The last year has presented an incredibly steep learning curve. I wrote the following for my own use, to take stock as I transitioned into my current role as a program manager. Most of the ideas here I have gleaned from conversations in the field regarding harm reduction, person-centered planning, motivational interviewing, and the humanistic tradition within social services. My main contribution is to frame and contextualize these ideas in a way that makes sense to me, and it nicely (if abstractly) summarizes my experience working at a small, grassroots homelessness agency.
We provide Housing Support Services to individuals with needs so acute they qualify for subsidized, permanent, supportive housing. “Case Manager” is a misleading shorthand that – because it already has currency – helps us signal to other agencies and authorities what we are trying to do with the person we are serving. Sometimes the title can buy us some access, so it can be prudent to use it. But it is important for us to remember that we do not “manage cases.”
Similarly, “client” is a misleading shorthand we use when interacting with other systems and agencies. In our agency’s early days as emergency shelter, Emmet Jarret taught that we provide hospitality to guests, not clients. As workers on the Housing Support Team, we work with people in the community or transitioning out of the shelter, and we are more often their guests than they ours. So we talk about tenants in supportive housing, or participants in one or more of our programs.
We embrace the “housing first” model because it is just and because it works. People have a right to housing without preconditions. Moreover, it is very hard to predict who will succeed in housing, while it is demonstrably true that being homeless makes everything – from sobriety to employment – much harder. Housing first puts our priorities in the correct order and gives those we serve the most important tool for their recovery journey (recovery of sobriety, wellness, confidence, functioning, hope – whatever was lost). Every service we offer is voluntary and decoupled from housing as far as possible.
Those we serve have been dispossessed. Homelessness is one way of being dispossessed, though the losses run deeper and broader than homelessness alone. They include trauma, poverty, radical uncertainty, hopelessness, grief upon grief upon grief. Who could possibly be at their best under such conditions? Who could make choices at all, much less good or informed choices?
And yet: those we serve have many skills and strengths, which they use for better and worse.
We focus on skills and strengths rather than problems because the people we serve already know they have problems. They need no reminder on that front. But they may not have heard in a while that they have skills and strengths. Or maybe they have some skills they think of as faults (authority figures often cast skills as faults, as unruliness, manipulation, and non-compliance), and other skills they could improve through practice. Our perspective as staff may allow us to mark and highlight unknown or unrecognized skills and strengths.
Typically, dispossessed persons experience disaster and harsh judgment no matter what their intentions. Praise and congratulation are rare. The doctor doesn’t say, “nice job cutting back from a pack a day to just eight cigarettes.” He says, “jeez, can’t I get you to quit smoking?” The judge does not say, “I am glad you refrained from hitting that man and chose instead to threaten him verbally.” Social workers don’t say, “wow, you really hustled until I provided the service or referral you required.” But it is vital that we identify such choices as praiseworthy because it is hard to distinguish better from worse choices when consequences are massively disproportionate to actions, as they always are for the dispossessed. So we identify and support less harmful choices whenever possible. In the field, this approach is called “harm reduction,” and it is sometimes phrased this way: celebrate any positive change.
We have no special expertise about people’s lives. We have some knowledge about systems, processes, laws, and resources. But we are not experts about the lives of those we serve, however long we have known them or however we might start to think we know their “type.” Everyone is the expert about her own life. When we forget that, our service is compromised.
At the same time, many people have learned too well to get ahead by deferring to experts. It can be confusing – even terrifying – to hear from a service provider, “you are the expert. You choose your own goals.” We should expect a range of reactions from people when we recognize their power over their own lives. Like everything else, self-advocacy is a skill that will take practice.
Our particular skill as non-clinical social workers (or as peer support providers) is our willingness to spend significant periods of time alongside people who face enormous challenges meeting their basic needs. We ourselves do not diagnose, treat, fix, or control. We witness the experience of extreme distress, and we refer those we serve to opportunities to get some traction on the sources of that distress. That is the core of our work.