Anatomy of a cross-class breakdown at a youth shelter

Last spring my friend J got a job at a shelter for homeless young adults. She has an associate’s degree in Social and Human Services and is working on completing her B.A. She is smart, hardworking, compassionate, and skillful. She has great recommendations from other nonprofits. Additionally, she spent time at this same shelter back when she was a teen. You would think that this would make her an ideal staff member for the program, but instead her work experience there was dehumanizing and enraging. What went wrong?

J kept a journal of her experiences, which details the subtle class warfare she experienced on the job. Here are some excerpts, shared with her permission.

April 1: I did not feel welcomed and the volunteers seemed to watch me warily. I feel very confident jumping into things, especially since I have been working in adult shelters since July and have three years of experience working with homeless young adults. I talked with an OS [volunteer overnight supervisor] for a while. She informed me that the Executive Director told all of the OS’s that I was a former street youth. I think the ED was just excited to have a new staff person who not only has a lot of educational experience and professional experience but also lived out on the streets of Seattle from a very young age (13-18) and accessed services. I’m worried, though, that even though she was not outing me to do harm, she might be setting the stage for judgment, disrespect and opinions to form when none of these people know me.

April 2:The staff and volunteers seem to be quick to enforce rules and give out “warnings”. I noticed a lot of people talking down to the guests. Still being watched a lot. I think it is because I am a former street youth. Although I am in a sense reformed, I am still direct and outspoken. I am starting to feel like an outcast. The good thing is I have gotten to meet a lot of youth and they all seem to like me. My partner says that even though a lot of them don’t know about my past I give off a certain vibe that says “I understand.”

April 8: The shift was OK, again a lot of guest interaction, but staff started to try and pull me away every time I was having a conversation with a youth. One of the volunteers freaked out because she thought there was blood in the shower left behind by a woman guest. I asked the volunteer if she had asked the client if she was on her period or cut herself shaving. The overnighter swore the guest was shooting up but admitted she did not ask those questions. I told her it was not good to make assumptions. When I looked in the shower, it was only red dye from hair conditioner!

April 9: A youth said “I think all the staff are jealous of you because you’re the only cool staff here” Three other youth came up and agreed with him. The OS overheard and started to isolate me away from the youth, as did my supervisor. I overheard a volunteer tell two different guests that she didn’t know why she didn’t get the job and that she could not believe a former street youth was working in program.

April 17: Had a meeting with my supervisor. I brought up my concerns about the position, how I felt that this might not be for me. She shut everything I said down and made me feel like an idiot. I also brought up to her unethical things I was seeing with volunteers and staff she dismissed all of my concerns. I cried almost all day. How can people in this field not see the issues in social services? Why are they not dedicated to changing social services to make sure that we are ethical and that our clients are being served right and their needs are being met? Every day I work here I feel more and more isolated and more animosity towards me. I have started to look for a new job. I feel like I should have never gotten into this field.

April 23: Today’s OS was extremely rude and short with me, she barely acknowledged my presence, like she was better than me. I had a long conversation with a volunteer about how most former street youth who have started working in social services feel ostracized and disrespected. I realized I am the longest standing former street youth to still be employed in programs in this neighborhood. The morning was good, had great conversations with youth. The last hour I am at work is the only thing I look forward to about my job because I get to interact with them and talk to them about housing, jobs, education and transitioning out of services.

April 29: A volunteer asked me in the last week, “How do you stop yourself from feeling above the guests?” My reply was easy: “If I had made different choices I could be the one continuing to sleep outside or on a shelter mat.” I think about this a lot in my journey; what if I had decided to continue using instead of getting clean? What if I had an abortion instead of choosing to become a mother? Simple things like that could have shaped my life very differently.

May 18: I hate these systems, I hate these people and most importantly I hate the fact I was not born into privilege. At the end of the day working here makes me feel like I am nothing but a poor single mother who used to be a street kid in Seattle.

J quit and moved on. The shelter meant well, but the administration’s blindness to the class and cultural conflicts between the economically marginalized guests and middle class volunteers – and the administration’s unwillingness to put the needs of the guests above the comfort of the volunteers –created a toxic social environment that J felt powerless to improve. Social services work best when there are leaders on the staff who come from the same background as the people being served. We still have a long way to go before this becomes the norm.


6 Responses

  1. Matt

    Middle class people usually are the majority, in my experience, of people who make up social service employees, progressive movements in lower income areas, protesters and any group of people I’ve ever met who supposedly have a vested interest in the community they claim to represent/help. They are subject to the same discriminatory and selective views having to do with socioeconomic differences that the rest of their peers have.

    Wouldn’t some class diversity in the formentioned have a more effective, positive impact in the areas they represent?

  2. Polly Trout

    Yes, class diversity is a good thing! I’m middle class myself. But I do think that middle class people who work at nonprofits that serve low income people have a responsibility to deconstruct their own privilege and keep the mission focused on creating gracious space for the constituents rather than maintaining their own comfort zone. The best way to do this, in my experience, is to work side by side with colleagues who come from working class and economically marginalized backgrounds — and to pay attention to them when they point out your blind spots.

  3. Nicole Renee Brown
    Nicole B.

    I agree with both of you! It’s great the way you put it Polly–I’ve worked in many nonprofits in my time and the staff members aren’t able to deconstruct their privilege on their own because there simply isn’t time or the lens to effectively approach it. Working side by side colleagues across class backgrounds is a more effective approach. Thanks for posting this Polly, it’s a really powerful insight into the world of Social Service work, a place where this isn’t always spotted and talked about.

  4. …and of human mediocrity. I’m glad issues like this get airtime. The symptoms are quite subtle (at least for outside viewers), are hard to quantify (which is the only language administration seems to speak) and easily swept aside, pinned on (inter)personal issues and emotionalisation. What J does is valuable (including this unpleasant experience) and I wish her power to realise that and carry her message through.

  5. Lena Rothman
    Lena Rothman

    It’s sad that J’s getting out of the field where she can be of such great help.Her journal speaks volumes of what happens when class isn’t talked about or acknowledged. I wish J would lead some workshops in these places. It is the only way for the volunteers to learn about their own classism and how to deal with low income/poor folks. “Business as Usual.” Thanks for posting this Polly. I could see you and J co-leading a workshop.

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