Thursday, February 19, 2009
How Does Family Homelessness Happen? An Example...
People often ask me, "How do families become homeless?" My usual response: they get hit with a succession of hardships when they're on the edge, and it surrounds them, finally taking them down.
Let me try to illustrate by sharing the details of a real-life, currently unfolding, incident, with names and specific details changed/omitted to protect those involved.
"Phyllis," a life-hardened mid-30s mom of 3 kids, including a child with special needs, has spent much of her adult life homeless or at risk of homelessness. Scrappy and headstrong, she and her family always got by, and the kids, much loved, were not neglected or abused. This single parent, who is due thousands in child support, has worked a variety of jobs, met a ton of challenges, and managed to, despite everything thrown at her, recently graduated with honors from college.
About a year ago, she was hired by a group that advocates for homeless people. This, in many ways, was a match made in heaven, because Phyllis is a tremendous advocate, with lots of direct experience and knowledge of her area's scant resources.
As nonprofit organizations tend to be, this is somewhat dysfunctional. Her well-intentioned and capable boss seems to lack personnel management skills, though is well-regarded, even by Phyllis, for his other talents. The board appears confused, as boards often do.
A misunderstanding has erupted between Phyllis and her boss, simultaneous to the agency's financial woes. Employees' paychecks and mileage reimbursements were recently delayed, never a good sign, especially when the employees weren't told of the paycheck delay. In this day of automatic deposit/withdrawal, that could be disastrous. For Phyllis, it would have been had they not gotten paid the Monday following the pay-less Friday.
Money pressures, teenagers with all their normal insanity-inducing qualities, a high-maintenance special needs child, and a stressful job on good days, all that would be enough on anyone's plate. Add a boss-employee clash, and it's enough to put someone over the edge. Phyllis is almost there.
The issues between boss/employee are important, but not the point. They're solvable. But in the push-shove world, when an employer is faced with financial woes, it doesn't take much to look at the roster and make cuts, typically to the person who is the lowest on the totem pole, or to the person causing the most consternation to the boss.
Any time you have a showdown between boss and employee, watch out if you're the employee, no matter how right you are. But this is/should be a little different.
Aside from the facts that the boss has seemed to act unreasonably heavy-handed, writing Phyllis up as a father would do to an errant child, piling one write-up on top of the other, before the time limit specified for rectifying the issue at hand, and then verbally suspending her when she admittedly "pitched a fit" (not a major one from what I could tell) at the last confrontation, he's made a few mistakes along the way.
He's seems quick to point to the Employee Manual when it is suits him, and ignores good management practices, like having a deliberate fair approach, designed to solve the problem before it gets too bad. Preventive supervision if you will. He apparently overlooked the fact that he had okayed Phyllis' nontraditional work arrangements--both in writing in an email and by approving logs that also verified her actions. Accusing someone of deceit with that evidence probably isn't smart.
What, in my mind, makes this worse, to the point of inexcusable, is that if you hire someone who has never worked for a nonprofit, and that person is formerly homeless, despite astounding accomplishments, unless the employee is guilty of a flagrant violation, the employer of the homelessness advocacy group would do well to nurture the employee, not neglect her to the point of crisis.
And someone on the board should be overseeing personnel issues--performance of the boss and employees--to make sure things aren't heading toward disaster.
As someone who has been a boss and has worked at nonprofits for decades, knowing financial pressures, among other things, I know that human nature turns ugly at those times. A "kick-the-dog" mentality can unknowingly creep in, causing bad things to happen.
So Phyllis is faced with fighting for the job she loves with a boss who's faced with no money in the bank. I'd bet my lunch money on who will win, and who will lose.
Homelessness, that ugly dark cloud looming on the horizon, inches closer. This homelessness-inducing economy, ruthless as it is, offers little hope that Phyllis will land on her feet quick enough to prevent disaster, despite her best efforts. She has a very frayed safety net. Car note and insurance are due monthly or else. And when that "one more thing" happens, as it always does, then this family is truly on the edge of homelessness, again.
Seems to me that nonprofits need to do what some are expecting the banks to do with foreclosures--call a moratorium. Creating more family homelessness is never a good idea. Causing one of your own employees and her family to become homeless is a damn shame.