Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Playing catch up and the changing of the guard

It is an unusually quiet night in our household. We are both on our computers. Isobel is in her toddler bed asleep and not performing her almost usual late night antics. The dishes are done. The bills are paid. I have clean clothes for work tomorrow. They may not be glamorous or fashionable but they are within the dress code ( no t shirts or slogans or hoochie mama short shorts).  We don't know how we are going to make it through til next pay day but we will do our best. These days I consider it a feat  if we are all fed, clothed, I can make it to work on time, Susan and Isobel are content with their plans for the day and we are not drowning in dirty dishes, dirty laundry and toys. One of my co-workers today told me that if only I could lose a bit of weight I would curb my snoring ( I had confided to her that the old night choo choo train was keeping the other occupants of our bed up at night). I told her that was all very well, but I was just pleased to be able to keep on top of the bare essentials and I didn't know when I was going to be losing weight any time soon.

It has been almost 8 weeks since I started back to work, full-time, as the sole wage earner in our household. We had run out of all our borrowed moneys ( 401ks, money from my deceased parents, student loans etc.) The job came just in the nick of time. I almost did not apply for it as I had been trying so hard to get out of not for profit social services and into a hospital or healthcare setting. Now I am back in social services I realize that I am where I was supposed to be all along. I am an administrator / manager / clinical social worker type in a social service agency that serves homeless women and their families and also single men. It was as if my resume was written in preparation for this job. In a very strange circular motion I have come back to where I started 16 years ago when I first started working as a case manager for a homeless services agency and shelter in Chicago. The agency had many flaws and problems but they did hire me and sponsor me for a temporary work visa, which was the first in many steps to get to my green card. It was a baptism of fire and roaches. The fire is metaphorical, the roaches are not. And they are now joined by armies of bed bugs, immune to most pesticides and taking refuge in the mattresses of shelters, in the rooms of hoarders who are incapable and sometimes unwilling to take the complicated steps to rid themselves of these scourges. We all live in fear of bringing bed bugs home. I am one of at least three staff that regularly say that if I bring them home I will be getting a divorce.

But I digress. This agency where I started my social work career went under last year in a big pile of mismanagement, funding cuts and other amorphous shit. The agency where I now work took over the contract and with it 100 hundred clients living in tiny SROs and studios in the area of town that has the highest per capita homeless and social service agencies. And it is my job ( among other things) to whip this "program" - for want of a better word - into shape and to make sure that these clients are getting services and their lives are improving. There is one client left who was there when I was at the agency when I left in 1998. We had to go through the files and pick out  paperwork that can be transfered to new files. It was like going back in time to a place I never thought I would return. Seeing familiar paperwork, having flashback to the often traumatic times at that job. Walking the streets of Uptown and remembering clients that I had forgotten about for years. Finding out that a client who I thought was dead ( and whose death had lived on my conscience for a decade) was actually still alive. I had been the lackey who helped to evict her. And I had heard that she was murdered shortly afterwards. I was so relieved to hear that she is still there, still living in the shelter ( after how many year?!!!!) and her blood was not on my conscience. She should of course be housed. But her mental illness is so severe it puts barriers in the way of this. Because in this country and many others, if you have a mental illness whose most salient  symptom is that you don't think you are sick, you are doomed to never get any benefits because you don't know that you are sick. You don't believe you are. Everyone else tells you that you are ( if they dare) but it doesn't matter. So you are deprived of ever getting the benefits that are due to you. True story.

So here I am after all these years, trying to salvage these 100 neglected clients from the wreckage of a program and a system that has kept them stagnating in place for years, often with  no income, sometimes with nothing pleasant to say or do, often with sad stories and earnest eyes. And to be honest, it does kind of feel like coming home. Except things are worse now than they were then. There is so much brokenness and scarcity and overwhelming misery. There is hope and success stories and there are small victories. We cling to the small victories. And as well as the 100 clients I am also responsible for ( via the work of the case managers I supervise) for another 80 or so. Many of them seriously mentally ill. Some of them drug addicted. Many with children whose lives are just horrible. We watch as the mothers ruin their lives in front of our eyes. We can't do much.We do what we can. It is one thing seeing a single adult living a miserable and hopeless life. It is another seeing a mother inflict that on her children. It's not all about poverty. Much of it is, but much of it is about a sick society, pathology, inequality, families dependent on hand outs for generations, families who are perpetuating cycles of abuse, violence and neglect. We call DCFS quite a bit. But they are so overwhelmed that they can only respond to the worse cases.

So here I am, an infertile woman, surrounded by women who breed without seeming to give it much thought. I am  not exactly bitter, but I am horrified and I do find it hard to be hopeful for these women and their children.

This was supposed to be a post about our new lives. About going back to work and trying to make ends meet. But I got diverted into a ghetto on the north side of Chicago. There is no nice way to end this post. Except to say, I am glad I am there, glad I am  doing something to make a difference, glad to be finally making some money and glad that I can come home at the end of the day and hug and kiss my two girls tight and do my best to keep them safe and warm.