Old family friend experiencing homelessness

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    My mother owned an antique shop when I was young. I remember she had a customer, an eccentric, funny woman who lived on a house boat and always brought her Kewpie dolls to sell on commission. She called herself my Fairy Godmother, but everyone knew her as Carol (pseudonym) Carol smoked constantly, and drank nearly as often. Her and her husband rented a small, rundown shop where they would sell a variety of old appliances and other items they recovered from around town. Carol’s husband was abusive and she would come in and talk to my mother about her troubles at least once a week. My mother, a retired nurse, was very compassionate and cared for Carol, and wanted to support her in any way she could, especially if it meant helping her get away from her abusive husband. I remember that Carol, who had no children of her own would bring me a Christmas present each year, with a tag that said- from your Fairy Godmother. Eventually my mother sold her shop and Carol was no longer a fixture in my life.

    One day years later I was a worker at a shelter for women experiencing homelessness. I couldn’t believe it when I saw her, twenty years older than the last time we had met, and so upset and distraught. She was still the same charmingly eccentric woman who hung her Christmas tree upside down and who had lived on a house boat. But now, she looked ill, like she hadn’t been sleeping. She recognized me right away.

    While she was in the shelter, Carol got into some trouble. She would fight with the other guests. She collected old china, clothes and knicknacks in her locker. Reading the notes on her file about her previous stays, it was hard for be to believe it was the same woman I knew as a child. The way the other staff wrote about her, as an annoyance, a difficult person, or as just another old woman were not the same way I saw her.

    But I didn’t see her that way. I still saw the woman who had been kind to me, to my mother, who had a quick wit and a unique sense of style.So when she would ask me to save her a plate of food, I would. When she would ask for a extra pillow I would give her one, because I wanted her to be as comfortable as possible. Were these actions, of trying to make this woman as comfortable as possible, because of her age and my fond memories of her unethical? If they weren’t above and beyond what I would do for another person in a similar condition, were they unethical?


    Thank you for sharing this experience. I have thought about what I would do in a similar situation as I too work at a homeless shelter. I feel what you are describing is common practice not only to people we know before they become clients, but also clients we grow to know on a deeper level as we have worked with them for a long time. We are in positions where we are able to provide things for clients to make them more comfortable, in this case I feel it is not unethical. Where it becomes an issue is when clients or other staff feel people have favorites and then do more for one client than another. Then I feel it would become unethical. If you are doing you job which is partly making someone’s stay as comfortable as possible that is client centered, and it will look different to each client. If you can justify your reasoning to provide that service for the client, then do it. In the end another pillow is not a safety risk, and does not cause harm.

    What I feel is unique to this case is that you could provide a critical perspective to the notes that are written about Carol. Are they being written from a privilege standpoint and not taking context into consideration? You are in a unique position to think critically and practice reflection in your work with Carol and the other staff. Taking a step back like you did above shows that you thinking ethically and critically about your work, which shows that you care about being equitable in your work.

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