Community

Helping the homeless find hope: Willis Dady case manager starts with respect

Charlie Sanders (left) is interviewed Friday in the kitchen of his new apartment with Martha Carter, a case manager at Willis Dady Homeless Services in Cedar Rapids. Sanders stayed recently at Willis Dady, then moved into this apartment in January and also has found work. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Charlie Sanders (left) is interviewed Friday in the kitchen of his new apartment with Martha Carter, a case manager at Willis Dady Homeless Services in Cedar Rapids. Sanders stayed recently at Willis Dady, then moved into this apartment in January and also has found work. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — When Charlie Sanders, 42, walked into Willis Dady Homeless Services early in the winter, he was just looking for a place to sleep.

Then he met case manager Martha Carter and got much more.

From simply listening to clients to connecting them to services like mental health counseling to following up with things like finding furniture donations after they get their own apartment, Carter makes it her job to help those who end up at the homeless shelter get back on their feet.

“She’s like a mother figure,” Sanders said.

Carter, blushing, downplays that description. Her role, as she sees it, is to show her clients the same respect she would show anyone else. And that, she said, is the first step to helping them help themselves.

“It’s the simple things we forget to ask people in crisis — things like ‘How was your day?’ Just being human with those who are in crisis goes a long way,” she said. “I just try to be an everyday person. I don’t want anyone walking in the door and judging me, and that’s how I try to treat the clients — with respect.”

Clients meet with Carter, 67, soon after arriving at Willis Dady, which has beds for 16 single men and four families at its emergency shelter on Fourth Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids. It is a 30-day shelter, though will work with clients case-by-case on how long they stay.

Empathy is key, Carter said. Hearing the stories of her clients is a constant reminder that anyone could end up in a similar situation, given the right — or wrong — circumstances.

“At any time, we could lose our income, we could have some trauma that causes us to suffer from PTSD,” she said.

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When Carter first meets clients, she asks them about themselves and to tell her how they ended up there.

“I have them identify their own barriers. They know themselves better than I do. I try to listen to their story,” she said.

Identifying mental health needs and substance abuse issues right away is paramount, she said, and two of the biggest factors that lead to homelessness. They are often connected, with people self-medicating their mental health problems with drugs or alcohol. She tries to connect people with services, as well as to encourage people to acknowledge and talk about mental health in the first place.

“I talk to them about their mental health, to learn how to embrace it and manage it,” she said.

By that she means she doesn’t want people to feel ashamed, but rather to see such things as comparable to any other health issue that can be addressed by treatment.

She’s an advocate for more resources to address mental health in the Iowa. She said she works with clients who previously have been incarcerated but not had their mental health addressed while in prison. She also has worked with clients who have aged out of the foster care system with no safety net and unaddressed trauma.

“Sometimes people are not diagnosed until later in life,” she said. “When you have mental health compounded by homelessness, that’s really difficult stuff.”

She holds a focus group with the men in the shelter twice a month, where they can talk, share their struggles and successes and hear lessons on topics like credit repair and civil rights. They also do journaling and art therapy.

Sanders said the focus groups and the discussions that happened in them were helpful.

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“They gave you the chance to say what you had to say, with nobody getting judged,” he said. “Whether you get negative feedback or positive feedback, it’s all OK. It means somebody was listening.”

He said he struggled with drinking in the past and is trying to get back on his feet. His two children, ages 5 and 2, are his motivation. They didn’t stay with him at the shelter, but now with his apartment his daughter stays with him.

“I’ve had some ups and downs,” he said.

He found a job as a packer at General Mills and moved into a northeast-side apartment in January, with help from Willis Dady’s Rapid Rehousing program. He credits Carter with helping find a path forward.

“If you need Willis Dady, you can’t just go there for a bed. They’re there to help,” he said. “Miss Martha helped me. She stayed on me, and I love it. I worked, and I was pushed. ... When I have problems, I go and talk to her.”

Carter said, ultimately, it’s up to her clients to help themselves.

“I’m not tracking anybody down. I’m not trying to be the police. They can call me — I try to be colleagues with them. I want people to participate,” she said.

After all, she added, “Being with me is temporary. What are you going to do when you leave me? I want them to learn how to stand up. This is a place where you can learn to stand up.”

She can’t, and won’t, force anyone to do anything he or she isn’t ready to do.

“Some people are ready to change when they get in the door. Some are not ready to change. That’s something I had to come to,” she said.

She grew up in Cedar Rapids, studied literature at the University of Iowa and later got her master’s degree in public administration while living in Washington state with her daughter. She moved back to Iowa eight years ago when she got the job at Willis Dady.

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When it’s warm, she likes to leave her desk and walk around the neighborhood, stopping to say hello to people she passes.

“I walk the community because I live in the community, and I want to understand some of the problems in the community to better understand my clients,” she said.

Some recognize and greet her by name. Others accidentally greet her by her sister’s name — her twin sister, Betty Daniels, has a very similar job, as a housing specialist at Waypoint. Sometimes, they team up to help clients.

“Willis Dady is only in their life temporarily. It’s our hope the men and families that enter the shelter can latch on to hope,” Carter said. “Encouragement and affirmation goes a long way in someone’s life. People just want someone to witness their life.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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