At the front desk, a resident struggles to articulate himself to the Resident Assistant on duty. He feels hounded and alone in a space where he thinks he has nothing in common with those around him, but where stereotypes seem to trap him among people he wishes he weren’t identified with. In this moment, he is one against many.
This resident is not alone in being alone. Despite the efforts of the staff, a select few residents, and Madisen and I, this place can still feel aggressive, uninviting, and indifferent. It seems that isolation is reinforced at every turn of this exquisite nine million dollar complex: all along the empty hallways, at the locked door of the Community Room, and behind the doors of the residents: in the drug addiction and in the drug withdrawal, in the symptoms of HIV/AIDS and in the depression. And maybe, we worry, even we reinforce this isolation; we are two women who look like girls and who make some residents feel like they’re in a nursing home instead of in their own, private apartment complex.
During most of the time that Madisen and I spend alone together, whether on site, on the bus, or on the couch in between episodes of The Office, we are reflecting and critically (and I mean critically) analyzing our project. This reflection has taken us very quickly from practical evaluations of the efficiency and effectiveness of our project to existential questions of worth and meaning both within our project and without. While we feel that we are always striving toward the “greater good,” we find ourselves regularly questioning what (and if) this “greater good” actually is.
Every day, Madisen and I repeatedly see the difficult and taxing work that the staff of Midtown has to face. It finally hit us on Friday night during a particularly violent incident (throughout which we stood in a copy room in the back) that the work we do is drastically less stressful than the work that goes on around us. Prior to the incident, we had had a tough week of non-attendance and disinterest from the residents, and we were feeling discouraged about our work. As we compared our work to that of the professional staff, however, we made the mistake of equating stress level with worth level.
Just a few days ago, Madisen and I met with Michele Boyer, the Program Director. She explained to us that isolation is a natural byproduct of myriad unseen factors in the lives of the residents, but that the work we are doing, however discouraging at times, is making a difference and is essential to the care that Clare Housing provides. Healthy social organisms need healthy social outlets. Food, clothing, shelter, and medical care are obvious necessities, but community and social support fit right in the mix. What we are doing is certainly different work than that of the staff, but it is not necessarily less important. Michele was enthusiastic and eager to work with us, and her support rekindled some of the hope that had been dwindling from the project.
One we were bolstered up and infused with new ideas, Madisen and I had to return to the practical end of things. We realized it was logistically impossible to schedule interviews with residents because we never saw them, and even if we did, residents would be unlikely to show up for a number of reasons –– from disinterest to the dementia that is a side effect of some medications. On top of that, it became clear that interviews would be too goal-oriented, inorganic, and pressurized to have the residents feel comfortable enough to share their wants and ideas with us. Instead, Madisen and I decided to go door-to-door to talk with residents. This is something we had avoided for a long time in fear of invading the residents’ privacy, but we finally realized that it was the most practical way, and decided to give it a go. While we skipped rooms with signs like “Do not knock on my door for any reason,” we were surprised to make immediate connections with some of the residents who at first seemed the most off-putting.
The last few days have piled hope upon hope. We made our second round of door-to-door visits and encountered an entirely different group of people, nearly all of whom were pleasant, grateful, and even excited to see us. Several people had new event ideas and were eager to give planning and logistical advice. We had a friend volunteer with us at our Friday movie night, saw a strong turnout at our Sunday morning café event, had a blast on a bowling trip Sunday night, and met a new resident at every single event! Attendance numbers aren’t skyrocketing, but we’re reshaping the way we look at the “effectiveness” of our program, and now we’re seeing a lot of smiles and a lot of new faces and a lot of hope. Change happens slowly but surely with each contact we make, and the community here grows with each person we welcome and reaffirm.