May 8, 2010

The Communal Impact of Homelessness

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Last week, I sat down with LaKesha Knatt, program development manager at First Place, an elementary and middle school designed especially for homeless children. First Place has been recognized for excellence in curriculum development, and relief services. It  can boast of successful graduates who have made names for themselves in local business and community activism. With a team of dedicated and highly qualified staff, First Place is more than equipped to care for the needs, educationally, emotionally, and psychologically, of its students. 

But as the daughter of a woman who works in education, and a peer of many local community volunteers and activists, I wondered if programs such as First Place offer anything in the way of psychological support for the very people who are assisting those in need—teachers, administrators, case managers, counselors, volunteers. I asked Knatt if her peers were offered, or required to take, on-site emotional-social counseling to ensure they can cope with hearing and witnessing daily tales of violence, neglect and abuse, given that such fields often see a high turnover rate.

Knatt smiled and replied, “You know, we don’t. That’s something I should really talk to the team about.” First Place requires intensive and innovative training for their teachers, both at the beginning of the school year and at mid-year to help teachers and staff respond best to crisis situations, and has an on-site physchologist for emotional support.

After being in First Place for only an hour, the training’s impact is clear—all staff speak with students with the utmost of care and sensitivity, ensuring them they are in a safe place where they are expected to succeed. Because First Place is entirely privately funded, their limited resources naturally and rightly go to places of highest need—providing education, food, clothing, and housing assistance for homeless families.

But what happens to the teacher or staff member who does not have the support that First Place offers and goes home at the end of the day after hearing that a student spent the morning witnessing abuse? Though teachers and staff members often have the personal support their students entirely lack, their mental health remains primarily up to themselves. The Seattle chapter of Friends of the Children, a mentorship program for foster youth that often works with students at First Place, has on-site psychological assessment for its mentors, but though the help is available and thorough, finances and scheduling make it inadequate to meet the high needs of the organization.

While the concerns of an individual in need of housing, food, or mental health counseling is of the utmost concern, tackling the issue of homelessness and poverty is a communal effort—it necessarily both requires, and tries, those who offer their support. Knatt said certain people are often drawn to social work for many reasons, so First Place preps its teachers to understand what a crisis situation might trigger in themselves. As legislators and community activists push for improved transitional housing, better mental health support for homeless families, and greater financial support for those on the border of being homeless, they must remember that the community is just that—a community of individuals who can only help others when they can help themselves as well.

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