Advice for New and Young Social Workers: Q&A with Gordon Russell, Director of Shelters

Seeking wisdom to help guide her career ahead, Lisa (pictured left), a new social worker at Men’s Mission, asked several thoughtful questions of her supervisor, Gordon Russell. Gordon recently retired after a meaningful career of 30 years as the Director of Shelters. His responses are described below.

What education or training helped you prepare for your position at Mission Services of London?

Gordon has a combined Honours Degree in Geography and Anthropology as well as a Master of Divinity. His education helped him to think critically while also thinking about his humanity and that of other people. “When you come to work in human services… it’s about the broader questions about self and the challenges other people have, and how you tend to step into those challenges,” Gordon said.

How do you maintain your compassion for the people we serve, even during more challenging times?

“Imperfectly,” Gordon stated simply. “Maintaining compassion is done through making mistakes and sometimes not being compassionate”. That said, Gordon believes that considering one’s own thoughts and actions is a key component of maintaining compassion for others. “I’ve often said that people who do best working in this context are prepared to reflect routinely on what they’re doing and not doing”.

Gordon also advised Lisa to connect with people who have a different worldview than her own. “They force you to think: ‘wait a minute, I just never thought of it that way’… That’s how you maintain compassion but again, you never maintain it perfectly,” he explained.

What are your suggestions for promoting good mental health for oneself while working in the social service field?

“The first way is to ask yourself the question: how am I doing?” said Gordon. “Secondly, there’s no cookie-cutter approach”. Since everyone is “wired differently”, as he puts it, Gordon believes that each person must discover how to best manage their personal health in their own unique way. “The principles are that you’re routinely reflecting and not just letting things wash over you. You also want people around you that are listening to you and you are prepared to listen to them,” he shared. “Sometimes you need people around that are going to say, ‘stop, take a breath, take a break’”.

Gordon has also found that change has helped with his mental health. “We’re expecting when we come to work that something will be different and I’ll have to do or think differently,” he said. “It feels the same but really it’s different, so that’s a good thing”.

In what ways do you think the housing system will change or improve in the future?

While one part of the equation concerns the availability of affordable housing, Gordon believes another part involves what he refers to as income inequity. “There’s inequity in income so some people cannot afford what is there. If you can improve their income, and look at more equity in the income they are receiving, then perhaps they can enter the market the way it is,” he explained.

Furthermore, Gordon suggests learning from those in the community with limited means who are struggling with income inequity and yet manage to maintain their housing. “How do they do that?” Gordon pondered. While the question is complex, we do know part of the answer. When families exit Rotholme Family Shelter, many continue to be supported through our Housing Stability program to help them maintain their housing for the long term.

Housing Stability may involve fostering positive relationships with landlords, learning how to manage a budget, and connecting with other community resources like food-providing agencies. Sometimes, a housing allowance can be another useful community resource. “So they are receiving a financial supplement in order to bridge the gap between their income and the rent… Sometimes, it is about money,” said Gordon.

“There’s another piece of that,” Gordon continued. “Part of [Housing Stability] is about the children. Creating opportunities for children so that the next generation does not experience the same level of poverty. So, keeping them in school – that’s a good opportunity,” Gordon aptly concluded.

How can we best continue to support people experiencing addiction?

“You have to recognize it as a health challenge,” Gordon stated. “If you frame it that way, then you’re forced to say, ‘maybe there are better resources that can be available’”. Gordon warns that as long as addiction continues to be erroneously framed as a moral issue, there will be limited resources available to support those who are struggling.

“In the world of substance use and abuse, we have to work a lot harder to understand where it starts and then intervene much more precisely at the very beginning,” he advised. “You hear stories of it beginning because they were in an accident and prescribed pain medication, or others who lived in abject poverty as children, or they experienced severe trauma as children or adults. So, if you’re supporting them, you have to recognize it’s a health challenge and a complex issue. You have to go back to the beginning”.

Gordon also believes that it is important to understand that addiction is often connected to other challenges like poverty, homelessness, and physical and mental illness. “If you want to talk about best supporting people with addiction, you have to embrace that it’s much larger than someone using a substance,” he stated.

At Men’s Mission, staff seek to meet the needs of each individual as that individual wishes. “I’m more concerned in an emergency shelter setting that we meet them where they are,” Gordon explained. While some participants may welcome assistance to overcome addiction, others are seeking basic needs of shelter and nourishment at that point in time.

Written by Amy Bumbacco
Communications & PR Coordinator

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