When I was a child, my parents taught me that there was a consequence to each of my actions, good or bad, and often, if I did the wrong thing, they were the ones to enforce the consequence. For example, leaving my room in a mess despite repeated warnings to clean it up might result in not being allowed to watch TV until it was clean. And more serious for me, my mom almost took my entire collection of books away because she caught me reading after lights out one too many times. As adults, there’s no parent standing over us handing down consequences, but that doesn’t mean they are no longer there. Bestest bud, for example, expected the house to be clean when she house sat this week and so because I hadn’t cleaned in ages I had to spend the two days leading up to my vacation cleaning like mad trying to make a dent in months of clutter.
Many people believe that the homeless are simply living out the consequences of their actions and because of that they do not need our help. Rather, they simply need to take new actions which will have more positive consequences. If unemployment led to loss of housing, finding yourself employment will then lead to housing. This way of looking at things looks at things on a more macro level and is easily generalized to many different situations.
On a micro level however we look at individuals, their situations, their actions and what the consequences of those actions are. It can become easy for my coworkers and I to take on a parental role (often quite unintentionally) and become the one who hands out consequences. A client does something wrong, we punish them. Sniff in the shelter, kicked out for 24 hours for example. One would expect this to be a deterrent, but if losing housing wasn’t enough to force someone to find employment will 24 hours outside force someone to stop sniffing? I think that’s what gets to a lot of us. We kick people out over and over and over and over again, and they’re mad, really mad, and yet month, or a week or even the next day, they’re doing it again.
One reason for this is addiction. Addiction is very powerful. I didn’t really just how powerful until I started working in detox. I hear people whose hearts are just breaking because of the horrible consequences of their addictions, who want more than anything to stop, and yet are somehow still held captive by their substance of choice. Further, after you use drugs/alcohol for a while your brain starts to go. You actually kill brain cells and damage parts of your brain, including your memory. Further you may not remember what happened as you “blacked out” from drinking.
Another reason is FASD and/or other brain damage. One of the frustrating things about working with children with FASD is their inability to understand the consequences of their actions. This is true for adults with FASD as well, only we expect adults to have mastered this concept. No matter how many times we tell someone, they may simply not get it (one of the reasons we tend not to use sliding punishment scales in which the punishment increases each time the action occurs).
A third reason people do not seem to learn from their consequences as we expect them to is mental illness, bet that depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or anything else along the spectrum. It’s hard to care about the consequences when you don’t exist in the same reality as the one who makes the rules. Sometimes a person can be so depressed they just don’t care, don’t care at all. Watching that can be scary, people with zero regard for their own lives are not only a danger to themselves but to those around them as well.
So, how then do we create a safe environment for all people?