City caseworker Monica Ladet walked up to a man lying on a chunk of cardboard on a South Dallas sidewalk. "Are you OK?" she asked.
Nathaniel Jacobs nodded. Then he did a double take.
"I know you," he said. Mr. Jacobs recognized Ms. Ladet, but not because of her job or dark-blue jacket with Crisis Intervention in bold white letters. He remembered her from a much different time in her life – when she, too, might have been found sleeping on cardboard in the middle of the day.
Ms. Ladet is among a handful of area caseworkers who help the homeless with credentials they would not wish upon anyone. Each has been homeless and understands firsthand the suffering of the people they encounter. Their experiences give them insight and credibility other social workers can never match, and their successes show that leaving the streets is not impossible.
While many homeless people help peers in shelter programs, few become social workers, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless advocacy group in Washington, D.C. And going public about having lived on the streets takes courage because of negative perceptions about the homeless, said Michael Stoops, the agency's acting executive director. "It's remarkable that they have survived homelessness and got training on their own and are willing to help people like themselves who are on the streets," he said. "The only downside is it might make them remember how it was, and that could bring back some bad memories."
Back on the streets
Going back to shelters, encampments and under bridges makes it difficult for the workers to forget their own horrible experiences on the streets. But Ben Johnson said he simply couldn't walk away from that life. "Someone has to do it," said Mr. Johnson, who lived in his car after a business venture went sour. He got off the streets after signing up for what's considered the domestic Peace Corps, and he is looking for a full-time job working with the homeless. "I can't turn my head from it."
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Johnson set up voice-mail accounts for several homeless men at The Stewpot downtown so potential employers can reach them. "I'm committed to helping people who can't help themselves," he said. "I'm out here plugging for them and helping them get what they've got coming at last."
James Waghorne, a mental-health worker for Dallas MetroCare Services who once lived in a camp near White Rock Lake, said returning to work on the streets can prove too painful for those who have been homeless. The caseworker and president of the Dallas Homeless Neighborhood Association said he keeps at it because he is outraged by the tragedy of people disabled by mental illnesses living on the streets.
Every day Mr. Waghorne tries to help people who are so sick they cannot function well enough to care for themselves without more help than the system provides, he said. Mental health and addiction services have been cut statewide, making it more difficult to get people the treatment they need. A local count in January found nearly 6,000 homeless people, with nearly 1,000 considered chronic or long-term homeless who suffer severe mental illnesses and/or addictions.
Mr. Waghorne spends much of his free time advocating for the homeless, including speaking out against the city in May for razing a homeless camp under Interstate 45. He has had to bury homeless people he knew from the streets, including two who were killed in October when a truck ran into them outside the Day Resource Center. Seeing so much suffering every day inflicts emotional wear and tear. "You cannot do enough to try to save everyone you come across," Mr. Waghorne said. Many homeless people consider Mr. Waghorne family, and some call him "uncle." But he struggles to walk a fine line between being family and working at Dallas MetroCare's clinic at the resource center. "A doctor can't get too close to his patients or it will hurt him in the long run. I don't know if I can ever get the lines straight," he said. Mr. Waghorne, who became homeless while suffering major depression, said the success stories – when someone reconnects with family, for example – keep him going.
Caseworkers for the homeless face another challenge: Many homeless people do not trust the system that is supposed to help them. Part of a caseworker's job is building a rapport with people so they will eventually accept treatment. That might mean a visit to someone under a bridge just to say hello. Despite low salaries, social workers sometimes dig into their own pockets to buy a hamburger or bottled water for a person on the streets.
All in a day's work
A day's work for Ms. Ladet recently included climbing down a steep embankment covered with knee-high grass along Interstate 30 downtown. The constant roar of cars on the freeway drowned out all other sound. At the highest point under the bridge, a man slept curled under a blanket on a narrow concrete slab. The stench of urine overpowered the area littered with cigarette butts. Ms. Ladet encouraged him to come see her at the Day Resource Center.
Ms. Ladet and fellow caseworker Carol Webster applied insect repellant on another warm muggy day and took out their walking sticks before heading into a wooded area west of Interstate 35 in the city's Design District. "Hello, anybody home?" Ms. Webster asked before walking into the campsite.
Carl Cagle sat in a dome tent under a tree, drinking from a quart bottle of Bud Ice. Beige carpet scraps lined his tidy camp area, which included a wooden spool that served as a table, an American flag, a lawn chair and an unobstructed view of downtown. Mr. Cagle, a Persian Gulf War veteran, has been homeless for 10 years. He said he has cirrhosis of the liver and wants rehab, but got discouraged when no bed was immediately available from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Ms. Webster said she would arrange treatment and come back to pick him up. He signed up for treatment the following week. "I really want to get out of here," Mr. Cagle said. "I'm tired of this."
Ms. Ladet remembers that feeling. The former bartender lost her job and apartment after crack cocaine became more important than paying bills. She lived under the I-45 overpass in 1993. One day when Ms. Ladet was washing her clothes at the Day Resource Center, Ms. Webster, who was counseling her at the time, told her she had a drinking problem. Ms. Ladet stormed off.
"I said, 'OK, you'll be back,' " Ms. Webster said. Those words haunted Ms. Ladet. "I couldn't get high after that," she said. Like Mr. Cagle, Ms. Ladet got sick of her way of life. Ms. Ladet entered rehab and could no longer run from the pain of her mother's violent death in Natchitoches, La. when she was 18. Ms. Ladet's father was indicted for manslaughter in the case in 1976, but the jury could not reach a verdict.
After so much pain on the streets, Ms. Ladet did not originally plan to work with the homeless. "At first I worried, 'Can I take going back?' " she said. "I call it surrender." Last year, she received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Texas at Dallas and is working on a master's. In January, Ms. Ladet became the city's first Crisis Intervention caseworker who had been homeless. Now her former counselor, Ms. Webster, is her work partner.
"She's been there and she knows what it's like living homeless, with no self-esteem and people looking down on you," said Dave Hogan, the program's manager. "She has a lot of empathy for these folks, but she knows people have to put effort into changing their lives."
The woman who once lived in a shanty under the bridge, addicted to alcohol and crack cocaine said she owes her recovery to the fact that Ms. Webster refused to give up on her. Ms. Ladet prays that she can do the same for others.
"You look into their eyes and see this ungodly sadness," she said. "You can't give up on them. They're human beings."
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