Hello. Can I Come In?

For years, I’ve complained about human services agencies with locked front doors.  Agencies that require you to push the little doorbell, then talk to the receptionist, then get buzzed in, and then sign in.  One agency I frequent even asks me to include my license plate # on the sign-in sheet.  When they let me in, it’s not clear what criteria I met or failed to meet.  Did I not look dangerous?  Did they assume I didn’t have a cute pink pearl-handled revolver in my big Coach bag (like I even know what a revolver is….although, happily, I do know what a Coach bag is).  So agencies are worried about security — after 9/11, everyone got intense about security so I always attributed it to that and shrugged, oh well.

A dear colleague of mine, Ramon Wagner, had a completely different approach.  He talked all the time about front porches and how agencies had to sit on their front porches (figuratively) to understand the world and their place in it.  He didn’t believe in locked doors and, to this day, Community Advocates, the agency he founded, is a walk-in place. Stop in any day and you will see dozens of people in the waiting room who just walked in looking for help.  This is more than just not having a locked door.  Community Advocates, probably without knowing it, was on the cutting edge of a new way of thinking about human services than can be summed up in the word welcoming.

For the past few months, I’ve been assisting the Community Services Branch of the Behavioral Health Division in its efforts to establish a Comprehensive Continuous Integrated System of Care.  Fundamentally, this is about integrated substance abuse and mental health treatment services but, to me, the overarching value in the approach is the concept of welcoming.  Drs. Minkoff and Cline, the primary consultants to Milwaukee County on this effort, explain this concept in an article “Developing Welcoming Systems for Individuals with Co-Occurring Disorders: The Role of the Comprehensive Continues Integrated System of Care Model,” found at http://www.kenminkoff.com/articles/dualdx2004-1-devwelcomingsys.pdf.

Welcoming is about not having a locked door to anything.  At least as I understand it so far, it means that a troubled person presenting him or herself for help is welcomed, helped and respected.  “You’re in the right place.  We’re glad to see you.”  That’s the message.  Even if a person ends up needing to go to another program with more expertise or somehow can’t qualify for what’s available on-site, the message remains – “it’s good that you’ve decided to seek help and we will help you find it.”  This isn’t just at the front door but throughout an organization.

When people are sick and down, when they feel they’ve lost everything and have no choice but to ask for help, they don’t need locked doors and stern looks.  They need ackknowledgement, a smile, and maybe a nice cup of coffee.  In short, they need to be welcomed.


Jan Wilberg Janice Wilberg

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