Counselling the Homeless

I was asked what I would do if I won the lottery. Without pausing, I said, “Counsel the homeless!”. She was very surprised by this and responded with, “The homeless don’t need counselling. They need food.” I asked if she was feeding them.

I considered this conversation in the days that followed. I wondered how many people would consider counselling as a low priority for the homeless because they thought the homeless had higher priorities and how many would think counselling the homeless was a waste of effort because they don’t think the homeless are worth helping. Regarding the first option, I would suggest that everyone needs good mental health and everyone needs someone with whom they can share their joys, pain and everything in between. Regarding the second option, I am reminded of Irvin Yalom and his efforts decades ago to offer group therapy to the terminally ill. Some questioned counselling the terminally ill as “a waste of time” as they would be dead soon, anyway.

Wow. As a therapist, this sounds heartless to me. I didn’t enter counselling to help keep the cogs of Capitalism moving by patching up workers and sending them back to the assembly line. I became a counsellor because I had experienced pain and I wanted to help others through similar difficulties. If you help to alleviate someone’s pain and they survive a week or fifty years, are your efforts any less valid? I would say, “no”.

Returning to the question of therapy for the homeless – no person’s pain and suffering is any less valid than any other’s. For those who think the homeless have higher priorities than mental health, I would disagree in the strongest terms. For those who think that there are more worthy people to focus on – shame on you.

I have this image of cashing in that lottery ticket (maybe I should play?), buying thermos to fill with hot coffee and purchasing raincoats to give away in windy and wet Wellington. Taking myself into the city and walking around with the coffee and raincoats, sitting with people and hearing their stories and giving them an ear and a shoulder. We are all struggling through this life. Don’t disregard people because they make you uncomfortable, or because their existence might seem terrifying.

One last thing – my son and I were going to the shopping centre several years ago (he was eight years old). We got out of the car and he called for me. He began running down the street. This was very strange for him. He kept calling me and running. We ran a couple of blocks and as I was catching up to him, he stopped at an older woman, who was soaked to the bones in the downpour. She was carrying a few bags. My son, Jack, said to her, “Hello, lady! Would you like a ride somewhere?” She turned quickly towards us, terrified. She then saw the dear face of a young boy and realised he was friendly and was offering to help. A beautiful smile came upon her face and she said, “No, dear. Thank you very much.” She turned away and continued smiling as she walked off. I wasn’t going to tell him I thought she was homeless. As we walked away, my son pushed out his chest, smiled and said, “We tried to help that lady!”

May our hearts be so pure and kind!

Counsellor Jerry