Social workers find pain, hope and healing on front lines of ministry
The term for her was “rough sleeper” because for years she didn’t have a roof over her head.
She slept in a makeshift camp, in the bush near a Red Deer parking lot. Her name and personal details don’t matter. What is important is that for years she was alone, physically and in the trauma of her past, until she tentatively accepted help from Catholic Social Services.
“Up until being housed, she lived in the bush,” recalled Jill Lanz, coordinator of Morning Star, a program that began last fall to help vulnerable women in Red Deer find housing.
“I would pick her up in a parking lot close to her camp. It doesn’t matter what she was wearing or that she smelled like campfire all the time, whatever she wanted.”
“For the first long time, what she wanted was to talk and not look at housing,” Lanz said. “Until she encountered some health concerns, housing wasn’t even on her radar. She didn’t feel safe downtown. She wasn’t accessing community resources, but one of her friends who had met me then brought her and said, ‘You can talk to her.’
The key was “just having connection in general and having somebody that was wholly willing to do whatever.”
Finding connection. It was a theme woven through a Jan. 14 listening session with Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith. The session was one of 20 similar meetings Smith has had over 2 ½ years to find out firsthand the concerns, trials and triumphs in his “parish” – the Archdiocese of Edmonton.
Eleven social workers, counsellors and front-line staff were on hand to share their experiences with settling refugees, counselling families through Alberta’s economic downturn, or helping people find a home.
Past meetings have included first responders – police, fire and ambulance service. The next will include teachers, and then health professionals. The information gathered from the listening sessions will guide the pastoral outreach of the Archdiocese. What that will look like is still to be determined.
“In most cases it’s direct listening to people who share with me their lived reality,” Archbishop Smith said. “Sometimes they’ll speak about it in terms of finding connections. Quite often people will speak about it in terms of finding community, whether that’s in a parish or among people who are dealing with similar situations, to find support.”
If finding that vein, that connection, is critical to diagnosing the health of a community, then the Archbishop’s listening sessions are a chance to take its pulse.
Lanz described her client as a success story. She was the second person ever to be helped by Morning Star, and was referred to the program by the first.
Lanz helped her find housing in December 2019.
“For the first time in about 10 years, she was actually home for Christmas. She is slowly building up what it means to be housed, for her,” Lanz said. “And really, hers is one of intergenerational trauma and what she’s doing at this point in her life to move towards a different way, move towards healing, accessing those supports and creating those connections.”
Sometimes discovering the need for connection requires peeling back layers, CSS staff say.
An hour’s drive northwest of Red Deer is Rimbey, an oil-and-gas town that — like many others — is feeling the effects of slumping oil prices. The stress of uncertainty, finances, unemployment and hardship can present itself as stress and emotional issues among children and families.
“The kids were the ones manifesting the issue” of anger and stress, recalled family care counsellor Delicia Adams.
“It wasn’t until the kids came in the room and I worked with the family as whole; then I was able to discover ‘Oh, there’s stress in the parental system right now because Dad isn’t working, finances are tight.’ That was the main thing I noticed at the time of the economic downturn. Sometimes it’s not always as in your face as ‘Oh, we’re struggling with our finances.’ It kind of shows up in the kids first.”
Archbishop Smith noted that some of the like skills taught daily by CSS staff — emotional regulation for teenagers, in particular — can be a benefit to anyone. The question is how to teach it broadly.
Adams said her clients have continued need for connection, and CSS helps them achieve that. Sometimes it’s helping them find volunteering opportunities in community or church, or reaching out for therapy when they need help.
“Sometimes just people having the courage to come and access therapy has been huge, because that’s one point of connection right there — if they’re already feeling that they are struggling to connect with people currently in their life, if they don’t feel like they can share their burdens.
“It probably will get a little bit worse before it gets better,” Adams predicted. “Now we’re noticing more men coming in with issues of depression, and many times it’s also related to an extended period of lack of work.”
CSS staff say an integral part of finding connection is finding a safe place — an environment of trust and compassion — to share a personal story, whether it’s a family in Rimbey or a refugee.
Kathryn Friesen, director of immigration and settlement services for CSS, said the U.S. decision to limit immigration has increased the number of refugees to be resettled to Canada, particularly those with high needs including those with disabilities as well as sexual minorities.
Friesen said a large part of their work is building relationships with their clients, giving them the time and space to tell their stories of trauma and resilience so they can adjust to life in Canada.
“We’re able to provide that service, which is critical in developing a relationship of trust and being able to provide trauma-informed support for people,” Friesen explained. “We can point out what supports we can put in place to overcome that trauma and use your resilience to empower you to reach your full potential.”
CSS staff provide services in more than 75 languages and cultures. And its free Parenting in 2 Cultures program helps teach families to keep aspects of their culture while adjusting to a new one in Canada.
“People don’t need to come and assimilate completely to our expectations of how thing should be,” Friesen said. “It’s ‘OK, there’s safety. I can tell my story in my language.’ Often people come from the same ethno-cultural communities. It’s a real safe place to land, to make mistakes and learn from them. If you use some strategies that worked for you well in your home country, that might get a door slammed in your face in Canada.”
While the Archbishop’s listening session was a chance for staff to talk about hardships they sometimes encounter, it was also about hope ̶ on a case by case basis and in community.
“I actually see some amazing changes,” Friesen said. “Yes, the individual may be struggling but I think that society’s understanding and compassion towards people with an array of backgrounds is growing. I have a lot of hope in where we’re at now. It may have looked like families were stronger in the 50s or 60s, but while some families were doing incredibly well, we were tearing others apart because they seemed different.”
As Jill Lanz reflects on this question, she points to her Morning Star client as evidence of success.
“I really believe that every generation hopes that they can build the next one better. She knew that the way she was raised was not the way that she wants to continue in life,” Lanz said. “I think when people are feeling like that they can move forward, they start to recognize what wasn’t OK and that they do want to be different.
“I’m so proud of her that she’s moving forward in hope, and just helping her build what home looks like to her is just absolutely amazing and incredibly humbling,” Lanz said. “I’m really fortunate that I get to be with her on her journey.”