Working with the Poor is Ugly

The honeymoon phase is probably over now.  I was warned this would happen.

Connor is one of the program guys at work—he’s working behind the desk as part of “work therapy”, as an opportunity to learn basic job skills such as, say, multitasking, being polite, and so on.

Whenever Connor works in the Welcome Center I get really stressed out.  He was expelled from high school after pushing dope in the bathroom all day, punching his principal, and punching a district administrator.  He bragged about this yesterday as if it was a great victory of his, getting expelled from high school.  He seems unaware that this kind of behavior is exactly the reason he is now in the addiction recovery program at a homeless shelter.

In Connor’s world, the person sitting at the front desk is the person in charge.  Connor, as the alpha male, the self-proclaimed silverback of our tribe, wants to be in charge.  I’ve been booted out of the hot seat a couple of times by Connor for no good reason.  He seems to think he’s the only man competent enough to do it, and takes obvious pride in knowing all of the rules and schedules and how everything works.  I don’t really know how everything works yet, so maybe that’s why he keeps insisting on taking the hot seat.

The guys using the emergency services—the ones still on the streets—can be very irritable.  People think this is just because they’re homeless, but really, it’s because they’re afraid.  If you spell their name wrong accidentally, they insist on correcting you until you get it right, because they’re worried that if we don’t have the right name down, they’ll be sleeping in the cold tonight.  They’re very uptight about the process and making sure they get on the list, because, again, getting something wrong means that they’re sleeping on the pavement.

So, something happened in the chapel service after dinner, and two guys came back to the Welcome Center making sure they were set up right.  Connor was, unfortunately, the one to welcome them.

“No, no, no.  You need to get back in there and talk to Carl.  That’s his job and I ain’t gonna  let him not do his job because he’s too lazy to flip back through the list.  Get back in there.  That’s his damn job.”

His voice got louder as he said this.

“This is bullshit.”

Yelling and swearing at homeless people, by the way, is frowned upon at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission.

Eventually Carl Smart, who’s one of my favorite people at the mission, comes back behind the desk.  Carl is usually a pretty congenial guy.  Oftentimes he’s the one who will pass out mat tickets to the people in chapel (that’s his damn job).  But by this point Carl is really frustrated, because Connor is generally being an ass.  One minute later Connor, in the hot seat, is surrounded by two aggressive homeless people in front of him, and a large, angry Carl Smart behind him.  He’s visibly overwhelmed.

In the middle of all that, some guy wants to use the phone.  Connor snaps: “No!

By this point, I’m annoyed, but I want to help out so I beckon to the guy who wants to use the phone.  “There’s another phone back here you can use,” I say.  He comes back but the phone isn’t working right, so once things have cooled down I take him back to the front desk.

When I get back into the Welcome Center, Connor turns on me.  His face is red.  He raises his voice at  me, saying that I can’t go disrespecting him like that, and that I shouldn’t be trying to undercut his authority, that “no” means “no”.

“Look Connor, I was just trying to help you out.  That guy just wanted to use the phone, and there was no reason he couldn’t use the one back here while you were busy arguing with Carl.  There’s no need to get angry.”

It was all very dramatic.  Eventually Connor took a smoke break and I commandeered the front desk again.  I talked to John Walling, the man in charge that night, about it later and we prayed for Connor in the prayer room.  John asked me to write up a report for my hero John Herman (there’s way too many Johns at UGM).

I suppose what I learned from all this is that not every poor person is likable.  We have this tendency in Christian circles to romanticize poverty and the poor, but when you start to spend more time with them and the rose-colored glasses come off, you see that, well, many people are poor for a reason.  Connor has done plenty of time in jail because of his inability to manage his anger.  He still doesn’t have the people skills to hold a job, which is why he’s in a mission doing work therapy.

That’s all.

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One Response to Working with the Poor is Ugly

  1. jessica says:

    you might want to think about writing up a UGM Memoir. Your words might remove some of those rose colored glasses. And at the same time, it show some of us how rewarding it can be to just get to know the stories of others, no matter how rough.


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