In my line of work, the question of gratitude comes up a lot. Sometimes, when I tell someone that I work with homeless families, they will ask “are they grateful?”
It always gives me pause, because it seems like such a loaded question, from a person who has maybe bought a little too much into the popular narrative that exists where homeless people are lazy or dangerous or are “working the system” to get what they want without working for it.
To be honest, until I got this job, and got to see what leads to homelessness and the unrelenting traumas that continue for most families after they’ve become homeless, I was probably also influenced by those narratives, and maybe still am, in some ways. It’s hard not to be, with how pervasive those messages are.
But now I know hundreds of people who have shared with me a part of their story. A family with two disabled children, a dad with congestive heart failure and a mom just barely hanging on. A wealthy family who had to clean out their savings and liquidate all that they had and flee their country after their children were kidnapped and ransomed. A woman who snuck away from her abusive husband, picked up her kids from school at lunch, and never went back. A woman whose mental illness makes it impossible for her to maintain a job or housing, and calls into question her capability of raising her children, but does not dim the powerful love and protective instincts she has for them. The men who will tell me that they feel like they lost their manhood when they lost their job and ability to provide a home for their families. The young mom who tells me that she spent her childhood in shelters and foster care, and the last thing she ever wanted is for her kids to be in shelter, and now they are here and she feels she has failed them.
I know people who have been betrayed by their families, their intimate partners, their communities, the chemical pathways in their own brains, and the systems designed to help them. Not just let down, but actively betrayed. Beaten. Robbed. Abandoned.
And, yet, they somehow find it in themselves to trust me, a stranger with a name badge. They trust me to be decent to them, when they have been betrayed by the idea of decency. They trust me to advocate for them, to access the resources that have been pulled away from them again and again. They trust me with their life stories and their most shameful secrets, when those precious truths have been manipulated and used by others before me to advance their cause and their careers.
They trust me with their hope, the last, most fragile and enduring possession that keeps them alive.
Truthfully, I cannot always be the help I want to be for them. Sometimes I fail them. Sometimes, no matter how hard I work, no matter how hard we work together, I can’t help them and my best intentions betray them. But then they still trust me and I learn more and more about the capacity of the human heart to hope and to forgive and to believe that we are here for each other.
And when people ask me if the families I work with are grateful, I say that, yes, sometimes they tell me they are. Sometimes they don’t say it, but I’m sure they are. In all honestly, I really can’t speak for them. I don’t really know if they are grateful for my part in their journeys.
But I know I am.