June 10, 2016 | Published in Family Services
This month, my team and I have been thinking a lot about a concept we call “toxic support.” Again and again, we find that what distinguishes families living in poverty from families who have become homeless is the lack of social support. Imagine yourself at 3 a.m., your house burning to the ground, you and your family at the curb, safe, but with only the pajamas on your back – everything lost – your possessions, home, wallet, car, even Siri. What will you most urgently need? Who will you call for help? You can imagine borrowing a phone and starting to make those calls for a place to stay, clothes to borrow, help getting your ID replaced, going to the bank for funds, etc. It would be awful, but you would have people who could help.
Now imagine that everyone you call is standing on the curb, in pajamas, in front of their own house on fire. That is the predicament of our homeless families. They do not have reliable social support networks — the kinds of folks you and I might casually rely on for everything from a quick call to pick up kids because we’re stuck in traffic, to an urgent plea to wait with us at the emergency room because someone we care about is sick or injured. Day in and day out, we see our parents struggle with all the big and little challenges of life with little to no support.
Lately we’ve been talking about how this phenomenon leads parents to have to rely on what we call toxic support. Here are a few examples.
One mom has to rely on her dad to pick up and drop off her little girls at Vogel Alcove because of her work schedule. He has only recently returned to her life after more than a decade of estrangement. He is cranky with the children, and the children struggle at drop off and pick up times as a result. He charges his daughter money she can ill afford to spend for this assistance.
Another mom relies on a grandparent for occasional emergency assistance with child care. Her little girl has a chronic illness, and while it is managed successfully with only rare hospitalizations, the illness requires frequent absences from school. The grandparent is not happy about having to help, and, as in the previous example, charges her daughter a steep price for this care. In addition, this mom recently discovered that the grandparent had stolen a significant amount of money from her. She tearfully described her desperate desire to extricate herself from this harmful relationship, saying, “But how else will I keep my job?”
Yet another mom has to work late or risk losing her new job. She has no one to care for her child past Vogel Alcove’s pick-up time of 6 p.m., so she calls us and adds a name to her pick-up list. We later learn that this individual is an abusive former partner. Unfortunately, this former partner is only too happy to be invited back into the family, and a one-time, last-resort need escalates to a life-threatening stand-off involving law enforcement. The mom and daughter had to leave their new apartment and return to a domestic violence shelter.
Our clinical family support specialists have many tasks to complete and issues to address with each new family that comes our way. Housing, employment, child and adult mental health issues are but a few of these challenges. We have come to see that for any of these goals to be accomplished, we also have to support parents’ efforts to search out and grow healthy new relationships so that they no longer face the choice between utter disaster and support that can only be described as toxic.
Working with these brave parents makes each of us grateful for the folks on our own emergency call lists—the people we know whose houses are not on fire, who can rush to our aid when disasters befall us. And it strengthens our resolve to see that our Vogel Alcove families can enjoy the same sense of security that such a network can bring.
Director, Family Support