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Self-Sufficiency as a Gift That Keeps on Giving

January 12, 2003|NELSON HANDEL

If a society's wealth is measured in how it treats its least-fortunate members, Rogena Thurber-Waheed is helping to enrich L.A. Thurber-Waheed, a 13-year Air Force veteran, is program coordinator at the downtown office of Chrysalis, a foundation that helps chronically homeless and destitute individuals find sustainable employment. Self-sufficiency is the name of the game for a tough-love program that provides everything from deodorant and clothing to Internet job search skills and a resume-writing consultation. Participants need only be clean and sober and have a stable place to live for 30 days. In the Chrysalis philosophy, success means capitalizing on that powerful force for change--human desire.

What does it take to start over in life?

A person needs the desire to do something different. Maybe it's contact with their family, sometimes it's just to eat. They're tired of whatever they're going through--cyclical incarcerations or overcoming an addiction--they're just tired of that same hopeless pattern.

Do those internal changes need to have occurred before Chrysalis can be effective?

Absolutely. We're not at that basic-needs level. We're at the point where they are ready to go out into the world and be productive, the second step on the ladder after subsistence. We require 30 days of stable housing because it's very difficult for people to do the organizing necessary to get a job when they're homeless. But we also function as a clearinghouse of information for the homeless. We're a tough-love program with a strong emphasis on love.

Critics sometimes charge that programs like Chrysalis foster dependency on "the system."

We don't reinforce a dependency role. We reinforce independence. That old saying, "Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach him to fish, and he eats his entire life." We're trying to teach them how to fish.

Is welfare reform working?

My personal opinion is that it hasn't been the answer. As welfare rolls decreased, in most places, homeless rolls increased. The idea that was really laughable was that little tag line "Work First." If someone hasn't worked in three years, how are they going to work when they don't have the fundamentals--time management, habituation to work, a work history--and don't have anyone helping them through the steps to get them? Some people have never worked before. Some have gone many generations without work models. It's too quick fix to give people an arbitrary timeline and just get them off the rolls.

Personal esteem issues are sometimes wrapped up with historical or sociological grievances. How do you untangle that knot?

Regardless of what "-ism" a person gets hung up on, if a person sees something that they can't change as being a reason that they can't accomplish anything, then that's going to be a problem. It doesn't matter what that thing is, or whether you're Caucasian or African American or Hispanic. Whether I am motivated to get up in the morning and look for a job, that's got to be me doing that, regardless of the political environment.

Chrysalis offers participants personal as well as job-related access to phones, faxes and e-mail. Why?

For people to be able to contact their family members, to have some interaction with people at home. E-mail is particularly important. People get isolated, which leads to depression, which can exacerbate other issues, like addiction. For example, we have a client with a baby about 15 months old. The gentleman is working and has been for a while. His child and the child's mother are in Canada. But she had a camera in the house and he was able to come in here and use the computer to see pictures of his baby crawling. Seeing his baby crawling also increases his motivation to support that child, which is part of what working is about, fulfilling your responsibilities.

What's the biggest misperception in the culture about the population you serve?

That homeless people are lazy and just want a handout. These people are not lazy; they are willing. People categorize the homeless as uneducated or unmotivated or all drug addicts, or something negative, which is just not always the case. Who is a homeless person? If you have some kind of significant tragedy, have a major medical problem with a family member and accumulate some bills, or have a bad divorce, or lose your job, where are you going to go? Homelessness is not a state of being, it's a stage of being. It's not a whole life, it's a category of housing status. There's no one who hasn't made some judgment errors in life. We make corrections and press on.

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