Conversation with Meghan Dunn, advocate for the homeless
by Karyn Mandan
The urban park across the street from our church has been an unofficial homeless camp for many years. Every night, the park is closed, forcing the inhabitants to seek alternative shelter. Many relocate to the entryway of our church.
As a congregation, we asked ourselves what we could do to help – how we could be more aware of the needs and more responsive. Over the two years since we began this effort, there have been many constructive developments: members have participated in community planning related to homelessness, met with city officials, researched local social service agencies, gathered essential supplies, like clothing, snacks and water, and engaged one on one with homeless individuals.
One individual stands out. Dennis had been living on the street and struggling with drug addiction for decades. After working with him for 18 months, one of our members, Meghan, was able to place him in a stable living environment, where he’s clean and sober and is participating in the community. Recently I sat down with Meghan to trace their journey.
Meghan, tell us about your first encounter with Dennis?
Soon after launching our church’s activities, I spoke with Dennis who was sleeping at the entrance of our church. He’s in his 50’s and was suffering from a severe skin irritation, probably hadn’t showered in many months, and was extremely thin. He said he wanted to get off the street and get off of drugs. Shortly after our encounter a local police officer who was familiar with Dennis told me she thought he was being manipulative. But I sensed a sincere desire on his part to better himself.
How did you respond?
I was aware that the support systems, specifically the hospital and psych ward in our county, are overloaded, so much so that even people brought in by the police are turned away. Moreover, even if Dennis were admitted, such places offer only temporary help. So I explored other social services, but soon found that initiating a relationship with them was not enough to get Dennis connected to those services without my ongoing communicative support. I’ve been acting as both a friend and a sponsor to shepherd his case all the way through.
Time and again, it seemed like a dead end. I initially assumed that doors would just fly open. The word on the street about homeless people, especially those in the nearby park, is that they are “service-resistant.” So I’d show up to an agency with him and say, “Look this person wants to get off drugs and the streets.” I expected they’d be supportive and go for it. That wasn’t our experience. Although a few agencies wanted to be helpful, none were able to cover both his mental and physical needs.
One night early on I helped you shave and wash Dennis head, which was covered with bugs. After that, you made trips to the Laundromat to wash his clothes, and you accompanied him to the public showers. But Dennis was not always easy to work with. How did you deal with that?
It’s necessary not to take things personally, and it’s necessary to see past somebody’s so-called resistance, and to encourage them. Sometimes Dennis was in great pain. Other times he felt hopeless or became impatient. One time I shared with Dennis the story in the Bible about the lepers who came to Jesus for healing. Jesus told them to show themselves to the priest, and as they went, they were healed. My point to Dennis was that they weren’t healed immediately but along the way. Whatever that sense of discouragement or reluctance might be – “Oh, I’m hopeless so I shouldn’t even bother starting” – I was speaking to that. Let’s move!
Things haven’t always proceeded as you hoped or planned. How have you handled set-backs?
One night I took him to the detox center, and he was transferred to the hospital for treatment for his skin condition. When he returned to the detox center, they wouldn’t let him in again because the hospital had been unable to treat him. It was cold outside, and he kicked the glass and broke the glass. He’s now on the no-fly list – he can’t go back there. But he stayed clean! Even with everything going awry – just being at detox for a night gave him a boost. After that he avoided the park and stayed off drugs for 13 days. That was something he could put on his resume!
I’ve been able to think about the trajectory of my work with this individual, not in terms of a bunch of stops and starts, but with the sense of continuity and progress that sees the biggest picture. I continued to gain confidence in the concrete possibility of his life completely turning over, and developing and establishing itself.
You’ve worked with other homeless people too. How do you do this?
Something I try to practice is not reacting to somebody’s “crazy” – if somebody’s acting out – but speaking to who they are, and knowing that they’re there. I affirm within my own thought that they don’t need to hide. I just try to be patient and let the defenses come down.
For example, the first time that I came across one particular individual, I asked him to please move along from where he’d settled on our property. He became verbally combative and called me names. Which if they were true, I suppose it would be appropriate for him to call me off, but I knew that they weren’t true.
I realized that I couldn’t verbally reason with him, so I remained still and had a “thought conversation” with him. In that silence, I established a vision in which I could see us as partners. I dealt with the belief that we were against each other. He then spoke up and there was a complete shift in his attitude. He said, “Oh, you’re wonderful. I’m going to clean up.” He started packing up his things. Somebody else was nearby and he told the other person, “She’s wonderful.” That was really striking.
Not all homeless people who you have encountered have sought assistance. Why do you think Dennis was seeking help?
I think that he was simply more at the end of his rope than many people. I think that most people in this type of situation at least once a day don’t want to be doing what they’re doing any more. So I think that those windows of willingness to be helped are key.
I try to be there for anyone who is reaching out or receptive.
Where is Dennis now?
Several months ago, he was admitted into a skilled nursing facility which focuses on spiritual as well as physical care. He began to socialize with other residents in addition to staff. He ventured out of his room and participated in groups, and eventually shared meals with other residents, which was a major development for him. He’s currently staying with friends in a private home while we look for long-term supportive housing. He’s free of drugs and becoming more mentally stable everyday.
Recently, while Dennis was out in the community with a friend, a man approached him, explaining that he is a firefighter in the city where Dennis used to hang out in the park, and that he had responded to Dennis 911 calls many times. Although Dennis did not recall the firefighter, he remembered Dennis by name and was happy to see him doing well, spending time with supportive people, and to hear that he is clean and sober.
Our city is a haven for the chronically homeless as well as people passing through, and there’s controversy about how to respond. What are your thoughts about this?
I think everybody – on either side of the political aisle – wants homelessness and drug addiction to stop. So I love the fact that where there’s an opportunity to fulfill that desire, it’s not controversial. One individual’s progress indicates hope for all.
Can you share any insights that would be helpful to other people who are encountering homeless individuals?
I ended up on the street after I got involved in drugs and dropped out of college. After I woke up in an alleyway one morning behind a donut shop, a police officer simply asked me and my boyfriend if we were OK. That was profound to me. His question reminded me of my own innocence. It changed my frame of mind such that instead of feeling like I was doing something wrong and deserved to be suffering, I could appreciate, as the officer had seen, that I was actually struggling and deserved to be loved. I thanked him and told him we were fine. That was the extent of the conversation that morning, but obviously that moment continues to echo and surely factored into my eventual recovery from addiction and homelessness.
Recognizing the significance of that officer’s simple question – “Are you OK?” – has helped me to appreciate the value of the most humble, caring interaction, even when it seems like there’s no immediate result.
I am frequently comforted and encouraged by these words from the apostle Paul, “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” This statement reminds me where and how to appreciate success, and that the very expression of love is perfection and an end in itself.
Sometimes we feel like we have to do something that we don’t have time for, so we don’t want to get involved, but it only takes a moment to love.
What are some specific steps people can take to communicate with and be helpful to homeless individuals?
Here are a few things that I’ve found helpful:
- When you see a homeless person, look them in the eye, see past the physical appearance to their innocent self. This clears the air of any false sense of victimhood or inequality, and plants you both on a foundation of mutual
- You might say, “Hi there, are you alright/okay?” I ask how they are doing in a tender and encouraging tone. At the same time, I have become increasingly comfortable expressing concern for an individual because of what isn’t right. It isn’t right for anybody in this day and age and place to be sleeping outside on concrete. A genuinely compassionate acknowledgement of this fact can serve to help wake them up, mentally, from a nightmare to which they may have become accustomed and perhaps even think they like or prefer, and/or is
- Sometimes people appreciate your offer of a bottle of water, a snack, or a pair of dry socks if it’s been raining. If you sense more help is needed, you could ask if they’d like you to call the police or an ambulance.
- Learn what services – in the public and private sectors – are available in your city, and where they are. Search the internet for “homeless services in [your city],” or “homeless and emergency services in [your city]”
- Once you know about services, you might ask, “Do you have a place to stay tonight? Do you have some place to be? Do you know about any services in the area to help you get out of this situation? Where’s your family?” I offer encouragement if they do know of services, and inform them of what I know if they do I try not to just hand information to someone to conciliate my own conscience, but pray to really meet someone to the best of my ability right where they are. All and any evidence of willingness indicates a desire to change, and should not be taken lightly.
- We’ve directed and/or escorted people to free meals, emergency shelters, housing agencies, senior centers, mental health agencies, drug treatment centers and social workers.
- We’ve found it helpful to meet with police officers who patrol our area of the city, and let them know what we’re doing in the way of interacting with and/or assisting homeless individuals. Police generally have more demands than they can handle. They appreciate citizen involvement and are willing to be of assistance when their unique skills are required.