Angeline Carrillo works with homeless families at a transitional living center in Chicago. The nine- unit building is situated off a major highway, next to a McDonald’s and storefront plaza, and houses clients who are trying to get back on their feet. Inside, the smell of oil cooking permeates the air.
Carrillo’s role is to navigate the varying barriers and needs of her clients to ultimately help them become self-sufficient after two years. On a good day, she’s connecting clients to counseling services, working on their resumes, setting budgeting goals, or better yet, transitioning them out of the program so they can live on their own again.
On a bad day, she’s talking to clients about their lack of progress in the program, issuing violations for alcohol and drug use, or calming flared tempers.
Below, Carrillo talks about what it’s like to work at a 9-to-5 job where the threat of violence is always a possibility.
I didn't really think about the violence until I was on-site at the old Family Center location - our main shelter where people slept on cots - which was in a known gang territory and high crime part of town. I was more vigilant about the safety of our clients and staff because of the questionable activities that went on outside of the shelter. Luckily, we moved into the new, safer location about a month after I started.
My clients are in a much more dignified environment in this program. They have more responsibility and independence, and these behavioral issues are a little easier to shut off in an apartment building When they have their own apartment versus sharing a large room with 20-30 other people, they have more privacy, dignity, and their own space to retreat to when experiencing stress, anger, or anxiety.
But when my clients are operating under crisis, they can sometimes become upset, explosive, or aggressive when you tell them to do something and they don’t follow through. There’s consequences for actions, and when we give them warnings that jeopardize their participation in the program, they can become almost like a teenager. A “You’re ruining my life!” type of thing. Or an adult temper tantrum you can say. Some of the clients with more mental health issues who are undiagnosed or refuse to get diagnosed, you can't reason with them. There’s nothing we can technically do.
"We all wear a small, gray panic button on a lanyard around our necks that’s able to be disconnected in case someone tries to strangle us."
We’ve had incident reports of clients hitting or attempting to hit staff members in the past. These clients were usually under the influence of alcohol or drugs, however, and they’re banned for those types of behaviors immediately. Thankfully I’ve never had anyone attempt to hit me or reach for an object and throw something at me. It’s mostly yelling and being verbally aggressive.
One time I was with the case manager in the upstairs common area. A male client came in and it wasn’t during appointment time. He was angry with her because he didn't like the fact that he’d received a warning and wanted to discuss it. I was busy doing something at my desk. The case manager told him it wasn’t his appointment time. He started yelling and calling her “Girl” and “Lady” and she didn't like that response from him.
I had to de-escalate the situation for both of them. Whenever a client appears to be getting angry or combative, it’s never a good idea to engage in the same behavior back. So I try not to make the situation more intense. I asked him to leave. I had to repeat myself twice: “I asked you to leave. You need to leave now.” I threatened to call security.
All I'm thinking about is, “I’m not engaging with you anymore. You are not going to disrespect my space. You’re going to leave. We'll discuss this later.” I’m heightened, more on alert. Eventually the client left and later apologized.
Safety is never to be compromised or taken for granted at any time. I’m always aware and trying to position myself so I’m not cornered, like placing myself near a doorway. Or if I’m walking with a client, I have them walk ahead of me versus me walking ahead of them so they can’t come at me from behind. Little things. We don’t have scissors or objects on the desk in plain sight that could be used to poke or stab somebody. The desks are also locked.
All our entrances are secure so nobody can just come in. People need to have a key or be buzzed in. We have security cameras in place so we know who’s coming into building. Case managers have cell phones with them at all times. We all wear a small, gray panic button on a lanyard around our necks that’s able to be disconnected in case someone tries to strangle us.
Luckily I’ve never had to use it. Anything violent I’ve witnessed has mostly been on camera: heated arguments, pushing, shoving, yelling, staggering, swearing. Nothing where I felt like I needed to contact police right away.
"It’s tough. I don't know if I would recommend this job to anyone. If one of my friends or family came to me about it, I would probably tell them it's difficult work at the end of the day even when violence isn't a threat."
My mom is still very protective; I’m going to be 29 years old. If I have a late night, or a meeting off site, she wants me to call or text her when I get home. She likes that I’m helping people but she does worry about my safety more so than even I might worry about it at times. She wants peace of mind.
Women tend to be more at risk. I work with three females in the center where I’m at. We’re seen as more vulnerable. We have to think about our safety more when we’re walking to our car or walking home from work.
But I’m 5”1 and female and able to get people to leave the office when situations escalate. If you have a good rapport with people, even when they’re upset and angry or in crisis, they’ll always respect you.
My clients look to me as someone who can help them versus someone who is trying to punish or belittle or treat them like “homeless people.” I treat them like they’re people. Not, “Oh you’re homeless so I’m going to put you in a blanket category of how I’m supposed to work with you.” They’re individuals. I try to actively listen to what the client’s immediate needs are, and also try to validate their feelings and experiences to the best of my ability as someone who’s never experienced homelessness.
Violence is probably more likely to happen if your client becomes frustrated enough and feels like you don’t respect them as a person. I compare it to having really bad customer service. We’re all more likely to get angry with someone we feel isn't listening to or doesn't want to help us.
It’s tough. I don't know if I would recommend this job to anyone. If one of my friends or family came to me about it, I would probably tell them it's difficult work at the end of the day even when violence isn't a threat. When I started, it was honestly a position that would help me develop professionally and provide me with management experience with set Monday-Friday hours; something that I was desperately looking for after working on-call at a rape crisis center for three years right out of undergrad. I’ve been here two years now and I’ve been offered another role within the organization that allows for nonprofit development experience.
Some of the success stories do make it worthwhile - we recently helped a homeless single mother of two kids get an apartment. But it’s not a job that’s sustainable; I’m exhausted. I spend a lot of time with friends, family, my boyfriend, and my cat, Tyson, to disconnect. Watching trashy reality T.V. like Real Housewives is a good way to escape. People don’t understand why I watch it but I think it’s perfect. I can forget about what I’ve been doing all day.
I’m also now very aware of how naive I may have been in my earlier years about my safety. I think I just thought of myself as invincible when I was younger and bad things couldn’t or wouldn’t happen to me. Working with sexual assault survivors in my previous role has shown me otherwise because safety issues can arise for anyone at any time. I’ve become very fond of basic safety tips; I’m pretty much aware at all times throughout the day now. They’re in the front of my mind more so in the back of mind than ever before.
By Celeste Hamilton-Dennis