In Part I of “The Curious Case of Percy Pointer”…
Percy Pointer was my first client as an MSW intern in the Client Advocacy Project (CAP) at Coalition for the Homeless in New York City. The CAP’s goals are to assist clients in their efforts to secure federal disability benefits and to leverage those benefits into a move from the streets or homeless shelter into housing. But Mr. Pointer, though he had been referred to my program, didn’t seem interested in what the CAP had to offer. During a session intended to pave the way for referring Mr. Pointer to outpatient mental health services, he mentioned that he would like to be able to visit his teenage daughter but didn’t have the money.
Was there an opportunity here to join a personal goal of Mr. Pointer’s to the program goal of helping clients secure disability benefits? Absolutely.
Mr. Pointer’s voice became a little stronger when talking about Ophelia. He sat up taller in his chair. His eye contact improved. Is this what hope looks like?
Still, Mr. Pointer resisted the idea of being “on the dole.” He knew all about his heroin addiction and why he’d gone to prison, knew what it cost taxpayers to keep him there—it mattered to him. To “keep taking,” as he put it, was a problem. He wanted to work. I knew not to challenge his beliefs or feelings about himself—it was time, again, for information.
I let Mr. Pointer know that SSD and SSI would only be provided if there was a genuine need and if he qualified (I knew he would, based on his history and consistent mental health diagnoses over time)—in other words, it wasn’t a handout for someone who didn’t want to work; I let him know that the housing he could get once benefits were in place would cost taxpayers less than keeping him in shelter; I let him know that he could still work and keep receiving his benefits dollar-for-dollar up to the amount of his award, seeing a gradated decrease in the amount of his award for every dollar he earned beyond the amount of his award (this calculation differs somewhat for SSD versus SSI); and, finally, that he can simply elect to stop receiving the benefit any time he wanted, especially if he was feeling up to working full-time again. And of course, based on how he budgeted, he would have enough money to visit his daughter regularly.
Now I had his attention. “Your call, Mr. Pointer.” He looked at me searchingly, said thanks, and left.
Mr. Pointer was early for his next appointment. We calculated the train fare, the amount he might expect if approved, other expenses, and determined that he could visit her a minimum of once a month. “If she’ll see me.” I shot back, “Hey, you gotta be in it to win it!” and we smiled.
Maybe seeing his daughter would be the meds he didn’t want to take. Or, for that matter, his heroin. Maybe regular visits with Ophelia would be the change that flashed the light I’d seen in his eyes for the first time.
We went to the local Social Security office the next day and applied. I wasn’t going to give him another week to think about it, if I could help it. Five months later, he was approved, and got a tidy check for benefits accrued dating back to the first of the month after the month in which he applied. It was several thousand dollars.
I was ecstatic, feelin’ my bad social work self, learning that you could marry someone’s personal goals to your programs’ goals and make it happen—saving, I hoped, a life, and laying the groundwork to build a new life with his daughter.
Then Mr. Pointer disappeared.
After he’d collected his big check Mr. Pointer agreed to continue to meet with me. The next step was to leverage these benefits into housing. I’d found it odd that he didn’t show up for our next appointment and the following day contacted his case manager. “He’s gone,” she said. “He broke curfew the day he cashed his check and hasn’t been seen since.”
I was a little concerned, but when he didn’t show up the following week and still hadn’t been seen, I started to freak a little. “Great,” I thought to myself. “Nice going. You got this guy benefits, he spent it on smack and is probably laying dead in a ditch somewhere. Good job.” I made it about me and was agonizing. I didn’t have the number of his daughter’s foster family, he had provided no emergency contact information during intake—I had nothing. I called local hospitals and the police and came up dry.
My supervisor was helpful in framing the situation for me. “Don’t assume the worst.” “We are not responsible for our clients’ behavior” and a bunch of other true stuff that I didn’t want to hear. All I wanted was for Mr. Pointer to walk through that door with that little glint in his eye I had seen that one time. I got back to work and, eventually, had to kiss the whole thing upstairs. Someone talked about self-care and I looked right through them. It was hard to think about myself. I mechanically reminded myself “I did what I was supposed to do and that’s that.”
Once the need for more active self-care eventually sunk in, I started taking short walks during the breaks I hadn’t been taking and began pondering what I’d learned. I learned that to engage and motivate clients it can’t be about you and what you are supposed to do to help your program check its boxes. Clients need to be personally invested in the assistance you would offer. If you can help your client imagine the future you would help them create and show them the tools to getting there that you have to offer then maybe—just maybe—they’ll buy in.
As for Mr. Pointer? I completed my internship not having any idea what happened to him.
Three months later, I got a voicemail from one of my colleagues who knew Mr. Pointer, and knew I’d been worried about him.
“Hey Craig, call me. It’s about Mr. Pointer.” My heart sunk. It wasn’t like, “Hey! Call me! Great news about Mr. Pointer!” To me, it was like… it wasn’t a good voice—it was completely flat. And frankly, part of me wasn’t sure I wanted to know what happened to Mr. Pointer. I sat on the message for a few days. But, I knew this particular colleague, and they always sounded like that when they spoke. They’d be like “Hey Craig, call me. I won the lottery” and they’d sound the same.
It was about a woman. I can smile when I think about it now as I remember another client who got in a lot of fights who once said “It’s always about a woman.”
Mr. Pointer cashed his check and went out of state to visit an old girlfriend. He wanted to show her he had money and try to win her back. What Mr. Pointer didn’t know is that she’d taken up with another man, and when he rang her bell, they both answered. There was a fist-fight, and Mr. Pointer spent a few months in the slammer before being released.
Out of sheer relief, I laughed. Thank goodness there were only fists involved. With everything I had been thinking I had put myself through hell—unnecessarily. And perhaps that was the best lesson in self-care I’d ever learned. When uncertainty is in the air, and it nearly always is, I say the following.
“Craig, until you really find out what’s going on with this you can do hard time, or you can do easy time. If you want to do hard time, think of all the possible terrible things that can happen and believe them. If you want to do easy time, accept that you do not know, and do not commit your emotions to worrying about something that you have no idea about, until you do know.”
I choose easy time.
Mr. Pointer, wherever you are, I hope you and your daughter are enjoying one another. Until and unless I hear otherwise, it’s “Case closed.”
This is a great reminder that we’re not responsible for what our clients do when they leave the office — you’re right, all we can do is present the information. It’s hard to separate ourselves from what we “should” do or what we think is “best” for our clients; but it really is up to them.
I love the story and I could relate because we must meet where the client is. It reminds me of what a client once told me—I want to get high this weekend and I will be at this corner on Monday and I will enter a detox. Well that Monday she was there at the corner; she entered detox, inpatient after care and three years later I received a call. She was attending college and was about to obtain a Bachelors degree. Nine years later, she is a CASAC substance abuse counselor and sends me every year a card thanking me for believing in her.
Thank you so much for sharing such an inspiring story of just what is possible when our starting place is simply meeting the client where they’re at.