Q: What unique approach do you bring to the table in your helping role(s)?
A: I don’t know if it’s unique but, if we talk to people who are living on the streets, I kind of automatically go into mom mode. It’s like I’m talking to my son. I actually did have one kid tell me I reminded him of his mother, so I think that comes across. It’s just natural. I don’t know what they’re going through. I know what their parents might be going through. Maybe they have a good relationship – maybe they talk to their parents every day – or maybe they haven’t seen them in a year. Everybody needs to feel like someone is looking out for you – to know that people care about you. They don’t have to know you. A lot of people will just drive by or walk by people living on the streets – they don’t pay any attention. I know there are a lot of people who are the opposite. Even if they don’t stop, they could be thinking about you all day long. I’ve done that. I’ve seen people and they stay with me for a long time. I guess that’s what I would say – it’s that maternal connection. If it’s appropriate, I’ll mention I’m the mother of somebody with substance use disorder – so they don’t feel like I’m judging them – so they feel like, “she kind of gets it”.
Q: What makes being a helper satisfying/worth it?
A: I don’t think I’ve ever burnt out. I’ve been tired. Maybe that is burnt out. I don’t know. I kind of feel like everything in my life is addiction related. But I guess what’s satisfying is knowing I made a connection. I think there are so many people who don’t have that. I see how hard it is. With my son, we do have a connection, but it’s still so hard. If you don’t have that, I don’t know how you get by. There are times when I meet people, I feel like, “I should have said this. I should have said that. I should have done this. I should have done that”. I feel like I didn’t do enough. But sometimes I do feel like I make a connection, and that’s really all you can do, and hope maybe it makes a difference. There are so many people living outside 24/7. I think they’ve lost themselves – one hundred percent. I don’t know what it takes to get them back. Whatever it is – it’s a lot. They’re not going to get that out on the streets. So every little thing you can do counts. Sometimes, if I know there’s a regular at a certain intersection, and I know I’m going there, I try to have something in my car, like a muffin or an orange juice to hand off to them. There’s not usually time to talk if they’re standing at a busy intersection. If I’m able to, I introduce myself and ask their names. Somebody told me – it might have been a homeless person – that when somebody addresses you by your name, you feel a little better. My son has been out there. He spent some time on the streets. So he’s always on my mind, too. Always. I see them and I think of him.
Q: How do we support people to see human beings versus stereotypes?
A: That’s what Human Too is about. It’s a grassroots effort. People see these beautiful pictures and think, “oh, what a pretty girl!” Then they read the story and go, “oh my gosh, she was living under a bridge”. I think that helps a lot. I try to do it on my own. I had a conversation with somebody who was talking about people standing with their cardboard signs and saying, “they’re really bad. Those ones are really bad”. I said, “My son was like that. I don’t know if he was standing at an intersection with a cardboard sign, but he’s been just as desperate. But you don’t see that. When you see him, he’s doing well”. So, when I talk to people, I use my son as an example if they know him. I don’t give them all kinds of details, but I try to say, “that’s him. The dark side and the pain that you see in others, that’s in him. That’s what he lives. You’re just seeing another side”. When we see someone doing well in recovery, and we didn’t know them in active addiction, it’s very hard to imagine.
I also think if you tell yourself that they’re scumbags and they’re never going to get better, and they’re not worth it and they’re doing this to themselves, it makes it a lot easier to go about your day. If you see someone struggling and recognize that could be you or your child, and they have a whole being inside them – they were toddlers once, they wanted to go to Disney Land and all that stuff – that makes it a lot harder to just put it out of your head. I think that’s why it’s so hard for me – because I do see everybody in that way. It’s really hard to go about your normal day when you know there are people out there suffering.
A lot of people smoke. Non-smokers don’t like it when people smoke. But it’s kind of accepted. No one thinks they’re trash. But it’s an addiction. They’re smoking because they’re addicted. They’re not smoking because they want to get lung cancer. They’re addicted to it. I bet most of them, if you asked, probably want to stop or tried to stop. We all have our own things. Some of them aren’t very dangerous. Maybe you’re addicted to running. That’s probably okay. Substance use disorder happens to be really extreme. I always say this to anyone who has taken a drink: The only difference between you and “them” is that you just happened to have a brain that was wired differently. When you’re fifteen and you have some beer, you have no clue how your body is going to react. You don’t know. You’re just lucky if you’re able to get drunk and sick, and say, “I’m never doing that again”. Whereas your best friend – it could be the start of a life-long addiction.