I spend my work week tracking homeless veterans around Los Angeles County. I meet veterans in the environments they feel comfortable in and as a result, I get the chance to know them intimately. That's why my job takes me from the northwestern canyons of Malibu, 47 miles south to the underpasses and riverbeds of Long Beach.
When I talk with others about my profession, many struggle to understand why I meet veterans in the field. My simplest response is this: Many of the veterans I work with do not see an issue with the manner they are living their lives. They have no interest in mental health; let alone think of themselves as someone with a mental health issue.
To connect with these veterans, it is paramount to gain their trust and respect. Put yourself in their shoes. What if I, a complete stranger, showed up at your office during lunch and starting talking to you about your life?
Invasive. Creepy. Awkward. Those might be some of your first thoughts. That's why I need time to establish a lot of trust, purpose and clarity in order to begin and maintain a connection -- and meeting veterans in the places they are most comfortable goes a long way to establish it.
In working with veterans for the past five years, I have learned a lot about their lives, thoughts, feelings, actions, intentions and outcomes. These learnings have reshaped the way I look at homeless veterans, myself and my community. Here are four lessons homeless veterans have taught me:
1) They remind me it is really, really hard to trust, but are still willing to try.
Many of the homeless veterans I work with have few social connections. They have been hurt throughout their lives, and distance themselves from further perceived pain. Their interactions (current or former) with loved ones often consist of critical, punishing, judgmental, accusational, contemptful and humiliating encounters. As a result, they avoid intimate or connected relationships with others, which continues their negative outcomes. However, if negative behaviors are not brought forth, they may be willing and open to creating a trusting relationship. Personally, I know this to be true. Numerous studies indicate alliance and rapport being some of the most reliable indicators of psychological outcome. This goes for mental health treatment as well as within our daily relationships. Establishing trusting relationships with others without aforementioned negative behaviors provides us a context for empowerment towards our greatest potentiality. If that attempt fails, we dust ourselves off and try again.
2) They have faced enormous challenges, but demonstrate resilience, bravery and hopefulness in their determination to try again.
Studies suggest people who experience trauma, a highly subjective term, are likely to recreate future experiences of trauma. Said differently, what doesn't kill you, doesn't necessarily make you stronger. In fact, if untreated, it can hinder you throughout your life. Research also indicates a significant link between homelessness and trauma. Many homeless veterans have been through a great deal. Despite the adversity, they continue to demonstrate remarkable agility. I have seen them survive on jetties in Long Beach, in the iceplant on the sides of our freeways, and other areas not meant for human habitation. The odds of success are clearly stacked against them. Yet, after developing a trusting relationship with homeless veterans, I have seen them become more open to changing their lives. In fact, I have seen some of the most hopeless thrive once housed. To me, it is another reminder of our human potentiality. As a wise instructor once told me, "Your view of your clients as being either weak or strong is often a reflection of how you look upon yourself ... choose strength."
3) The odds are stacked against them, but they remain humorous, playful and creative.
A view I hear repeatedly from homeless veterans about our society is that it is a rigid place often defined by haste, dysthymia and disgust. In spending years working to live, we miss out on so many opportunities to let loose. Through these individuals' personality, resilience, creativity, survival skills and foraging, they are often able to meet their daily needs. Despite the frustrations of getting public assistance, "returning to productivity" and the humiliation and exhaustion this process brings, they propagate a playful spirit. Play is vital for healing and connection, and tends to focus on the momentary. By focusing on the moment, homeless veterans remind me of the vitality of serenity and playfulness. Our approach to adversity helps us sustain and strive while seeking our goals, and caring for ourselves and others.
4) They are often ignored, but continue to express and assert themselves.
Homeless veterans know what they want and what they do not want, and they are happy to share their views with you. Unfortunately, their expressiveness and assertiveness can be perceived as aggressiveness (and sometimes is). But as long as the aggressiveness is not physically manifest, I believe it is more helpful than passivity and diffidence. One of my main tools in working with homeless veterans is developing assertiveness. By helping them better connect to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and contrasting intention from execution, they are better able to achieve intended outcomes within their lives. Deepening our congruency (verbal and nonverbal, feelings and thoughts), consistency and cultivating a safe conversation with others in expressing our needs increases our likelihood of achieving our desired results, and providing for the opportunity of others to assist us in our goals.
These are a few lessons I have taken with me. These men and women continue to inspire and overcome, despite the odds.
NOTE: I am defining "veteran" as follows: A veteran is someone who, at one point in his/her life, wrote a blank check made payable to The United States of America, for an amount of up to and including their life. This is not how the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs defines services for veterans. In fact, my daily work is typically working with veterans who are ineligible for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs services.