An advocate for the homeless honored

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September 14, 2009 // UPDATED 11:30 am - September 16, 2009
By: Elizabeth Sias
Elizabeth Sias

Cynthia Waight is a mental health case manager for RESOURCE’s Spectrum Homeless Project, a service of Spectrum Community Mental Health that provides supportive housing and services to homeless adults with mental illnesses.

RESOURCE is a nonprofit organization that provides employment, training, mental health and chemical health services in the Twin Cities.

Waight was recently awarded the third annual Jonathan Farmer Iluq Award for her dedication to helping homeless people with mental illness find supportive housing in the Twin Cities and helping them toward self-reliance.

The Corporation for Supportive Housing’s Minnesota Program awards the Iluq Award annually “to an individual direct service worker who exemplifies energy, enthusiasm and creativity in serving individuals and families who are homeless.”

The Downtown Journal spoke with Waight to discuss her work, reaction to receiving the award and future plans.

DTJ: Describe the work you do for Spectrum Homeless Project.

Waight: I’m a mental health case manager. We work in a supportive housing program funded through HUD. We serve homeless, mentally ill adults, dual-diagnosed also with chemical-dependency issues.

One of our big things is to promote recovery, independence and successful community living through the promotion of skills and knowledge. We try to promote that so an individual can effectively manage their mental health concerns and give them a sense of hope that their illness isn’t going to dominate their lives.

You’ve been working for the Spectrum Homeless Project since 1996. How did you decide to start? What did you do before?

I started with People Serving People, working with homeless individuals there. I’ve always worked with the homeless population.

Both of my parents were in public service jobs, and they really encouraged us as kids to give back to the community, so we always grew up doing different things and volunteering, and I really enjoyed that. I kind of went into it that way and found my way to Spectrum.

What do you find most rewarding about your work?

The ability that people can make changes in their lives and to see these changes. I think sometimes people write off homeless or mentally ill, or the so-called bums they see on the streets, and don’t realize that these people are someone’s brother, sister or father. Some have had really fantastic lives and great careers before mental health took over or their addictions took over. It’s great to see the ability that humans have to make changes and forward progress in their lives.

Do you have a favorite success story?

I do. I met a woman who was signing by 35W over by the U around four years ago. She had her two dogs with her. Her sign said “need food.” I stopped her and engaged her in conversation, and she admitted that she didn’t need food; she was a heroin addict and just wanted money. I said, “Here, I’ll give you 10 bucks, get some food for your dogs, do what you can, but call me. Here’s my card, give me a call.” I didn’t really think she would, but she called two days later. She’s been in our program ever since and she’s been clean for four years.

What is the most challenging?

When people lack insight into their mental health. Or they haven’t been allowed to discuss it with their doctor. They’re not given the opportunity to ask questions or try to get help understanding their illness. I think the chemical dependency piece is frustrating. You see people who’ve made such great strides and then their addictions take back over. It’s like they take steps backwards.

How did you feel when you won the Jonathan Farmer Iluq Award?

I was happy. I did not think I’d win; there’s so many people that work in this field that do fabulous things every day with people. I was quite honored, actually.

What do you think is the biggest misperception people have of homeless people and how can that be changed?

I think people think that they’re all just bums, that they’re not working, they’re lazy, that they’re all drug addicts or alcoholics. People forget that we all could have a family member or do have a family member that has had rough times or are chemically dependent or have mental illness. And I think we forget that we don’t all have great families we can rely on when a crisis occurs. And when you don’t have any support system, an option usually is a shelter or the street.

What is your advice for interacting with homeless people around Downtown?

I always tell people it’s a personal choice to give money or to stop and chat. That’s a personal choice, but I think, you know, don’t be afraid. I’m comfortable around people because this is what I do. But I would suggest to people, if they really want to help, if you want to give money, just know it may be going to an addiction. Or get to know your local agencies. Our agency, RESOURCE, is a good start. And get to know the causes of homelessness or what programs are available to help, or even your local agencies that offer meals. Then you could even just throw out to people, “Hey, you can go to the branch and grab lunch.” Minneapolis has a great array of social service agencies to help anyone if they want to be helped. If they want to help, they can always make financial donations to any agency in the city that serves the homeless.

What are your goals for the near or distant future?

I want to go back to school and get my master’s, probably in psychology. I really enjoy working at Spectrum, and I would like to stay with Spectrum and potentially move into a supervisory role within one of our housing programs, working with the population I work with now.