Banish Enabling from the Social Service Lexicon


by Brian Davis

     I hate the use of the term "enabling" with social services. It is often an easy way to withdraw services under the guise of not coddling the individual. I do not believe that social service providers, even licensed social workers, have the ability to draw the line between providing life sustaining help and enabling a person. Often decisions around enabling a person have nothing to do with a case plan as much as a funding decision.

     The alcohol and drug system is so overwhelmed with men and women in need of help that they have constructed these artificial barriers to service and labeled them tools to prevent enabling. Is it enabling to provide a person a bed away from the drug culture that permeates all of our neighborhoods and give the person some time to work through their problems with drugs? Since we woefully under fund mental health counseling, it is rare that a person addicted to drugs or alcohol will ever get to talk to a mental health professional. There are so many environmental impacts on a person that lead him to attempt to work out his issues with drugs. The childhood sexual abuse, the beatings by a parent, the torture the child endured in school, and the horror she witnessed in her neighborhood fester for years.

     So I self medicate myself. There is no one to talk to, so I turn to a quick and easy fix. Are the case workers enabling me because I have found a logical way to escape these painful memories? Then I face the corrupt and broken health care system in which profit is put above people. I cannot afford medication for my non-life threatening personality disorder so I self medicate. I then have to face the reality that all the residential treatment beds in the community were bought by the corrections department. I have to commit a crime, do some time in order to get a room. Then I see that my hard work as a laborer will not even get me half the rent for an apartment.

     The final insult is that some young college graduate snot nose kid comes along and asks me to leave the shelter because he does not want to enable me with the thought that abusing alcohol is permissible behavior. I just want to drive this kid to the desert and leave him with this note: "I am sorry that I took the map, the water, and all your supplies. I did not want to enable you with these crutches. There are people who have made it back to civilization in your same situation. When you get back you will have the satisfaction of knowing that no one enabled you on your journey. Good luck."

     All of us are inundated with images in advertising, television, and billboards that tell us how cool it is to drink. This legal behavior of consuming alcohol that is encouraged and rewarded in pop culture is condemned within the homeless community. The cheapest, most readily available mind altering drug in the community is a capital offense in the shelters. The alternatives (mental health counseling, prescription drugs, stable housing, and family) are too expensive or not available. Is there no justice?

     Social workers are fooling themselves if they think that allowing a person the dignity of sleeping inside a shelter when they are drunk is enabling. Those born into poverty or forced to endure poverty in the richest country in the history of the world are too accepting of archaic rules and phony academic theories about enabling. Homeless people too often accept termination from programs that are supposed to serve them. Homeless people do not want to rock the boat out of fear that things will only get worse. In my experience, it cannot get much worse. It is time to rise up and turn the tables on these career social workers. For too long homeless people have enabled social workers by allowing them to keep their jobs in spite of their condescending approach to serving their clients.

     Homeless and low income individuals have allowed programs to exclude more people then they serve. They have allowed shelters to only serve the easiest to serve alcoholics, and they have allowed the blurring of the line between corrections and social service. The only way to correct this misguided notion is through civil disobedience at the first hint of the word "enabling." After the social service industry solves the mental health crisis, affordable housing crisis, health care crisis, and long term care crisis they can use the word enabling again. Until that time I accept that viewing the world through the rather blurry haze of a Rolling Rock is a sane way of dealing with this crazy world.

Copyright NEOCH published 2002 Issue 53