Tag Archives: remembrance

The Death of a Service User

When a homeless person dies, not only do friends and family members of that person become affected, but so can front line workers. Richard Lakeman, Mim Fox, and R. Dean Wright and colleagues conducted separate research on how service workers are affected by deaths of people who are homeless. Lakeman tells us that service workers can encounter deaths frequently (2011:928). Wright et al., suggest that service workers may feel self-doubt and might ask questions such as “Did I do enough?” or “Was there something that I could have done differently?” (1999:245). Fox explains how social workers see the deaths and continually feel powerless (2005:196).

I volunteered with two different agencies a while back, doing street outreach for homeless youth. Luckily, I never did experience the death of someone I knew directly, probably because I had only volunteered for a few months. However, I did counsel some youths who had friends pass away on the streets. At this point, I was out of school from Child and Youth Work, so that support system was no longer available. There were people that I volunteered with and the service providers who understood, but many of them were dealing with their own problems. This was a tough time for me personally, as I was finding myself burning out and nowhere to turn for help.

stress

 

Maslach et al., define burnout as “…emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and reduced personal accomplishment” (1997:192). I know this feeling all too well. You simply feel as though you no longer have the mental capacity to handle day to day situations, let alone help anyone else.  There is a sense that things will never change and you can even start doubting yourself and your abilities.

Research shows that depersonalisation can happen when a service provider loses someone. Even the terminology we use at times is depersonalising. “Service user” and “Client” are ways to distance our professional selves from those we serve. Wright et al., found that “[a] common, although dysfunctional, response among staff to the multiple losses they experience is professional distancing. They may deny any feelings for the deceased and detach from other guests so as not to be ‘affected’ or place themselves in jeopardy of suffering more loss” (1999:244). Lakeman says workers may expect more deaths in the future and that a feeling of uselessness may occur (2011:933).

When front line workers don’t get the services they need after dealing with many deaths in the community they may suffer from intrusive memories or experience anxiety, wondering who will be next (Lakeman 2011:942).

burnout

 

What can be done?

Few organizations have the capacity or resources to fully attend to the needs of service workers (Wright et al., 1999:247). Lakeman suggests that a positive response to the death of a service user includes the ability to preserve the memory of that person, like a picture on a wall (2011:942).

Some organizations have their own ways of dealing with the loss of people they work with. Lakeman learned that some service providers would do things like “…convening a special group, planting a tree, or having a sing-along…lighting a candle or spending a few moments in quiet reflection at some point during the working day” (2011:937). Wright et al., made a similar finding that staff may hold a moment of silence, or have an annual service to recognize those homeless people who have died throughout the year (1999:241).

candles

 

An organization here in Toronto has a Reflections Memorial Project that helps everyone grieve and remember those who have passed away. The project was inspired by the need for people to process loss and encourage healing through art, expression and memorial.

Firstly, they have an ongoing scrapbook, where photos, artwork and writings are added when someone dies. The book can be looked at by service providers whenever they want to remember. Secondly, they have a wall mounted display which is magnetic.  Small circular buttons are placed on the wall that contain initials, artwork, photos or writings that each represent someone who has passed away. The display is hanging on the wall in a visible space in the organization. Lastly, they hold a Reflections Memorial Event in the fall every year, symbolic of change, transition and reflection. Poems are read, candles are lit and the memory book is available for others to read.

These are just some great suggestions for how other organizations may approach remembering people who have died while homeless.  These rituals are a way for service providers to mark death, which “…serves a therapeutic function in that it helps people to experience emotions and is part of properly framing death. Marking death is undertaken in highly personal and private ways as well as collectively through formal mechanisms such as memorial services and funerals” (Lakeman 2011:936).

Working with socially excluded people is a tough job. It requires resiliency, stamina, support, compassion and coping strategies in order to keep going. Much respect goes out to those who continue to serve others despite the hardships, your efforts are greatly appreciated.

 

References

Fox, M. (2005). To die destitute today: What are the implications for social work?. Australian Social Work, 58(2), 188-198.

Lakeman, R. (2011). How homeless sector workers deal with the death of service users: a grounded theory study. Death studies, 35(10), 925-948.

Maslach, C., Jackson, S. E., & Leiter, M. P. (1997). Maslach burnout inventory. Evaluating stress: A book of resources, 3, 191-218.

Wright, R. D., Wright, S. E., & Jones, A. (1999). Dying homeless but not alone: Social support roles of staff members in homeless shelters. Illness, Crisis & Loss, 7(3), 233-251.

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Stone and Glass: We Are All Transient

Myseum is a non-profit organization that celebrates diversity and helps the community to further understand it’s culture and urban spaces. The collective is launching its first annual festival of exhibits exploring different perspectives on the city’s natural, cultural, and historical diversity.The festival runs March.6th-31st.

On March.9th from 6:30-9:30pm at The Church of the Holy Trinity and Trinity Square, the event launch will be taking place that includes an art installation, live music, drumming, historical church tour, food and activism.

The event is a collaboration between The Church of the Holy Trinity, The Toronto Homeless Memorial Network and community artist Rebecca Houston. The premise for the installation is that most people aren’t aware of how many people die homeless and without support. The names of those who have passed away will be projected onto the front face of the church in order for people to take notice.

This is an excerpt from the flyer:

“We all pass briefly through the world, but we are not all treated the same. In Toronto alone nearly 800 people have died on the streets and in temporary shelters since 1985. Many die without a name, listed only as Jane or John Doe. Come for an evening light and sound installation honouring them and calling for change in their memory”

memorialflyer

 

The following is a list of what she is looking for if you are interested in volunteering:
Volunteers to arrive early, (5pm) help set up sound, tables, chairs, food (5-10 people)
Crowd greeting and handing out programs- “Ambassadors” (10-15 people) (from 5:45-7pm)
Help serving food (5 people) (from 6-8:30pm)
Clean up (10-15 people) (9-10pm)

If you are interested in volunteering, please contact Rebecca Houston:rebeccajanehouston[at]gmail.com

Here is the official website.
Twitter: Stone and Glass @homelessevent

Toronto Homeless Memorial

Another month…more names.

I try to make it out to the memorial service when I can. The ceremony is not long and it’s a great way to show support and remember those homeless people who have passed away. The service is also a reminder that this shouldn’t be happening in the first place, people should not be dying because of homelessness.

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People come together to read poetry (focusing on what is a priority to the homeless community for that month) and hear music that speaks to the systemic problems that contribute to poverty. Michael Shapcott gives us a run down of the political climate and of course there is a reading of the names, tribute speakers and a moment of silence.

Community members also take the opportunity to announce any initiatives, projects or protests during the service.

If you are in the Toronto area, feel free to stop by and remember. The memorial happens every second Tuesday of the month at noon.

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Importance of Names

“The dead cannot cry out for justice; it is a duty of the living to do so for them” 

– Lois McMaster Bujold

Every second Tuesday of the month, some community members gather at the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto in order to remember those homeless people who have passed away. One of the hardest parts of attending the Toronto Homeless Memorial, is hearing the list of names that are read during the ceremony. If that wasn’t difficult enough, many of the deceased could not be identified and therefore are read as “Jane Doe” or “John Doe.”

We pride ourselves on our “first world” status, on how “developed” we are compared to other countries. The truth is, we are far from developed. People…and I will repeat this again…people who have died homeless should not have been in that position in the first place. But even further, we cannot even keep track of our citizen’s names? Who were they? And at the very least, what were their names? Where is the dignity?

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Kumar and colleagues suggest that we are born with an identity and we deserve to die with one, as it is a fundamental right of being born a human (2014:80). Michael Stoops informs us that “[w]hen a homeless person dies they do no often get the same sense of dying with dignity as a housed person” (2007:6). What most of us might take for granted here is that for many, burials and funerals are commonplace. Gravestones are often marked with the names of the dead. Unknown soldiers are also another group that do not get named in death, however, they are much more exalted in our society.

In a recent paper I wrote, I unpack some of the answers surrounding Judith Butler’s question of “what makes for a grievable life?” (2003:10). In neoliberal times, those people engaged in economic gains and productivity tend to be considered more valuable than those people who “do nothing.” We think to ourselves that money makers are more valuable than John Doe’s who die on the streets because they never contributed to society in a productive economic way. Thomas Laquer would agree, “[w]e have a history of commemorating the dead through monuments, which include war veterans, public workers and political figures. Some of these sites only include those who have “done something for humanity” (2015:423). However, if you learn about people who are homeless and hear their stories, then you will learn some of them were “productive” members of society (which is actually beside the point, but needed to be mentioned).

A human life is a human life, and because we have labelled and stigmatized homeless people, we just don’t care enough as a society to learn their names. Tipple and Speak suggest, that “[t]he negative and exclusionary language used to describe and discuss homeless people helps to construct homeless people as ‘other’ and institutionalize their stigmatisation keeping them dissociated and disconnected from society” (Tipple & Speak 2004:2). Society in general seems to be ok with this, to see homeless people as parasitic and therefore who cares about when they die or what their names were, right?

Despite this, some of us are working to change that.

baby feet

Laquer has also pointed out that “[n]aming marks the entry not into biological but into human life” (2015:367). In Ontario, when we are born, we are required to submit our children’s names to the province that in turn, provides a birth certificate. This is an important societal ritual, not only because it is an official government act, but on a personal level, we can understand its importance. Psychologists have done research on the importance of names. The field has also labelled a phenomenon called “The Cocktail Party Effect” which is being able to recognize our name being said in a noisy room and a good overview of the literature can be found here. Nisbett and Ross (1980) inform us that we pay more attention to identifiable victims than statistical ones.

It is clear. Names are important to us all. We should not live in a society where we cannot keep track of our dead. If this is something important to you as well, contact your local MP and MPP and support affordable housing and social supports as a priority in order to prevent this tragedy from happening in the first place.

References

Bujold, L. (2002). Diplomatic immunity. Riverdale, NY New York: Baen Books.

Butler, J., (2003). Violence, Mourning, Politics. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. 4(1): 9-37.

Colman, A. M., Hargreaves, D. J., & Sluckin, W. (1980). Psychological factors affecting preferences for first names. Names, 28(2), 113-129.

Kumar, A., Harish, D., Singh, A., & Kumar, G. A. (2014). Unknown Dead Bodies: Problems and Solutions. Journal of Indian Academy of Forensic Medicine, 36(1), 76-80.

Laqueur, T. (2015). The work of the dead : a cultural history of mortal remains. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Nisbett, R., & Ross, L. (1980). Human inference: Strategies and shortcomings of human judgment. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Stoops, M. (2007). Dying without dignity: homeless deaths in Los Angeles County, 2000-2007. Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger & Homelessness.

Tipple, G., & Speak, S. (2004). Attitudes to and interventions in Homelessness: Insights from an International Study. In paper delivered to International Conference Adequate and Affordable Housing for All, June (pp. 24-27).