Member Spotlight: Sheldon Jacobs

By Membership

What do you think of when you hear the word, “undercover”? We bet a licensed marriage and family therapist living as a homeless person in Las Vegas for 48 hours is not the first thing that comes to mind.

Well, that is exactly what AAMFT member Dr. Sheldon Jacobs sought out to do. Realizing how versatile the MFT profession is, Dr. Jacobs decided to use his unique skillset to experience homelessness from a different lens. After all, Sheldon is no stranger to wearing multiple hats.

As a young teen in California, he found himself becoming more entrenched with gangs and street culture, yet mustered up the wisdom to walk away. During this time, he witnessed his uncle struggle with securing a stable life and admired his grandmother’s outreach to the homeless community. It is safe to say that this display of generational empathy paved the path that led Dr. Sheldon Jacobs to his undercover journey as a homeless man. Here is a glimpse into his story.

Q. What inspired you to live as a homeless person for 48 hours?
A. “I felt this pull on my heart to do something radical for this population that would give them a voice because that is something they do not have.”

Q. What conversation or interaction impacted you most while homeless?
A. “I must give you two because I can’t separate them. The first was the significance of the $20 bill that someone gave me on my first night. A good Samaritan gave me the money after sitting down with me and having a conversation. Why this moment was significant was because I did not have a penny to my name, and I did not know how I was going to eat or keep myself hydrated. Second, was a lady who I came across that essentially was hiding from her abuser. She was on the streets in 100 degree plus weather with her infant baby and 3-year-old son. What struck me the most was this lady was still breastfeeding her baby despite her circumstances along with the surrounding environment. There were several other stories, but these two tugged at my heart the most.”

Q. What three emotions come to mind when you reflect on your experience?
A. “Anger, due to how cruel this population is treated and how I was treated during my experience. I was treated as if I were invisible or made to not exist and that was hard. Sadness, the emotional pain from being disregarded and stigmatized left an emotional scar. Fear, the constant worrying about my safety, where necessities would come from such as food, water and shelter.”

Q. What are some major takeaways you wish society could take away from your story?
A. “I would say that those experiencing homelessness are ‘everyday people’ like all of us. Just about all the individuals I encountered fell on hard times and did not have the resources or support to get out of their predicaments, so things just snowballed in a very bad way. Another key takeaway is that when we come across someone who is homeless, we often think that we must give something that is monetary and that is not always the case. In fact, simple acknowledgement goes a long way such as a hello, smile or wave. A simple greeting never meant so much for my mental health than when I experienced being homeless.”

Q. As an MFT, what can therapists do to better serve the homeless population?
A. “MFTs are best suited to serve the homeless population because of our ability to conceptualize presenting issues from a systemic lens. I also think that understanding trauma is imperative because simply spending one night on the streets is traumatic, let alone months or years.”

Q. What attracted you to the field of marriage and family therapy?
A. “I started my career working in a group home with adolescent boys who were in the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice systems. I noticed that the youth whose families participated in family therapy made better progress. While in graduate school, I realized how versatile the MFT degree was, which intrigued me because I always viewed myself as working in multiple areas.”

Q. How have you seen the practice of MFT change and evolve over the years?
A. “I feel like more entities such as insurances along with various legislative bodies have a better understanding of the scope of the MFT, and with continued lobbying and advocacy, broader awareness, and understanding, I am hopeful that we will continue to knock down the remaining barriers that limit the access we should have to various populations.”

Q. What has been your favorite part of AAMFT membership? The most useful?
A. “My favorite part of AAMFT membership will always be the myriad of ways to network. Whether it be the national AAMFT conference, or the various symposiums, fellowships and trainings that are offered, there is such a diversity in ways to connect with other MFTs worldwide. Secondly, the magazine is great because it provides a glimpse into how the field is evolving and it is also great to see what other remarkable things my fellow colleagues are doing in the field.”

To learn more about his experience, Dr. Jacobs has written a memoir titled, 48: An Experiential Memoir on Homelessness. Additionally, Dr. Jacobs is starting an immersive program where community leaders and professionals would be required to spend 48 hours with different populations.

Spotlight: A Member’s Journey is a new feature that showcases AAMFT members and their unique stories that shape them as people and as therapists. This profile appeared in the December 18, 2020 edition of AAMFT’s Family Therap-eNews. 

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