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Getting back on your feet again

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010 | Posted by Christina Tran

This is not just a story about little ducklings. This is not just a test of your empathy and heartstrings—or of your sense of humor. This is a story about how people can lose their way, and how they can find it again.

After doing a lot of research, especially when you’re in synthesis mode, everything starts to relate to your research. But what made me do a double-take with this video was the fact that we heard young moms (who are temporarily homeless) say: “I hope to soon be on my feet again.” I watched the video again and realized it illustrates a lot of the themes we’ve been seeing in our research about women experiencing homelessness.

The story that makes sense of the research

We’re all trying to navigate this big wide-open possibility space that is life.

Life is great. You have a goal. You’re part of some kind of community.

Some kind of crisis knocks you off your feet. You’re disoriented.

You find yourself away from your support system. Or isolated—physically and/or emotionally.

You’re still struggling, and a friend or family member finds you. Maybe you don’t want to get help, or don’t want to go to the shelter for “directionless duckies,” but your friend/advocate pushes you to just apply. They hold your hand during the first step of the process.

You see that there are other people who are in your same situation to connect with. You start to help each other form a new family. When you see a new person in the same situation, you tell them, “I know how you feel. I was scared, too.”

You’re still a little off-balance. You can’t do things on your own yet, but you know you’ll be able to in the future. For a time, you need some strong directional leadership or authority in your life, leading you in the right direction. You see a map of where you are going because you’re following in others’ footsteps, and you regain your confidence and your bearing.

The research behind the story

Kat and I talked to some women at a local shelter for young moms. We were impressed by the space, their strong bonds, and their drive. Our talks focused less on homelessness and more on their goals and what they were doing in their lives. In fact, we both felt uncomfortable using the word “homelessness” when explaining our research because we didn’t want to imply that they were “homeless” or that they lived in a “shelter.” We realized afterward it was because they don’t perceive themselves as homeless, even though they technically are under the federal definitions. We think this is a strength of the program.

“It’s scary at first. I know exactly what you’re going through. When I first came, I was scared. I just didn’t know what to expect. I’ve never been in this situation, and I never expected to be in this situation. And then it got better when I started to talk to everybody, and them saying to me it’s going to be all right, telling me about the housing and the GED classes…[There's support] because there’s people to talk to when you’re down. I’m making friends. When I was living out there with the youngest two’s dad, I just stayed home. I never did nothin’.” ~Miranda, 23, who hopes to soon be on her feet again.

These were some of the themes we observed:

  • Each needed an advocate to help them find or apply to the shelter.
  • For each, there was a barrier in their perception of what a “shelter” or “homeless” was in their minds. Once they saw the place, met the people, stayed a bit, they quickly saw that this place was nothing like what they had imagined.
  • There was some kind of isolation in many people’s past, and getting out of that was key.
  • Support from a group of peers going through similar life situations has long-lasting impact. Some of the moms who have moved out and exited the program often come back to visit or hang out.
  • Having a goal, and a roadmap, and constant checks to keep them on track helps people to navigate the larger picture.
  • They were all motivated, and they all had (or found) their drive once they were in the program. Oftentimes, their babies, their kids were a huge part of that motivation. Their youth didn’t hurt either.
2 Comments »
  • http://www.drawsalot.com Alex Pappas

    Great post!

    It’s really great to see the points where research from the different groups starts to overlap – especially when coming from different sources, focuses, and to some extent methods.

    Specifically:

    It’s incredible how much power a single word can have over your sense of self. Homeless. We live in a dualistic society, often loving nothing more than to draw a line in the sand and place things on one side or the other… but nothing is ever that simple, context blows away the line and re-shuffles the pieces, the board, even the very rules by which we were playing.

    Along those lines we seem to be seeing this as a recurring issue in our research – the unfortunate (and often too simple)grouping and labeling of people, with no context in sight. Efficiency in place of empathy? Perhaps that’s too strong a statement but the reality is that the groupings are often exclusionary instead of inclusive, alienating instead of welcoming… and dehumanizing in stead of empowering.

    Opportunities abound.

    walk tall little duckies, walk tall!

  • http://www.sodelightful.com Christina Tran

    Yes! Labeling without context is a huge issue. We counted and found the word “homeless” in ARCH’s short welcome letter 7 times. Not only affects the sense of self of a person using their services but also deters some people from coming to the building who might benefit from some of the services they offer. Also affects in subtle ways what people focus on, how they work, and how they treat each other.

    One of the things that I think will come out of putting together our class research presentation is a more complex and subtle look at the different faces of “homelessness.”

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this in context of my way-past post about the PC language of disabilities (http://www.austincenterfordesign.com/blog/?p=706) and my near-past post about disabilities as service vs. place (http://www.austincenterfordesign.com/blog/?p=2540). While I now have more nuanced understanding of the benefits of offering multiple services in a central location — especially for those with jobs, I’m still not sold on the branding of some of these places.

    Opportunities abound!