Friday, November 15, 2013

"Tears are okay- they help the pain come out."

By Colleen Sinsky

When I first met Susan, she was living in a tent with her pitbull on an undeveloped butte in East County.  Without opening her tent door, she yelled at me and Outreach Worker Quinn to please go away.  We obliged immediately and hiked back through the nearly invisible trail we’d taken to get there, pausing to leave a business card with Quinn’s cell number scrawled on the back.

That was over three years ago, and since then we have had the pleasure of getting to know Susan, her family and her wonderful pitbull “Speck."  Susan has been in housing, struggling to pay rent on her meager social security check.  While she is a more confident, secure and happy person than she was while homeless, achieving housing was not (and rarely is) the end of the battle.  Susan continues to experience both high and low points, and I’m honored to have gotten to walk beside her on her path.

Sometimes our “relationships first” model means that we are visiting our folks in the hospital or hospice (and occasionally the only one to do so).  It’s difficult, of course.  But I can think of few things more important than being a non-judgemental, caring presence at someone’s bedside when they would otherwise be alone.

So when we heard that Susan had suffered a massive stroke and was hospitalized, I went over to visit.  She looked so tiny, curled up in her tiny bed, but came alive when she recognized me and we shared a long hug.  Susan has since reconnected with her family, so I’m happy to report that I’m not her only visitor, and she has balloons and stuffed animals and love notes around her room, and is due to go home next week.

Susan’s life story isn’t mine to share, but believe me that it has been rough.  She exemplifies the importance of communities offering holistic, trauma-informed services.  Susan asked me to share her story, in the hope that even one person might reconsider using drugs like she did.

“I didn’t know how to ask for help and I didn’t want to be ridiculed, so I self-medicated.  I started drinking.  You can’t think you’re doing better just because it feels better- the wound is still there.  I used heroin and then I tried meth to get rid of the heroin and that worked for a while, but underneath, the wound was still there.  You have to learn how to deal with the pain and not just hide it with a band-aid.   Tears are okay- they help the pain come out of you.  Drugs can have a lasting effect you don’t know about, for years sometimes.  Like me having Hepatitis C or this stroke.  At the end, the person you’ve hurt the most is yourself, but you also hurt people around you when they are wanting to help you and you don’t accept it.  Lately I’ve been okay with accepting help, but it’s hard. I really want to go all out for Thanksgiving dinner this year.  It might be my last one and I really need to make everything count now!  I want to help the whole world, and I know the best way I can do that is by sharing my story.”

Monday, October 7, 2013

Daily Ups and Downs

By Colleen Sinsky

Apologies for the lack of blog posts for a while!  I’ve noticed how easy it is at JOIN to get sucked into the day to day chaos without stepping back to reflect (and blog!) about the experience.  And lately I’ve been putting energy into posting pictures and mini-stories onto our Facebook page.

I was struck today by what types of things determine whether I’m having a good or rough day at work.  In this constantly changing environment those variables can be thousands of types of events - evictions, benefits denied, benefits approved, babies born, cancer diagnosis, furniture, a trip to the pumpkin patch, a great conversation, domestic violence… the list is endless.  It’s life.  And because we are lovingly entrenched in the lives of so many of our folks we’re alongside for years’ worth of these events.

This morning I was thrilled by two awesome things that happened to two of my folks and shocked and saddened by a third.  

The sad news was one of my families deeply affected by a recent homicide in Gresham.  It was one of those barely-newsworthy shootings that is all too common in the poverty stricken areas of East County.  Please join me in sending your thoughts or prayers towards the victim's family.

Fortunately there will always be wonderful, beautiful things happening in the world that remind us why we keep doing this.  Today I got the amazing news I’ve been waiting for for months that one of my families was approved by HomeForward and will be moving into a brand new low-income housing project set to open this winter.  (I’ll try to remember to pester them with a camera and do a blog post on their big move in day.)  This will be the first time they’ve had an actual ADA-accessible apartment, and enough bedrooms for both kids and their parents.  Needless to say, we are all absolutely thrilled!

Also today I visited a housed friend of mine, Mike.  “Shanghai Mike” was a street legend for 14 years, riding freight trains cross country a number of times and drinking more whiskey than you’d think was humanely possible.  He’ll occasionally tell me a story from his days on the streets that I won’t repeat here, but they absolutely blow me away.  Mike and I realized that we both have ancestors from Cork County, Ireland which is a fun connection we joke about often.  He's been in housing for a few years and is grateful that he didn't die out there. Mike called me today to tell me the great news that a random Good Samaritan had seen him struggling with his manual wheelchair and had given him, for free, a new electric wheelchair.  “It’s absolutely life changing!  Like night and day.  I can get on and off the bus like a pro, and going down the store now is no big deal.  It’s awesome!”


Friday, May 3, 2013

We Are The Safety Net

By Colleen Sinsky

Every day at JOIN, we encounter hundreds of examples of why the safety net is so hugely important to Portland residents who are too often overlooked.  Here’s a story of just one of those times when having flexible financial resources had an immediate, long-lasting impact on a hard working family in need.

Last night I went to the Portland Timbers game with a formerly homeless JOIN family on some generously donated tickets (thanks Timbers!)  It was awesome, and the happy seven-year- old and nine-year-old I got to sit with thought so too.  I should mention that these kids aren’t starving- they’d both had a hot dog before this conversation happened, and they are honestly some of the most well-taken-care of kids I’ve met in my life.  When the cotton candy vendor came around, the younger one knew better than to ask her dad for some and instead whispered to me, “Dad says we can’t buy stuff because we have to spend all our money on the electricity so we can turn the lights back on.”

It was hard to hear one of my favorite kiddos say that.   I leaned over to their dad and asked if it’s true that their electricity was off.  He quietly confirmed, yes- it’s been off for two days and the reason why his wife hadn’t joined us for the game as planned was because they hadn’t been able to charge her electric wheelchair.  

I asked him to come in to JOIN the next morning- his day off from work.  Today he and I sat down to go over their PGE bill and our funding options and I was able to deliver the good news that we were able to pay their entire past due amount!  One phone call later and the family’s electricity was turned back on remotely.

It’s hard to convey how happy I am when we’re able to provide support in a situation like that, but unfortunately there are many stories that don’t end as well.  Because of this family and so many others, I support the Portland Safety Net!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Brenda Can Buy A Bra!

By Colleen Sinsky

Doing this work effectively involves pouring your soul in and riding alongside our folks through their highs and lows.  In the harsh world of homelessness and housing advocacy, the “lows” unfortunately tend to be common and severe (for example... the majority of these blog posts).  So it is such an amazing gift when I really get to genuinely celebrate with my folks.  This week a very long-time JOIN friend, Brenda was finally awarded social security after years of being too disabled to work.  Brenda spent her entire adult life doing the most labor-intensive jobs and is constantly talking proudly about her work in construction, the military, fighting wildland fires and commercial fishing.  Unfortunately, the social security system is a difficult one to navigate and it’s not uncommon at all for deserving applicants like Brenda to face denial after denial with long wait periods and lots of paperwork in between.  Fortunately, JOIN has some amazing community partners like the BEST team, BAC and the law offices of George Wall who heroically advocate for our folks to receive their benefits and help build a strong case.

In Brenda’s case, we referred her to George Wall after she received her first two denials from social security.  At that point, the case goes to a social security disability hearing and a lawyer has to get involved to organize records and advocate effectively through the system.  During this time (which takes many years) folks are generally living on zero-income.  Occasionally, as in Brenda’s case, we’d managed to get her on one of a very few “Shelter Plus Care” vouchers whose funding supports an apartment, utilities, a basic cell phone and “Honored Citizen” monthly bus pass.  She received some small monthly allotment in food stamps, and occasionally went canning to pay for prescriptions.  We took her to all kinds of medical appointments, often having to help her down the stairs and into the car.  Through all of this, Brenda was always so amazingly upbeat and hilarious.. one of few apartments I love to visit and hang out to chat way more often than is probably necessary.

So given this history, we were unbelievably happy last week when, in her appeal hearing the judge awarded Brenda social security, plus a couple thousand dollars in back pay (money awarded based on when an applicant who was initially denied first submitted their application).  For someone so conditioned to living on zero-income, this is huge beyond words.  As we walked out of the federal building downtown, crybaby me was laughing through happy tears and hugging Brenda and trying to simultaneously text her super longtime JOIN worker, Emily, the good news. Brenda was so ready for another denial that she was still in disbelief that she’d finally been awarded her deserved benefits.  

The next afternoon, Brenda and I talked again.  Now that she’d had a day to think about it she’d come up with a modest list of what she wanted to spend her money on.  Legally, recipients of social security can’t have assets in excess of $2,000 in their account, so there’s this bizarre “spend down” that has to happen once someone receives back pay to get their account balance lower or else their monthly payments will stop.  (The econ major in me hates how one-time irresponsible spending is incentivized, but that’s for another post.)  Anyways, Brenda’s list included purchases like taking her dog to the vet, visiting her out of state family, getting a new TV, and replacing the only bra that she’s had for a decade.  Something about that triggered a lot of the wordless pride and indignation I feel for our folks for whom basic human necessities are beyond financial reach, and seeing Brenda finally able to overcome those limitations and gain confidence as a woman was utterly amazing.

$698 a month isn’t much to live on.. especially once ⅓ is taken out for rent, and more for utilities, but even a modest amount like that is amazingly empowering for someone who’s had nothing for so long.  In the future, Brenda is going to have to be very disciplined to stretch that amount to cover expenses, but right now I’m preferring to celebrate this victory with her.

Friday, February 22, 2013

To Do Lists

By Colleen Sinsky

A friend of mine recently asked me, “so what exactly do you DO at work?”  She knows that I have this unique title, “Retention Worker” and that I do something related to housing advocacy at an organization that sounds like an acronym, but what exactly does that translate to in real life tasks at work?    

Here’s some real snippits from my ongoing weekly ‘to do’ lists.  I quickly learned to give up having a strict daily agenda at this job in favor of a set of 'goals to accomplish this week.’
(names changed)

-Can we pay Karen’s past due to PGE?
-Call Frank. Landscaping job? Financial aid?
-Invite Ken, Larry & Deb to Japanese Garden event.
-Did Turner family disappear?  Go visit.
-Food boxes to Jim K., Alicia, Randy and Doug.
-Rochelle needs couch, two twin beds, kitchen table, dresser (if available), kitchen stuff, bookshelf, microwave.
-Jamie needs ride to Mt Hood Hospital early Tuesday am.
-get Robin in touch with HealthConnect to figure out insurance

-introduce JOIN intern to Jenny for friendly visiting.
-Hospital records & psych eval docs for Steve. Call Aging & Disability asap.
-Make referral for George to social security advocacy lawyer.
-Help Kaitlyn get restraining order. go to Gateway Center together Monday am.
-Kyle’s kids want that donated fish tank stuff!
-Check in with Mark K.

-Take Julio to submit rental applications asap!-Gabe’s ID: need address proof, Social Security printout, order birth certificate online, ask Safety Net to print check to DMV.
-Give Rob’s kid my old Pokemon cards.
-Talk to Michelle’s landlord re: bedbugs
-Franco’s wake and memorial tonight at 6pm.
-Do Shelter Plus Care voucher renewal paperwork with Hank.
-are Lisa’s kids engaged with Morrison Child & Family Services yet?
-Stop by to meet new folks in Doug Fir Apartments

-DiAndre's birthday lunch on Wed at Burgerville!
-Bus tickets to William for job search-Talk to BEST team about kids applying for social security disability
-pick up donation of baby stuff from Rockwood Adventist on Saturday
-find free lunch for seniors in Gresham.

...and obviously the list goes on and on and on.  The more important things that I think we all do every day that I didn’t capture at all in this list are the more intangible listening, validating, and problem solving with our folks who are dealing with insurmountable-seeming obstacles.  While it feels great to successfully cross tangible tasks off of my to do list, so rarely are the most impactful and empowering aspects of what we do at JOIN captured in lists and reported data.