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Frantzy is a personal support worker in an Ottawa homeless shelter caring for men recovering from an acute illness who need ongoing health care support. (Seema Marwaha)
Frantzy is a personal support worker in an Ottawa homeless shelter caring for men recovering from an acute illness who need ongoing health care support. (Seema Marwaha)

What it’s like...to work at a homeless shelter Add to ...

Frantzy is a personal support worker in an Ottawa homeless shelter caring for men recovering from an acute illness who need ongoing health care support. He asked that his last name not be used.

I came here from Haiti when I was 24. I used to wonder how a country like this can still have homelessness, but now I know that anybody can become homeless any time. You could develop a mental illness. Or, if you make the wrong choice in life, you can become homeless. Homeless is not a disease. The guys who live here, they didn’t choose to be homeless. But something happened, and then boom, here they are.

Clients here have had some sort of health crisis and come here for stabilization. Many of them have mental-health problems or addictions. When they get stable enough, we help them with finding housing and other supports in the community. The average length of stay with us is three months, up to a year. It depends on the person. Some clients take longer to get stable than others.

We have to listen to the clients to know what they need. At first, many of them count on us for everything. We have to cue them for even basic things, such as hygiene or when they have to get dressed. Sometimes they are wearing a shirt and they don’t realize that it is dirty. So, from A to Z, we have to be there for them.

Most of them don’t like authority; they don’t like cops. Therefore, we try not to be authority figures. We don’t dress like normal client-care workers.

We want them to see us like them. Somebody who is there to help. If we tried to be authoritative figures, I don’t think we would know what’s going through their minds or how they are feeling about things.

So many clients, when they first walk through that door, are mentally ill on a level that you couldn’t even imagine. And then, after a few months, you see the same clients leaving to find a place. Even if they will never be 100-per-cent well, and there’s follow-up needed, they are able to live alone. Clients pass that door and say, “Thank you for everything that you have done for me. I am feeling so much better now because of you. Now I am going to be able to continue on in life.” That makes you feel good.

I am not trying to blame people working at the hospital, but I don’t think they pay enough attention to the needs of our clients. What they really need. Maybe they don’t have the time to listen to them. The follow-up is the main problem. There is no follow-up! The client went to them for treatment and when the client is feeling better – not necessarily healed or anything, but a little bit better than when he walked into the emergency – they discharge him without checking anything after discharge. How is he doing, how is he feeling, is he taking his medications, all this kind of stuff. They are not checking after the clients.

I have two full-time jobs. I work in a group home in addition to this job. I have a fear. Like I just said, when you work with the homeless population, you realize that many of us are just one step away from being homeless. My fear is to be in that position one day. Yes, I am working now. But what if one day I can’t work any more? What’s going to happen? Of course, I also like both jobs – at the end of the day I am helping people.

This story first appeared in Healthy Debate, an online publication guided by health care professionals and patients that covers health policy and evidence-based medicine in Canada.

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