Wednesday, November 12, 2014

To treat people with respect

You brought them into this world. You need to help take care of them.
-Housing agency employee

Let me tell you the full story. Settle in.

My mom was considering her housing options. We were unsure whether or not she would qualify for assistance through Section 8. We called the housing agency in the county my mom wanted to live in to ask their requirements.

It was difficult for me to communicate with the lady who answered the phone. We had a hard time understanding each other. I was looking for specific income and asset thresholds. She was more focused on defining income. At the time I made this call my mother was unemployed and I made the mistake of saying she had no income. The lady on the phone explained to me that any money or goods my mom received was considered income. She actually said, "If you buy toilet paper for her, that's income."

She also refused to believe my mom was currently living in a house without running water.

After asking repeatedly, the lady would not give me specific "income" and asset qualifications. I was frustrated. I considered calling the state housing agency to complain about the level of customer service I received. Instead, my mom and I decided to give this lady the benefit of the doubt. I had called at lunch time. She may have been having a bad day. I may not have communicated well with her.

My husband works in the IT department of the state housing agency, so I asked him for help. Within minutes one of his co-workers provided me with the information I was looking for. My mom would qualify for Section 8 assistance. The next step would be to go to the local office during the two hours each month when they allow people to sign up and put her name on the waiting list. (The wait is generally six to twelve months I was told. When your name comes up, you officially apply and then receive assistance if you qualify.)

A couple weeks later we pulled into the parking lot of the local office. It wasn't as crowded as we had anticipated. My mom confided to me on our way in, "I hope they have a private area for us to give our information. It's embarrassing to say all of that in front of other people."

A paper sign on the door told us what would be required when we stepped through. (Basically, if you can't provide this information, come back when you can... during our two hour window next month.)

Once inside, a lady standing behind a tall desk in a lobby area asked us to take a number and pointed to a room where everyone was waiting. With that one sentence I matched her voice to the lady who had answered my phone call.

We took our number and found seats in the room. People were making small talk and "the line" was moving quickly. Every few minutes a worker would emerge from the hallway and call a number. I assume those people were interviewed in offices. We weren't able to see or hear them after they walked down the hallway.

The lady in the lobby was also interviewing people. She would not come to the room, but simply called the next number from her desk in the lobby. We didn't have any problem hearing her, or the people whose applications she was taking.

I hoped we would get another worker.

People in the waiting room were mumbling about her rudeness.

I could hear her interviewing a man whose face I never saw. He worked in the automotive field, but things had been slow for the business that employed him.

"Right now we're living on $330 a month," he said.

He continued to answer the questions but there was a sense of urgency in his voice. "How long will it be?" he asked. "I really need something soon," he said. "Is there any way I can get help quicker?" And finally, "I just really need a place for my kids."

"Well, you brought them into this world. You need to help take care of them," the lady said.

I couldn't believe my ears. My mom and I looked at each other, wide-eyed. There was a visible and audible reaction around the room.

"I don't think that's her place," one said.

"This is worse than the food stamp office," another said.

I was seething. I pulled out my cell phone and began typing a text to my husband. I would find out how to report this lady. That was just inexcusable!

Before I could finish the text my mom's number was called. By the lady. I wanted to stall, but my mom was already out of her seat. She told me later she had decided immediately to be as overwhelmingly nice to this lady as she possibly could be.

The interaction went well. I felt ready to pounce on her if she said one thing out of line to my mom. She didn't.

I searched for a name tag, a badge, a business card that would identify her. I thought I remembered her name from the phone call, but I didn't feel like that was certain enough. What if two workers sounded similar? What if I remembered the name wrong?

I wondered if anything I might do could affect my mom's application. I decided that would be inappropriate and my husband could again connect me to the right people at the state level if that were to happen.

With her application complete we were ready to walk away. I felt like I needed this lady's name to report her, and I didn't know any other way to get it than to ask. So I did. And she told me.

There we stood with the desk between us. To thank her and walk away felt disingenuous. She was the person I was ultimately trying to reach. She was smiling and I was smiling. She seemed almost... open.

Before I could stop them, the words spilled out of my mouth: "I'm sure you have a tough job, but I feel like you've been really insensitive to people this morning."

She didn't seem open anymore. "How have I been insensitive?!"

I could have made a list. Truly. But I couldn't get that man out of my head, and probably if not for that one interaction I wouldn't have said or done anything. So I planned to start with him.

"The gentleman who was here earlier. You told him that he brought his kids into the world and he needed to help take care of them. That wasn't very nice and I don't feel like that is an appropriate thing for you to say."

The seconds felt like hours. What was going to happen next? Did the people in the room hear me? Did they feel empowered? Should I ask for a supervisor?

"Maybe you should take some additional sensitivity training or something."

Did I just say that out loud?

"We only have two hours to process everyone's application," she said.

That's not an excuse to be rude. Maybe you should allot more than two hours a month for this.

She had already called the next number. I wasn't sure what to say or do next, so I walked out the door.

Sitting in the car, shaking and crying the second-guessing began. Should I have stood up immediately and introduced myself to that man and addressed the misbehavior as soon as it happened? Should I have not said anything and just filed a formal report? Should I have not left until I spoke with a supervisor or saw some tangible change or result? Did I just make things worse for the people left waiting?

And the question I've been mulling for weeks: What should I do now?

I thought about filing a formal report. I thought about contacting the local newspaper and doing some investigating, possibly even undercover. I thought about going to the housing agency during their two hour window every month and interviewing people to see how the interactions made them feel. I thought about also doing that at the local food stamp office. Sounds like they may have some customer service issues there, too. Or just going and talking to the people and brainstorming ways to help them in less than six months, in more than a two hour time frame. Or offering to sit or stand with them as they answered the questions. 

I thought about surveying my friends about how to handle it. I thought about writing an open letter to social service workers, asking them to strive for kindness in their interactions with their clients.

So far, I haven't done any of those things. 

The other night a blog post popped up on my newsfeed retelling the story of a woman standing up for the mistreatment of a minority couple in front of her in the grocery checkout line. I thought back to this incident and felt like I could relate to her.

As I have reflected on that encounter that day, I have felt a range of emotions. The lady's words underscore many popular misconceptions about impoverished people and those who seek assistance from the government. There are many examples of how programs meant to help don't quite reach what they're aiming for. And the people's reactions and interactions only highlight the destructiveness it can bring. 

I'm not sure I did the right thing that day. On a scale, I don't think I landed at the bottom. But my reaction was not perfect by any means. And I don't even know what kind of impact it had. I hope the lady became more aware of how she was treating people. I hope the people in the waiting room were encouraged and reminded that even though they are asking for a hand up doesn't mean they should be talked down to. But I could have just made things worse. I may never know.

Still, I can't help but thinking that doing something is better than doing nothing. 

What if we all stood up in our little, imperfect ways? What if instead of grumbling or acting out passively or just wallowing in apathy or despair or hopelessness or powerlessness we chose to stand next to our brothers and sisters -- like we would for our brothers and sisters -- when they are so blatantly wronged? (And with the understanding that those on the other side are also our brothers and sisters.)

I think we could make a difference. 

And I think people are already making a difference by standing against injustices in their own quiet and peaceful ways. I hope that by sharing experiences like these we can spur one another on. I hope this is just the beginning of something beautiful.

Note: This post was forwarded (without my knowledge) to the state housing agency and I have been contacted personally by staff in the Frankfort and Louisville offices. While the housing agency that we had this experience at only falls under the jurisdiction of one, both have expressed deep apologies that any housing employee would act in this way. Both have extended offers to help my mom in any way possible. In short, I have been overwhelmed by the immediate and heartfelt response. And am reminded that while some government employees are not stellar, many are devoted, hardworking and often don't get the recognition or respect they deserve.