Working With Women in Homeless Shelters

I like to say, “There are reasons people become homeless – and there are reasons people stay homeless.”   Some people come to shelters because of a short-term unfortunate circumstance; like losing a job, for instance. In this type of situation, temporary shelter and assistance is enough to help them to get back on their feet and move on with their lives.  Sadly, it’s the chronically homeless who use most of the services available at shelters and rescue missions.  For them, it is not just circumstances that keep them homeless – life controlling issues that must be addressed if they are to break the downward cycle.  This is especially true for women who end up in  family shelters.  Here are a few counseling strategies that are absolutely essential if we are to bring real help to them.

A.  A special strategy for people with drug and alcohol problems –  Addicts have special needs that the “garden variety” sinner does not have.  They can be identified by using a standard alcohol screening test during the intake process.  Then we  can help them to get into an active program of recovery using such activities as support groups, addiction therapy, educational activities, etc.  Use community resources if the shelter’s staff does not have expertise in this area.  Addiction is a primary issue, so all other help giving will amount to nothing if the person cannot stay sober.

 B. The Issue of Toxic ShameBy definition, “toxic shame”  is an inner sense of being defective, faulty, unlovable, undeserving, unredeemable and hopeless.  It is a root problem for addicts, codependents and people from dysfunctional families.  Most adults in family shelters fall into at least one of these categories.  Toxic shame is the “glue” that holds the wall of denial together and prevents hurting people from accepting the help we offer them.  They think – “If I admit I have problems, it proves that I am a worthless, useless human being.”  Addiction leads to a total deterioration of a person’s moral life leading to a destructive mix of toxic shame and guilt.  The Bible tells us that admitting our problems (sin) is not an admission of hopelessness or “unredeemability.”  Instead, it is the key to forgiveness, freedom from our past and a new self-image.

 C. The Dynamics of CodependencyAnother critical counseling issue for women in shelters is learning to overcome the destructive effects of codependency, which is, essentially, the result of a lifetime of abusive relationships.  If this issue is not dealt with, codependent individuals will continue to become emotionally involved with people who are not good for them. Some symptoms are:

  •  A sense of little or no control over the circumstances of one’s lifeChildren growing up in dysfunctional families must somehow find a way to cope with all the pain and confusion.  This often results in a faulty belief system that continues into adult life that leaves people with an all-pervasive sense of powerlessness about practically every situation in which they find themselves.
  • Passivity in the face of disturbing and dangerous situationsPeople from dysfunctional families are used to living life in constant crisis.  So, painful circumstances do not cause them to seek change as it would for most people.  Instead, their learned helplessness results in a sense of resignation about even the most painful and dangerous circumstances.
  • Avoidance of social supportFor those who struggle with “toxic shame”, almost everything that happens to them in life seems to support their assessment of themselves as being no good, useless, powerless, unable to change or do anything right.  They tend to be filled with fear and insecurity, especially in social situations, making relationships very difficult.
  • Guessing at what is normalAn individual’s perspective of the world is formed largely by their home life.  Children from dysfunctional families grow up feeling isolated and different from others.  As adults they are forced to guess at what “normal” is.  As a result,  many people in our programs tend to be self-conscious, or have a hard time trusting, opening up and really feeling a part of things.
  • Out of touch with emotionsStuffing one’s feelings is an essential survival skill in a dysfunctional family.  This is why so many children follow their parents’ example, using drugs and alcohol to managing their emotions.  When an individual stops experiencing emotions in an appropriate, healthy way, they get pushed deep inside themselves.  As a result, they get more out of touch with who they are and what they feel.  That’s why they blame others, that’s why they keep hurting themselves.  On the other hand, one of the first consequences of coming into recovery is the revival of the emotional life.  Feelings often come out as anger and grief, often in seemingly inappropriate ways.  Yet, this can be an important sign of growth.


An important note for ministry to children:  I recommend a Christian program called Confident Kids which is an effective tools for ministry to children in dysfunctional families.



Original version of this article appeared in RESCUE Winter 1995, journal of the AGRM

Emotions and Addiction Recovery – Index

One of the surest signs that addicts are moving toward recovery is the return of their emotions. Once active use stops, their feelings are allowed to rise to the surface, often for the first time in many, many years. This period can be one of the most exciting – and one of the most dangerous – of early recovery. Without proper support, it is easy to fall back on their drug of choice to bring things ‘back under control.” Additionally, even if they don’t go back to intoxicants, there is also a concern that they might engage in other compulsive activities in order to circumvent the difficult process of returning to emotional health.

With this in mind, I decided to post a series of articles that I originally wrote for Rescue magazine, published by the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, which appeared in the September 2000, November 2000, January 2001, and March 2001 issues.

  • Self Awareness– In this first installment, the importance of emotional self-awareness is explored, along with a discussion of the affect of growing up in dysfunctional families on emotional health.
  • Early Recovery– This second installment looks at the early days of recovery from addiction and the emotions addicts experience. The main focus is helping addicts to avoid relapse by constructively dealing with these feelings.
  • Grief – The third installment, entitled “The Role of Grief,” focuses on this particularly difficult emotion and how to help newly recovering addicts to deal with in a constructive manner.
  • Anger – The fourth installment focuses on another difficult emotion, anger, and provides some tips to help newly recovering addicts to successfully handle it.
  • Hope – The residential recovery program’s first goal is to create hope in our clients.  Here are some ways we can accomplish this.
  • Depression – Depressive disorders, which are more subtle, can be overlooked as factors that prevent program participants from moving forward in recovery.

Salute to Brother Wayne White

wayneOn February 28, 2012, I lost one of my best friends, Wayne White, founder and director of Footprints, Inc. of Kansas City, Missouri. Better known as “Brother Wayne,” he started the organization in 2001 and served as director until his passing.  He was a Missouri Certified Substance Abuse Counselor at the highest level, with over eighteen years of experience. The name of his organization came from the devotional poem, “Footprints in the Sand.”

For ten years he operated the Footprints Life Change Station a Christian counseling center located on Troost Avenue, one of the toughest streets in town.  It’s doors were open seven days a week so those struggling with addiction to alcohol and drugs can have a safe place to begin a new life.  The program included one-on-one counseling, spiritual development and recovery classes and therapy groups, plus support groups for both recovering addicts and their family members.

As a Vietnam Veteran, his compassion for his fellow veterans led him to establish the emergency shelter, Heroes Homegate, in 2010. Brother Wayne devoted much time and effort to professionalizing faith-based efforts to reach the hurting and addicted. He was an active participant in several statewide organizations and received a number of awards for his work with Footprints, Inc.  He was also a popular spiritual motivational speaker.

Wayne was a passionate life change agent in the urban community, as well as a pioneer in substance abuse recovery. His dedication and commitment to the healing of people was paramount. Most of all, he was a brother in Christ with whom I shared a nearly twenty year relationship that went back to my earliest days as Director of Education with the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions.  It was my work with the Alcoholics Victorious network that initially brought us together.  He went on to establish several AV support groups in the Kansas City area and throughout the states of Kansas and Missouri.

I have had the privilege of serving as his friend and adviser; as well as as a member of the  Footprints, Inc. board of directors.  Mostly, we walked together through years of joy and pain, praying and sharing with one another at a level well beyond mere acquaintance; but rather as dear friends and brothers in Christ.

In his life time, he went from the mean streets of Newark, NJ to a distinguished career in Corporate America.  But drug addiction finally landed him back on the mean streets – this time in Kansas City.  But, thanks to the miraculous work of God, his life was transformed.  In the end, God lifted him up to the place where he held important positions of leadership and gained deep respect in both the church and the professional recovery communities.

Brother Wayne is a trophy of God’s grace and certain evidence of how He can use a man who has truly yielded his life to Christ.  Hundreds of people who are sober today can credit him as being the instrument God used to bring them to recovery and salvation. A great leader in the community, he will surely be missed.