By Holly Herring
I know, I know, the pandemic isn’t over yet.
We aren’t quite “back to normal” and we probably never will be. But I want it to be over because it kicked my ass.
I’m not the biblical sort, but I was reading Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 today and it hit me—-there’s a time for everything… and then it’s over. I think my career is over. I mean, I don’t know for sure. I am attempting cardiopulmonary resuscitation on it, but I think….
“It’s dead, Jim.”
One day I was the Regional Homeless Outreach Coordinator, doing my thing in a world I understood, and the next day everything exploded like confetti out of a cannon. But, with more chaos, confusion, trauma, sickness and fear.
Let me be clear, I went to work every single day along with others who dutifully stood at their posts keeping homeless shelters operational and people connected. I struggled hard. All of us who provided direct services to people who live outside struggled.
Here are some examples of things that people in my profession dealt with:
We turned our homes into our offices, complete with items we distributed in the field. Cases of Naloxone for opioid overdose reversals were stacked in our dining rooms. Our laptops, WiFi Hotspots, work cell phones, and even our printers set up shop in our homes and they didn’t even pay their fair share of the rent.
In the early days before we knew much about transmission and we were all afraid, some of us performed CPR on people we encountered while 9-1-1 coached us on speakerphone.
Unsure about health protocols, a hole poked in a nitrile glove and placed between our lips and the individual’s was the first thing we thought of for protection.
The people who lived outside were unable to go inside restaurants and use restrooms or charge their cell phones. Sometimes we would encounter a person who was crying for someone to call for paramedics for them. Their phones went uncharged. We would hear someone begging for help and we made those calls.
We encountered people who didn’t get emails about changes to their vital services. Where once there was a nightly hot dinner in a park with volunteers, now there was just yellow caution tape.
“Stay six feet away.”
We had to find people—every single person—and tell them where and when they could get food. It changed so often. Hungry people were so anxious and we tried so hard to find everyone a meal.
People were sick all around us. We did not have KN95 masks right away and we resorted to tying anything we could around our mouths and noses. In outreach we were fortunate to have washers and dryers so we would always have a clean mask. The people living outside had none of these things. Every sniffle, cough, or fever meant a potential exposure.
We lost people.
We lost so many people we used to see daily on the streets. Sometimes they disappeared to a COVID hotel with a public health nurse, and sometimes they left town, other times they had to relocate to find resources like food and electricity. Every time we couldn’t locate someone we knew, we feared the worst.
Sometimes the worst actually happened. We lost people who lived outside to COVID and to other causes. A woman froze to death alone under an overpass one night. Fentanyl poisonings became a regular occurrence. We lost colleagues too. Our profession was stressed and relapsing just like anyone else. Some of my coworkers succumbed to COVID.
We couldn’t attend funerals. We grieved alone and often.
The housing for both our consumers and for our low income professional selves was nonexistent. Emergency shelter bed capacity was lowered to allow for a safe distance between beds. One shelter wrapped plastic wrap in the space between upper and lower bunks to act as a “sneeze guard” type barrier on three sides. Sure, we had an eviction moratorium for a while, but then we didn’t. Many of us lost our housing, racked up an eviction, got priced out of the market, and we grieved our material losses.
We were pioneers doing street outreach during a pandemic that changed our world for literal years and yet we kept working. It was like walking uphill in wet cement each day, but we kept sailing in uncharted waters.
We blazed trails. We created new standards. We gained an education none of us wanted.
We became far too familiar with loss.
Now, many of us are leaving our jobs and our careers. We experienced massive collective and individual traumas. We earned our peanuts the hard way. We were and are grossly underpaid. Self-care requires money, time, and energy and we sat stunned in the wake of “Hurricane Homeless.”
Seeing the dollar amount some professions put on their essential workers shows us how they are valued. Then we look at our own earnings and the point has been made. Someone with the purse strings obviously doesn’t find us that valuable. The people outside know our value though.
Only two weeks a year of paid time off, the loss of emergency COVID sick pay, and a pittance of wages so small for the many hats we wore lead to resentment. Some of us don’t even get paid holidays. My year end bonus for several years has been a grocery store card so I can prepare my family a turkey dinner.
We were pioneers! We were some very vulnerable people’s whole world for a long time! We never stopped! Essential!
Imagine what would have happened if we had gone on strike instead of going to work. The consequences, the consequences had we not shown up each day…The allostatic load we lived with has undoubtedly affected our longevity and it prematurely aged us.
A colleague who resigned recently, “burnt out” she said, told me, “I’ve been saying all front line workers should get three months paid time off for trudging through the pandemic.”
Has she has minimized her own trauma there with the word “trudging?” That’s what we do in this field, we pour from empty cups so often that we hardly notice it. This mass casualty we did our very best work in, she verbalized this as “trudging.” We are hurting as a profession, more than even we know.
Sometimes I lie awake at night crying about the huge losses I personally suffered during the last couple years.
There are faces I miss in every crowd I see. I find KN95 masks in my couch cushions and under the seats of my car and it is like being at a crime scene after the detectives and paramedics have gone home. It’s debris from a wreckage. I worked in that wreckage. I lived in that wreckage.
I don’t think the people who sign my paychecks know what I am going through. I’m suffering emotionally, financially, and spiritually. I look at my career that I am passionate about and then I browse job listings for delivery drivers.
Turn, turn, turn.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”
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