walking wounded, many of them veterans or products of the foster care or mental healthcare systems.
I walked and drove the streets of Uptown, looking for familiar faces, attempting to monitor the whereabouts of clients we knew to be at high risk. I never knew from day to day which of my clients might have died overnight, either at the hands of someone who decided to steal their shoes, or in a more expected way, due to malnutrition, cirrhosis or overdose. As I searched, I listened to the street gossip. It was how I would discover that Jimmy, who raged when he was too drunk, had been stabbed and was in the hospital; that no one had seen Little Martin for several days, that the guy everyone knew only as “the Indian” had passed the other day, just sat down on the pavement while waiting in line at the soup kitchen and died; that Bruno had again beaten the hell out of Patty and was now hiding from the police. Before I could help, I had to find them, so I followed leads, just like a detective, only I didn’t put them in jail when I found them. When all else failed, I checked the hospitals. This was how I kept track of our clients and anyone else who crossed our path and needed help.
My heart ached for what my clients endured on a daily basis, and I diligently remained in their lives, making sure they received the care they required, or at least knew they had options, always encouraging them to try detox and treatment one more time. And if they weren’t interested, I would deal with whatever crisis they were experiencing. I wanted to be the answer to their problems, the one who led them to something better. I wanted to fix them. But although I ached for them, I also judged them.
One day Jack asked that I go check on a group of men—all of them long-term alcoholics or drug addicts– for whom he had found housing at a YMCA in downtown Chicago. He gave me a bunch of food vouchers and bus passes and asked me to distribute them to the men. He had called one of them and told him I was coming, requesting that he and the others meet me in the cafeteria the next morning, where I would buy them breakfast with funds Jack provided.
I walked into the cafeteria that morning and saw the men, about six or seven of them, and realized they were all still drinking, and a few of them were clearly stoned. Suddenly, I was conflicted about giving them vouchers and bus passes they could sell to fund their next high. And I was angry that they did not appreciate the help enough to make an effort. I reluctantly did as Jack asked anyway, and then hurried back to the office and told him all his efforts were for nothing. They were all still drinking, and I had just provided them with currency to stay drunk for another twenty-four hours. I told him I felt awful because his generosity was not going to help any of those men.
Jack just smiled at me and told me I was confusing my job with theirs. I asked him to explain. “Alexis, our job is to give, to support, to provide a path if they want to take it. What you give and why you do it is between you and God. How they use what you give is between them and God. Your job ended as soon as you gave them the vouchers and the passes.” I was taken aback, as I believed my instinct to withhold support while the men were still drinking to be in their best interests. But I knew Jack was wiser and more experienced than I about this, so I examined my belief. Was I wrong? Wasn’t my job to get them help in whatever way possible?
It took me a few days to figure out that, had I decided to withhold the vouchers and passes in an attempt to control their addiction, I would have been foreclosing the possibility that this time one of the men might not have sold our help for money to buy booze or crack. One of them might have used that bus pass to get to the VA and into a treatment program. One of them might have gotten a few decent meals and not died of malnutrition. The giving might have been the tipping point in someone’s journey to sobriety. My intent had been to find a way to make them shape up and reach for something better, the message being I could care about them only if they lived their lives in a manner I approved of. Jack’s intent was to give, and to care, no matter what they chose. I was essentially ignoring their humanity. Jack was confirming it.
The gift Jack was offering was far more important than bus passes and food vouchers. It was a chance to make a better choice. Whatever each man did had to be their choice, a choice they could build on. Once again, Jack’s way was the right way. At that moment, I rewrote my job description as a social worker.