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Strengthening Efficacy in 2009 and Beyond: Reflections on 2008 Day of Dignity

Meaningful but not Significant

by Abu Jamal Teague

As a human services planner, “a little dab will do you” intervention is anathema to me.  From the perspective of the individuals we purport to assist, often it is better if no intervention had taken place at all.  Although this characterization may not be totally appropriate to apply to the 2008 Day of Dignity, it is – however – salutary to analyze the event within the framework of this premise.

On September 13, 2008, in conjunction with the Day of Dignity, SHARE Essex intervened in the lives of more than 800 homeless individuals.  This intervention, though meaningful was not substantive.  

We fed homeless individuals and gave them hygiene kits, blankets, gloves, hats and socks.  The meal – unaccustomedly nutritious and ample – represented about one thousandth of the meals the homeless individuals needed between now and then.  The soap contained within the hygiene kit is – in all probability – long gone, as is the tooth paste.  Many of the tooth brushes very likely were discarded as superfluous in the absence of toothpaste.  

The blankets, hats and gloves became significantly less utilitarian with the coming of spring, and – consistent with the limited storage capacity coincidental to a nomadic-like existence – generally became replaced by more seasonably appropriate items.  The socks had the greatest likelihood of retention, but a retention rate of one-third is probably unrealistically optimistic.

We who intervened in the lives of these homeless individuals felt a sense of satisfaction for having engaged in a meaningful activity.  However, this activity pales when juxtaposed with the standard of significance, a term encapsulating the concept of substantive results.  Vis-à-vis this standard, the activity becomes the human interactive equivalent of “a little dab will do you!”

It is harmful enough to delude ourselves into transposing the meaningful into the significant.  It is profoundly more destructive to delude the recipient of the intervention activity into making this transposition.  We as “intervener” have a certain presume status in the eyes of the “intervened.”  By implying that there has been significant intervention into the life of a homeless individual, juxtaposed with the actuality that there has been absolutely no substantive change in the existential quality of life, does the homeless individual blame the intervener or her / him self?  Almost invariably, it is the latter, and the downward spiral in existential status can potentially be accelerated.

In defense of those who conducted the 2008 event, it should be noted that SHARE “inherited” an intervention approach from a group of individuals who had conducted the event more than once in the past.  We had very little lead time to engage in approach evaluation.  Unlike in a relay race, when you have viewed the performance of the individual from whom you receive the baton, the baton passed to SHARE represented an event held a year previous.

“When I was a child, I thought as a child….”  However, we have had a year to “grow up.”  We are now able to apply the results of this rapid maturation.  We have a moral, fiduciary obligation to those in whose lives we intervene in the 2009 Day of Dignity to “put away … childish things.”  

We must design and implement an approach which renders our intervention meaningful in the lives of all whom we touch, and significant in the lives of those whom the Creator determines can actualize substantive enhancement in the quality of their lives.

This year, we can select from one of two approaches.  We can replicate the past events.  If we opt for this approach, we should give each homeless individual in attendance a card with this disclaimer:

Don’t be deluded by us calling this event ‘Day of Dignity.’  This is merely a beguiling phrase.  Don’t expect today to be any different from any other day; your tomorrow will be just like your yesterday!

Alternatively, we can sincerely attempt to capture the spirit subsumed within the title ‘Day of Dignity’, and consciously, skillfully construct a strategy deliberately calculated to permit significant intervention into the lives of homeless individuals attending the event.  Depending upon the level of skill we invest, in conjunction with the readiness and amenability to substantive intervention possessed by a given homeless individual, the micro results can vary from merely meaningful to profoundly substantive.

How can this be accomplished?

First, we need to encourage the representation and participation at the event of agencies and organizations that have experience and capacity to assist the homeless in actualizing positive changes in relevant situations, behavior and belief.  They will occupy tables near the point at which attendees enter the event facility.

Second, we need to arrange the logistics of the event to encourage and facilitate the contact and interaction of homeless event attendees with these agencies and organizations.

Third, we need to provide an opportunity for homeless individuals to seek generic information, as well as specific assistance in extricating themselves from the tentacles of homelessness.  In order to address this need, we will have an “Ask the Social Worker” table, at which between two and four individuals skilled in homelessness amelioration will provide intervention.  They can spend whatever amount of time required assisting the individual in expressing their needs, defining their presenting problem and beginning the process of addressing the issues impacting upon their homelessness.

In order to encourage homeless event attendees to avail themselves of this support, as well as of the assistance provided by the agencies and organizations, the initial activity will be the completion of a survey, with the assistance of an event volunteer.   They will read the survey questions and record the attendee responses.  They will conduct their survey activities in close proximity to the tables occupied by the agencies and organizations.

In order to certify that the surveys are complete, they will be examined by one of the Social Workers.  In actuality, this is a step in determining if the homeless individual would benefit from interaction with the Social Worker.  If so, this would occur.  If this is not deemed beneficial, the attendee is given her or his meal ticket and continues through the activities of the event.

Clearly, the restriction in time available for needs assessment is a delimiting factor in the potential magnitude of intervention achievement at the micro level.  In addition, the constraint on the ability to structure assured interaction between the event attendees and the agencies, organizations and social workers delimits the potential magnitude of intervention achievement at the macro level.  Nevertheless, the promise of significant intervention yielding substantive results is clearly achievable in many instances, if for no other reason than that our intervention design has structured within it this potential.

At the very least, the suggested approach can establish – in the mind of homeless event participants – a subliminal nexus between social service intervention and amelioration of the issues contributing to homelessness.  In summary, we have not generated confusion by investing meaningful intervention with the facade or quality of significant intervention.
Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They are the ones to attain felicity.

Quran: 3:104
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