When I tell people about my work as the case manager for Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Program for chronically homeless men, they often recognize that I work with men who have experienced significant trauma over the course of their lives.
Some recognize that I also work with men who have inflicted significant trauma over the course of their lives. Few recognize that these are often the same men. Still fewer recognize that, in working with these men, I myself have experienced moments of trauma. But, so far, no one has recognized the ways that the work puts me in a position to traumatize these men.
There is one particular form of trauma I want to talk about: the way I traumatize because of the color of my skin — because I am a white man in a leadership position in an emergency shelter whose guests are predominantly Black, in a country where nearly half of the homeless population is Black and where nearly two-thirds of people studying to be social workers are white.
In historical context, I am yet another white man with power over Black men who have been disempowered. It is not a coincidence that the men who have gotten the maddest at me over the years have all responded with the same line: “Yes, master.” Nor is it a coincidence that many of our guests have casually, almost unconsciously, referred to me as their “overseer.” I may work in an emergency shelter in the year 2019, but this space is imbued with collective memory and institutional legacies that stretch very far back, and which are very present and very painful.
I think it’s important to consider what these men see when they see me:
- I am a white man who has been given the power of life and death over Black men by granting, withholding, or rescinding access to indoor shelter.
- I am a white man who has been given the power to confine Black men through the power I exert over whether there is a curfew, whether I enforce it, and what restrictions there are on coming-and-going from the shelter.
- I am a white man who has been given power over the property of Black men, by determining how much storage they may have, how their property must be stored, and retaining the right to dispose of it for reasons I deem appropriate.
- I am a white man who has been given the power to search Black men, or their property, for reasons I deem appropriate.
- I am a white man who has been given the power to punish Black men for wrongdoing in the shelter space, or not punish them at all, depending on how I choose to respond.
- I am a white man who operates within a power structure that has permitted me to have this kind of power.
What’s more, even if I do not have this power, someone does — and more often than not, it is someone white. Even if the person with that power is not someone white, the power structure itself remains the same and remains problematic.
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In very simple terms, when these men see me they see a white man controlling Black men’s bodies, property, and access to resources — and a power structure that legitimizes this control.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is.
Nearly two-thirds of people studying to be social workers are white.
You could say that a white man controlling Black men’s bodies, property, and access to resources — and a power structure that legitimizes this control — is slavery by another name, Black Code Laws by another name, Jim Crow laws by another name, “red-lining” by another name, mass incarceration by another name, and “stop-and-frisk” by another name. You could say it is institutionalized racism by another name. You could say it is the story of America by another name. You could say it is the story of the Western world by another name.
Whether I think so or not, whether I want to be or not, when I walk into work and am seen by many of our Black guests, I have become that white man — the white man in a power structure, a national history, and a national present that our Black guests have experienced as disempowering and racist because it is disempowering and racist.
This is not to say that Bethesda Project intends racism — not at all. It is to say that any organization operating within a racist society cannot escape the influence of racism on its structures and practices — unless it proactively names and dismantles it.
Bethesda Project is an organization that has taken up this task. Here’s how we have begun to do it in the Church Shelter Program.
The Church Shelter Program is managed in collaboration with the shelter guests themselves through a community decision-making process. The guests are given decision-making power over shelter rules, resource management, and housekeeping routines. Guests themselves determine the shelter curfew, shower routine, laundry routine, storage system, what restrictions (if any) there are on coming-and-going, and how to demarcate personal space in the shelter.
In addition, shelter staff members do not search shelter guests upon entry. Nor do shelter staff members dispose of guests’ personal property without first conferring with the shelter guests in a community meeting, explaining their reasoning for property removal, giving at least one week’s notice of property removal, and providing multiple opportunities to consolidate belongings.
Until we examine these legacies, we are permitting a certain kind of trauma to persist.
Similarly, the Church Shelter Program’s disciplinary process is grounded in restorative justice principles, while also being transparent and inclusive of the shelter guests. Decisions about consequences for harm or wrongdoing — up to and including discharge from the shelter — are made in consultation with the shelter guests who will be impacted by those decisions. Guests themselves do not make the final decision, but no final decision is made without first consulting with them.
Taken together, this form of emergency shelter management has important implications for racial justice. It means that in the Church Shelter Program, Black men retain more control of their bodies, property, movement, and access to resources than they typically would in other institutionalized settings such as emergency shelters. It has helped us begin to evolve from being a low-demand shelter to being a shelter that is anti-racist. This kind of change matters.
Within the field of homeless services and social services more generally, talk of “person-centered care” and “trauma-informed care” is in vogue — as it should be. We take pride in doing work that values dignity, integrity, and the importance of human relationships. We take pride in being competent and proactive in supporting people experiencing trauma or post-traumatic stress.
However, until white staff members in emergency shelter settings examine the enduring legacies of racial trauma on our clients, our power structures, and our relationships with clients in those power structures, we are not fully trauma-informed. In fact, until we examine these legacies, we are permitting a certain kind of trauma to persist.
But when we do examine them and respond to them, we’re beginning to articulate what it means to practice “anti-racist care” in social services.-30-
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