A Social Worker’s Perspective at HJP

 

Written By: Janice Cole

About Me:

I attend the University of Washington, where I am nearly halfway through my Master’s of Social Work program. I have been working in child welfare for over five years, and also worked for a year at a law firm in Seattle as a litigation assistant. UW’s MSW program requires students to be at a practicum site in both their foundation and their advanced years. When I was asked what type of placement I would like for my foundation year, I immediately asked to work with a population I had never been exposed to. My practicum coordinator placed me at the Housing Justice Project, where I have the pleasure of being the first MSW intern.

At HJP, I connect tenants to valuable housing resources and other community agencies, and I also engage in follow up with clients. The housing world is all new to me, and it has been a really fun challenge to learn about the eviction process, housing resources, and what barriers low income tenants face in King County.

Some Initial Impressions:

One of the areas I have grown especially passionate about through my previous work, and as a result of my coursework, is the disconnect that can often occur across agencies through a lack of collaboration and information sharing. It seems to me that client’s needs are rarely so straightforward that they can be met through one service. The increasingly diverse needs of clients reflects an increased need for agencies to partner together to best support the populations they serve. This is one reason I find the addition of an MSW student so fascinating for the Housing Justice Project, as it is a fantastic example of cross-discipline collaboration and a recognition of the increasingly complex reality of marginalized peoples. By combining two disciplines (law and social work), clients are being provided with more holistic support, which hopefully in turn leads to better client outcomes.

Unlike the HJP volunteer attorneys, who provide limited representation to clients, I meet with clients in a short-term case management capacity. This means that I am able to follow up with clients and track outcomes over the course of their journey. While I have only been in this position for a few months, I have already found some interesting trends in low-income housing barriers to our clients.

During our initial meeting, I always ask clients to share with me a little about how they got to where they are now. Interestingly, nearly every client has cited a health or mental health barrier as the catalyst to their current situation. Many of our clients were employed, housed, and stable until a significant health barrier appeared. This health barrier often led to a loss of employment, which caused the client to fall behind in rent, which led to the initiation of the eviction process. These clients lacked family and community support, and saw their lives spiral out of control.

In social work, as in most areas of my life, my mind immediately goes to solutions and preventions. This is challenging at HJP. What I’ve seen in the past few months is that although some clients could have managed money better, reached out for help sooner, or been more informed on their obligations as a tenant; many clients were victims of circumstance and of massive institutional barriers. It is difficult to argue that a massive heart attack or the onset of schizophrenic symptoms could have been prevented through typical efforts. Additionally, while there are many resources in King County available to low income families, the reality is that the demand far outweighs the supply. Most of the clients I meet with are very familiar with the Section 8 waitlist, the 211 referral process, and have already worked with DSHS many times. However, the resources they are referred to require consistent access to internet, consistent phone service, and the ability to call certain organizations repeatedly at specific times of the day, week, and month. For clients who are working, this is nearly impossible. For clients who are facing homelessness, it is often unlikely that they have consistent internet and phone access. It is also an emotionally draining endeavor, and for clients without a social support network, it can be exhausting and feel impossible. Looking at the way the system is set up, it is no wonder that finding stable housing is such a challenge for low income families.

Advice to Attorneys:

As a social worker, I am trained to emphasize a strengths-based approach to meeting with clients. This is especially important when working with clients at HJP, many of whom are embarrassed and ashamed because of their current situation. In times where everything in a client’s life feels out of their control, including home, health, and finances, it is so important to remind them of their strengths and what they are doing right. Often, this just means reminding them that asking for help is not a weakness or a character flaw. True bravery is seeking support in times of need, which is exactly what they are doing when they reach out to HJP. Reminding clients of this strength can be a great way to introduce some hope into their situation, and hopefully help to redirect their frame of mind away from devastation and toward taking action.


 

Janice Cole is a Master’s of Social Work candidate at the University of Washington. She is currently an intern with the Housing Justice Project, where she works to connect clients to valuable housing resources. Janice’s prior work experience has been largely concentrated in child welfare, where she is known as an advocate for foster care reform on the local and international level. She has also worked as a legal assistant at a firm here in Seattle.

 

 

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