These are the two essential traits for working in homeless services - Generocity Philly

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Oct. 4, 2016 12:38 pm

These are the two essential traits for working in homeless services

Working with people in difficult circumstances requires a whole lot of patience and empathy. Take it from 30-year veteran Judy Elzey.

Rolando Liyim, Judy Elzey and Aisha Leaks-Jones of Cedar Park RHD.

(Photo by Julie Zeglen)

Do 30 years of anything and you’re bound to get good at it. That’s why Judy Elzey is really, really good at being patient.

In her nearly three decades of working in homeless services, the director of Resources for Human Development’s West Philadelphia safe haven for women, Cedar Park RHD, has seen as many as “hundreds” of women pass through her doors. Some of them have wanted her help leading them to addiction recovery or mental health services. Some have just wanted a sandwich or a roof over their heads. 

And that’s OK, Elzey said. Her job is to work with people in difficult circumstances at their own pace. 

“You really have to pack your patience. You have to know when to or when not to,” she said, leaning back in a swivel office chair in her cramped second-floor office. “If you’re going to do this [work], it is never to give up. That’s, I think, what keeps all of us coming every day.”

Cedar Park RHD is tucked quietly between a vegan-friendly coffee shop and a beauty supply store near the otherwise busy 49th Street and Baltimore Avenue. The shelter serves the “chronically homeless” — those who have been on the streets continuously for at least a year or have had four or more “episodes of homelessness” in a span of three years, according to HUD. As long as one of its 22 beds is open — which sometimes isn’t the case for months at a time — women can live there for as long as a year, if they need.

It’s very much a first step toward self-reliance, Elzey said.

“Our folks come directly from the street,” she said. “There is no intervention prior to them wanting to come in if we have the space available. They come in as is, as they are, with all their bags. It could be with all of their active psychoses, the multiple layers of clothing.”

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It’s also a “wet house,” meaning those staying there are allowed to have active drug or alcohol addictions as long as they don’t use on the property. Cedar Park RHD may guide them toward a treatment plan or host recovery-focused programming but don’t force the women to adhere to any particular standards.

"You really have to pack your patience. You have to know when to or when not to."
Judy Elzey

When asked about how common that model is, Elzey said she isn’t sure, but that more and more service providers are adapting to it.

“Are you going to lose the person over what you deem as a rule, as opposed to saying, ‘OK, let’s see what we can do’?” she said “This is truly the entry level to whatever it is you want to go or want to do.”

Elzey joined Cedar Park RHD when it opened in April 2000 and has served as its only director. She got her start in homeless services when she joined RHD’s South Philadelphia shelter, La Casa, as a case manager in 1988.

“I’m a people person so I just kind of fell in love with the helping relationship,” she said. (It’s true — appropriately, talking with Elzey leaves you with a cozy feeling, like you’re home.)

To further explain her outlook on her work, Elzey tells the story of the woman who wouldn’t accept new shoes from the shelter for a year, though hers were worn through on the bottom.

To the woman, “it meant that she couldn’t take care of herself if she accepted something from us,” Elzey said. “We tried everything — we tried to say someone gave it to us, or it was from her family, or [that] we didn’t spend any money on it. But there was such a [celebration] when she got on that new pair of sneakers.”

And that may be as much help as someone is willing to receive. It can be frustrating. 

“We are just a passenger in someone’s vehicle, and they really are the driving force of their own life,” she said. “You’re always just recalibrating your GPS with the hopes that you don’t get too overly involved, overwhelmed, because a lot of disappointment can come from that. It’s not about you, at all.”

Elzey said that the most important thing to keep in mind when working with people experiencing homelessness is that you could easily be in their place. For instance, the women who wouldn’t accept new shoes? She’s a scientist with her Ph.D.

We don’t know how anyone has arrived at this state,” Elzey said. “So we shouldn’t judge — ‘Oh, he can do better.’ How do you know? You don’t know the story. Until you know the story, I think we should be very mindful of labels that we place on people.”

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