Deborah McMarais hugs a Wyoming Rescue Mission volunteer at the women’s shelter in Casper. Working to house the homeless can be deeply rewarding, but the daily challenges typically outnumber the ‘attaboys’. The shelter houses 80 to 100 people each night and serves about 3,500 meals each month. (Wyoming Rescue Mission)

It’s a matter of serving, not fixing.

There’s plenty of counseling, coaching, crisis management and connecting, but, fixing isn’t in the cards — not people, nor the system that broke them.

As you consider that, you might as well know that long hours, short resources and daily heartbreak come with the territory, too.

“People can make amazing turnarounds, and it’s incredibly rewarding when they do,” said Dave Matthews, case worker and director of men’s services at Wyoming Rescue Mission in Casper. “But if you’re in it for the ‘attaboys’… you just … It doesn’t work.”

What does work are questions.

Simple questions at first: Have you eaten? Do you need clean clothes? A shower? A day without fear for your physical safety?

Think of this initial stage as a kind of first aid. Stop the metaphorical bleeding. Sometimes that involves literal bandages. It always involves listening.

That can be uncomfortable. Answers can be ugly, frightening even. No flinching. And never underestimate the importance of asking, instead of telling. Answering for oneself engenders engagement, sparks intrinsic motivation and, most importantly, kindles hope.

“Motivational Interviewing [a client-centric, non-judgemental, query based counseling method] is at the heart of what we do, at every stage of the process,” Matthews said. “It’s a transformative approach.”

And it should buy you some time to examine history and establish a plan.

What are you struggling with? How did a worn plastic mattress on the floor of the Rescue Mission hallway become your best option tonight?

Some guests find the shelter at the end of a long rope woven of bad decisions. Others get there via a toxic blend of addiction and untreated mental illness. For a surprisingly large number, homelessness arrives with a single, sudden calamity — a job-ending injury, an unforeseen divorce, a child’s death, a spouse’s arrest, an assault.

In Matthews’ words, “It’s not always a person’s choices. Some people are just broken by tragedy.”

“What do you want to do?” might be the most important question you ask. Every client’s story is different, as are their aims, so their roadmaps to recovery must be too. Perhaps the only universal element is the need for safe, sustainable housing.

So work it backward from there. Housing requires money. Money requires a job. A job requires… what? Training? Detox and addiction counseling? Treatment for mental illness? A haircut and an interview suit?

Connect the dots. Anticipate the pitfalls. Identify the agencies, programs, charities and services that can help. Make introductions. Be creative. Communicate the appropriate a sense of urgency.

Because there are people under roofs today who will be homeless tomorrow. They’ll need your services. You need to make room.

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Matthew Copeland

Matthew Copeland is the chief executive & editor of WyoFile. Contact him at or (307) 287-2839. Follow Matt on Twitter at @WyoCope

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