The OCP Blog

Ron’s Insight: Confident, Curious, and Calm

A large majority of the folks who have come through the doors of OCP over the years who are struggling with homelessness have been victims of unspeakable abuse and neglect, inflicted upon them as children. I have heard horrific story after horrific story. If I had to make a real estimate, I would guess that 90% of the folks who we’ve met, who are homeless, have been victims of such abuse.

Once one becomes aware of this reality in the homeless community and realizes that it is this trauma that is actually the common denominator, the root cause of the problem, it becomes difficult to turn away from these abused-children-all-grown-up, and difficult to think in terms of simple answers – “They just need to . . . . .” fill in the blank.

The temptation is to want to re-form the individuals, to take something that is broken and fix it, to alter these individuals somehow so that they can function comfortably in society and stop suffering the indignity of homelessness. But what if what is needed is less about changing what’s there and more about discovering what’s there?

Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his great book The Body Keeps the Score, presenting the ideas of Richard Swartz, a pioneer in the field of Internal Family Systems Therapy, says that the “Self does not need to be cultivated or developed. Beneath the surface of the protective parts of the trauma survivors there exists an undamaged essence, a Self that is confident, curious, and calm, a Self that has been sheltered from destruction by the various protectors that have emerged in their efforts to ensure survival.”

This line of thinking is in alignment with OCP’s core value of recognizing the inherent dignity and value of every person and has led to me think and talk differently about compulsive and addictive behavior. I am learning that in most cases “even those [parts] that are suicidal or destructive – were formed in an attempt to protect the self-system, no matter how much they now seem to threaten it.” I have started saying to people, “Wanting to stop the internal pain with which you are suffering by checking out with drugs or alcohol is not insane, it does not mean you suck, and, in fact, it makes sense that you want to stop the pain. It’s just that some of the compulsive behaviors we use to stop the pain cause all kinds of other problems in our lives. What we need is some other, safer, more life-giving methods of stopping the pain.”

A caricature of thought around the issues of homelessness in America on the political right might be something like, “Those poor folks need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, stop being so lazy, and get to work,” while a caricature of those on the left might be something like “poor folks should just be provided for – just given stuff.” On the ground, both perspectives are woefully inadequate.

While it’s true that people do need to be involved in their own healing, and a big part of that can be learning to work and have connection with one’s own system of survival, it is also true that people desperately need connection, relationship, community, love.

It’s exciting to me that OCP, through our years of trial and error, is starting to find that sweet balance of expectation, challenge, and systems of reciprocity on the one hand and acceptance, support and family-like love on the other.

I have been eye witness to that confident, curious, and calm self, peeking its head out from underneath a host of defense mechanisms designed to keep it safe, and let me tell you, it is always breathtakingly beautiful.

Ron Copeland

Executive Director