While doing outreach work today, I spent a few minutes chatting with the building manager at an apartment building that houses a large number of my clients (and people who should be my clients but who don’t yet know me). The manager hasn’t been there for very long – a few months? – but is already reaching a breaking point with “these people”. She’s talking about quitting. Talking about how it’s not worth trying.

She talked about some specific damage that had been done to her (personal) property and her frustration that she’s, “trying to help these people” and that she’s starting to feel like there’s “just no point” to it. Then she asked me and my coworker how, exactly, we deal with “these people” all the time without losing our minds.

“These people” are definitely my people.

The building houses somewhere around 50 men and women, some of whom are legal tenants and some of whom are the tenants’ long-term ‘visitors’. The majority of them are substance users and many of them have mental illnesses. Most of them are in ill physical health – whether from the side effects of their drug use or from specific illnesses, or both. They are living in absolutely awful conditions, they are impoverished, they are neglected.

How do I recommend that she keep her sanity while helping? Well, it is my personal feeling that this manager needs to stop helping – because she can’t.

I know that sounds crazy.

Whenever I talk to someone about ‘helping’, I talk about how things are never as simple as they seem. The majority of people don’t end up living in situations like this, in North America, unless there are some substantial underlying issues. People struggle, yes, and people may temporarily exist in situations that are crappy, but they don’t stay there long-term unless there are bigger problems at hand.

Bigger problems are not easily solved.

You can bring someone a sandwich and you can bring them clean socks. You cannot easily solve mental health problems. You cannot end an addiction.

You also can’t easily undo years of societal neglect.

People get burned out in ‘helping’ when they feel like the help they’re offering isn’t doing any good and, truthfully, very little of the help actually does any good unless you’re a professional in a specific area. Like me, for example: I hand out drug supplies and I talk about how to stay healthy while you’re using drugs and I talk about harm reduction around safer sexuality and I refer everything else onward to someone else.

Well, not everything, but I recognize that my efforts in other areas are likely to be a temporary panacea. I accept that. If I don’t accept it, I go crazy.

In the case of this manager, she’s seeing a lot of people in awful situations and she wants to help. This is understandable. At the same time, however, she’s taking on all the roles – and she’s not qualified. No one is thanking her because they now feel like she should fix EVERYTHING and she can’t do that.

This is how the good people burn out. (Well, there are a few other reasons – but this is a BIG reason). The good people get overwhelmed by the NEED. They don’t see any return on their investment, either, because they’re not investing heavily in the right areas.

No one asks me to help them with housing. No one asks me to help them find a psychiatrist or get on/off psych meds. No one asks me to support them in getting their children back from foster care. There are about 80,000 other things that no one asks me to do – because I have defined my role very clearly. I work very hard to maintain professional boundaries.

In my case, I am able to refer some people into my agency – for counseling or medical treatment or some of the other things that my coworkers do. I happily refer people around the community when it’s appropriate. Sometimes it takes people a long time to make a phone call to help themselves and sometimes people never do it. The moment I start doing it for them, however, is the moment they depend on me. The moment they depend on me is the moment I become the person responsible.

There are very few things for which I want responsibility when it comes to my clients. And, inversely, there are very things for which I should be responsible.

This is not to say that their situations aren’t difficult. It is not to say that I believe they should be living in certain conditions or that they don’t deserve better care from society. It is not to say that some of my clients don’t break my heart with their experiences.

But I love my job. I love it because the little bit that I do actually makes a difference. People thank me all the time for what I do. I feel like I’m helping people. I feel like I’m doing ‘the right thing’. I’m not overwhelmed, generally, because the job that I do is well-defined and I can handle all of it.

In the future, perhaps, I’ll work in a different role. Maybe it’ll be housing or income or child welfare or.. whatever. And that will be where I’ll help. I will put aside my drug supplies – though I would of course offer a referral to someone if needed – and I will focus on my new area of ‘specialization’.

But this property manager – man, she needs to focus on housing. Fix the walls, say, or help someone find some cheap furniture. Or install brighter lighting in the parking lot. Better mailboxes. Whatever the tenants need that’s related to housing. She needs to focus on her area of expertise.. and leave the rest, everything else, to someone else.


  1. Bert says:

    You’d like my cd “God save the punks”.
    It’s a truth like a piercing in God’s soul.

  2. Kelly M says:

    And did you help her see that?

  3. Sanna says:

    I recognize this. I’m working as a care assistant to a disabled woman in her twenties. She has a bunch of undiagnosed problems, but because they are undiagnosed, I can’t help as needed, because she’s an adult and to be treated as one. It’s killing me to not tell her that another chocolate cake will just make her gain weight, which will make her not be able to breathe properly.

    The only thing I can do, the only thing I’m *allowed* to do, is go with her and help her buy it and eat it.

    I’m on the verge of quitting.

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