A broken system, a survivor, and a challenge.

8

January 29, 2013 by cbbeard

(Editors note: A recent break from my studies meant a break from my blog. Now that school is back in session, the brain is dripping once again!)

A couple of months ago, I woke up, grabbed a cup of coffee, and began my morning ritual of syncing myself with the on-goings of the world through the information superhighway.  I checked my email, scanned the news sites, read an article about my beloved (horrible) Kansas City Chiefs, and logged onto Facebook to catch up with my “friend’s” lives.   At the top of my Facebook news feed was a status update from a friend I graduated with at Alva High School (go Goldbugs!).  Her name is Shilo Foster, and this is what she wrote:

Dealing with a broken system this morning! Been trying to secure a bed at a shelter for a client. I am case worker and getting the run around. I can only imagine how frustrating it is for the client. We have all these committees to end and fight homelessness. Step out of the board room, out of your committee meeting and get to a point where it helps the client.

Shilo is an Emergency Assistance Case Manager for a non-profit organization in the Kansas City area.  On a day-to-day basis she works with people who have very few options left in their lives for securing the basic needs that many of us often take for granted.  She works with the people who most of us know as statistics more so than human beings.

Shilo’s post caught my attention, because I had just done a study of systems using “Thinking in Systems: A Primer” by Donella Meadows as my basis for study.  I had been thinking about the ways in which organizations, including but not limited to the government and the church, have gone about helping those in need.  I considered the statistics and my own experience as a minister.  I contemplated our methods of aid and how generally speaking our “help” has only temporary effects.  One word came to mind when I thought of these things: broken.

So I asked Shilo if I could use her status in this blog to help bring awareness to the “broken system “through the perspective of someone who sees it first-hand.  She graciously agreed, but I soon found out that Shilo’s knowledge of the system was even more intimate than as a case-worker.  She told me:

After my grandma died I was homeless for a while. Lived in a shelter for almost a year. I can see, first hand, why it is hard to pick up the pieces and get out of the cycle. The system is built to keep you in it.

Shilo had been in the depths of the system.  She experienced a system supposedly designed to help that has such cyclical force that the odds are against you ever getting out.   She experienced a system built “to keep you in it.”  But Shilo did get out, and here is her story in her own words:

In 2001 my grandma passed away. She had raised me since birth. My parents were “finding themselves” as they say, when I was growing up. Both had addiction issues to address. My mother ended up overdosing on meth when I was 9. I guess my grandma thought she had to make up for them and tried to be a mom, dad, and grandparent all in one. I had a great childhood with her. She did the best she could by me and spoiled me in doing so.

After college, I was out on my own here in Kansas City. It was a retail job at a mall. Retail doesn’t pay the best and I guess I was “finding myself” so my grandma continued to pay my rent and bills. So, when she died all the bills, lease, etc…were in her name. She got sick suddenly so there was no time to get affairs in order.

Death either brings a family closer together or pulls them apart. My grandmother was the glue that kept our family together. My dad called me to tell me she passed and said the words that changed the course for me “If she wouldn’t have had to raise you, she probably would still be here. You are on your own now. I am not going to take care of you like grandma did.”

It took me a long time to let go of that. I believed I was the reason she died. I went into a depression and through that depression didn’t fight for any of my belongings, didn’t speak to my family to try to get paperwork in order, and self-destructed.

I found myself checking into a shelter in an active prostitution and drug area of Kansas City. The first night there I remember starting to pray. I only had the clothes on my back and was sleeping in a room with 39 other women. I was issued a pillow that 100’s of women had laid their heads on before me, some hotel sized toiletries, made to shower (just in case I had lice of fleas), and given an itchy blanket. I was told I had to be waiting by the back door every night by 6 or I would lose my bed space and had to be out the door at 8am. I had no money, no car, no one. But I prayed that night a prayer of thanks. The thanks just rolled from my lips and tears of thanks streamed down my face. I can’t tell you today what made me feel so thankful. I should have been bitter, angry, more depressed, but I wasn’t.

It is real easy when you are homeless to stay in that situation. You would think it would be harder but the steps you have to take almost keep you under. I was lucky because that first shelter I was at was my last. Shelters in KC have a 30 day time limit but I was working hard and they let me stay and end up as a volunteer staff person. But if I would have had to go on to the next one and then the next one (because it took a year for me to get built up to getting my own place) I can see how I would of cycled. Same with food stamps, etc… The system isn’t built to inspire and move toward succeeding. I see it every day with my clients now. If you aren’t working and a single parent you get housing subsidized, food, child care, etc… Let’s say you get a job at $7.35 an hour. You lose your housing, food stamps, child care. You can’t make it. You have learned how to make $0 income work.

I learned who I was through that experience and what my passion was. It took me awhile to rebuild and to learn how to face things and deal with them but everything I have today I worked for and earned.

Anyways, that is my story.

I must confess that I have looked at the system and the statistics, and I have often placed a good deal of the blame on those in need.  I’ve had first-hand experience with people trying to “work the system” and manipulate the church’s benevolence.  I’ve also used those experiences as a synecdoche to define the brokenness of the entire system.  Consider Shilo’s perspective:

I get frustrated with the greed out there, but then at the same time, unless you are in that position and only could look as far in the future as to tomorrow what would you do?  Luckily I had inner strength and a will to fight, employable skills, and not suffering from addiction or mental health issues. I could push on and try the next door each time. If I would of had any of those barriers I might of learned manipulation, greed, etc.. by just trying to survive. I think I have caught on that even our defaults are survival traits, each of has been influenced by behaviors that have worked or not worked for us. Some of those behaviors build our character and others are darker but if it is getting us what we want we will use it.

Before Shilo shared her story with me, I knew the system was broken; you don’t have to be working on a PhD to see that.  But once Shilo shared her story with me, I realized that something else was broken too…me.  As a follower of Christ I am called to serve people in need.  Not only have I let a “broken system” take my place in helping, but I have also placed some blame on those who are not unable to escape that system.  I have underestimated the difficulty of getting back on your feet once you are down for the count.

I’m not the only one.  One of the reasons the system is broken is that most Christ-followers are more like me and less like Jesus in our view of the down-and-out of society.  We have to own that if we are to make a difference.  Therefore, I humbly submit some keys to fixing the system…starting in our own hearts.

1. Change the number to a name.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there were 636,017 reported homeless persons in 2011.  The tragedy of that need is lost in the number.  When I think of that number I shake my head and think “what a shame.”  But the obvious truth we often choose to ignore is that each one of those numbers represents a human being with a story and a struggle.  I thank my friend Shilo for helping me put faces to those numbers.

2. Stop pointing fingers.

Meadows (2008) wrote, “Psychologically and politically we would much rather assume that the cause of a problem is “out there,” rather than “in here.” It’s almost irresistible to blame something or someone else, to shift responsibility away from ourselves” (Introduction, para. 16).  Is the system broken? Absolutely.  Are there people that manipulate and take advantage of our benevolence? Sure.  Does that mean we should just wash our hands of the situation? I think not.   Jesus didn’t say “find out whose fault it is before you decide to help someone.”  He said “whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you do for me” (Matthew 25:40) and “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 24:45).  Hmmm…I wonder if Jesus really meant that?

3. Help beyond the symptoms.

Jesus commanded that we love and serve those in need, but we need to redefine our concept of “help.”  Due to our abundant wealth on a global scale, our tendency is to “throw money” at people in need to aid them.  I am not saying that financial resources are unnecessary for the problems we face in society, I am simply saying that it takes more than that.  Meadows (2008) explained:

If the intervention designed to correct the problem causes the self-maintaining capacity of the original system to atrophy or erode, then a destructive reinforcing feedback loop is set in motion. The system deteriorates; more and more of the solution is then required. The system will become more and more dependent on the intervention and less and less able to maintain its own desired state. (Chapter 5, THE TRAP: SHIFTING THE BURDEN TO THE INTERVENOR)

In other words, if our form of “help” is simply financial assistance, then we force people to return to receive more assistance in the future, therefore perpetuating the cycle and the system.  This feedback loop causes the system (and therefore the people in need) to become more and more dependent on our benevolence and the system through which they receive it.

Shilo was able to break the cycle due in part to the fact that serving as a volunteer and maintaining stability helped address the problem rather than just the system.  She was given an opportunity to succeed and get back on her feet again.  As Christ-followers, we must not only ask people what they need, but we must also pay attention to why they need it so we can TRULY help them in the long run.

I am so thankful that my friend Shilo was able to escape the broken system and get back on her feet.  But I am even more thankful that she allowed her struggles and difficult times to become a source of compassion for others who have similar struggles.  Shilo has allowed her darkness to become light for others.  She wrote:

It was the best thing that ever happened to me though. It changed my life and put me on this career path.

I pray that we can all follow Shilo’s example and allow her story to adjust our own lives and hearts.  I pray that we will look at those in need through the eyes of Christ.  I pray that Christ-followers can help repair this broken system, and even eliminate the need for it in society through of the love and true help that can come from simply obeying Christ’s commands.   I pray it will start with me…and  you.

 

References
Meadows, D. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A Primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing
National Alliance to End Homelessness – http://www.endhomelessness.org/library/entry/the-state-of-homelessness-in-america-2012
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8 thoughts on “A broken system, a survivor, and a challenge.

  1. Peggy says:

    Chris, thanks so much for this. I too, have often blamed the victim and not understood the needs! Lots to chew on and contemplate.

  2. I was convicted of that which you speak of after taking a global systems class and hearing Kit Danley (http://nmphx.com) talk about a cycle and culture of despair. I was for the first time able to step back and see how policies, structures, systems truly affect a person’s capacity to engage and create a meaningful life. Raised on a midwest work ethic, I thought that people should work pulling themselves up from their bootstrap It’s part of being a responsible person. Yet, as you noted – it’s not that straightforward and once you get behind the rock (so to speak) even tougher to either move the rock or walk around it. This is why you have a global policy class in your PhD program (smile) because I want people to move beyond their natural response (mine is about work ethic) to think more broadly about what is happening within a society or organization.

    • cbbeard says:

      Great thoughts, Alicia! I share in your “bootstraps” bias. As I worked through the Global Leadership, Systems, and Policy course, I often considered the “broken systems” I have come into contact with and even some in which I have contributed to the brokenness myself. The study of systems, along with my friend’s real-world example is an eye-opener for sure. Thanks so much for your comment.

  3. Dixie McLeod says:

    Chris: oh my your BLOG today is incredible!! Even those of us privileged to have worked for an agency which helps persons with disabilities (and they are sometimes homeless as well! and sometimes have behavioral health issues and addictions issues and…….) find work though vocational rehabilitation services still had to grapple with the “disincentives” to work…the minimum wage job that causes a single mom to lose childcare, housing, food stamps…and so much more….YES YES YES we as Christians are called to be and light in a broken world and to impact brokenness…..YES YES YES we have to impact the system AND call people to personal responsibility YES YES YES this is difficult………Thanks Thanks Thanks to Shilo…..

    Dixie

    • cbbeard says:

      Thanks for your comment Dixie! It’s very easy for us to be dismissive when there aren’t names with the faces…especially when we tend to avoid really looking at the faces! Thanks again.

  4. Jason Britt says:

    Chris:

    This blog hits home. I was raised as a child in the “welfare system” and often was bullied and made fun of because my parents were poor and sometimes homeless. As the director of a human services agency, we serve over 175,000 people annually in “the system.” It is my experiences that motivated me to get into a position to help improve the system. Yet, one of my greatest challenges is to get the staff to realize the people were serve are people; not a number, not a “thing,” but real people. Everything we do (or don’t do) affects people positively or negatively. The system will not be perfect but it could be greatly improved.

    Matthew 26:11 Jesus says, “The poor you will have with you always…” I believe Jesus made this statement to admonish us to help those who may be “less fortunate” than us. We should understand how they experience the world and perhaps their “worldview” keeps them in poverty? Many “broken” people are products of generations of poverty and are simply following what was modeled to them. It is a way of thinking, a way of life, perhaps the only experience they have in this world is through the lens of poverty. Mental illness, substance abuse, and other ills of our society are contributory factors as well. Much can be debated about poverty and the “systems” that (supposedly) help them. The reality is what it will take to truly change the system, and give people a hand up as opposed to a hand out, is tied to the “worldview” of those in the positions of power.

    • cbbeard says:

      Jason,
      Thanks so much for sharing. I love to see “survivors” who become “helpers.” I also love what you said, “give people a hand up as opposed to a hand out.” That is spot-on.
      Blessings.
      Chris

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