Social workers help tackle homelessness

homless man sleeping roughWhen Georgia Van Cooten walked into New York City’s Penn Station to participate in the homeless count this year, her thoughts went to two people.

A second-year master’s in social work student at Touro College in New York City, Van Cooten also had taken part in the 2015 count. Back then, she talked with a couple resting in a stairwell who had come to New York from Florida for a fresh start.

“They got engaged and had a friend here who was going to help with a place to stay and jobs,” Van Cooten said. “The plan fell through, and they were left at Penn Station.”

The two were offered a place to stay but declined, she said. Since they were not married, they could not stay together in a shelter, and they did not want to be split up.

Georgia Van Cooten“All they had was each other,” Van Cooten said. “I could see on their faces how hurt they were, see the frustration. I wish we could do more, but we had to walk away. It was difficult to just walk away. This year I looked for their faces. I didn’t see them, but they were on my mind this time around.”

Homelessness is one of the main challenges social workers are tackling by using programs and resources that address issues like addiction, substance abuse, mental illness or joblessness. Homelessness affects a wide range of people, including veterans, families, single adults or young couples, LGBT youth and teen runaways.

Every year since the federal homeless count began in 2008, volunteers like Van Cooten have hit the streets across the United States to help the government get a better picture of the nation’s homeless population.

Tracking the number of homeless people is the starting point in measuring gains, and progress in reducing those numbers is being made, according to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report made to Congress in November.

The report states that since 2010, homelessness decreased overall by 11 percent, and there was a 26 percent drop in the unsheltered homeless population. Veteran homelessness declined by 36 percent, family homelessness was down 19 percent and chronic homelessness dropped 22 percent.

The 2015 count tallied an estimated 564,708 homeless people, which included about 36,097 unaccompanied homeless youths and children.

HUD spokesman Brian E. Sullivan said more than 3,000 U.S. cities and counties take part in the count every year, and “tens of thousands” of volunteers do the groundwork.

“New York planned to have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds (of volunteers),” he said. “It’s the only measure of how many people are out there on our streets. It’s the human touch.”

Tina AtherallTina Atherall, LMSW, is a member of NASW’s New York State chapter and director of MSW recruitment, outreach and enrollment management at Touro College Graduate School of Social Work. Faculty members there have been part of the count since its first year, and 10 to 15 students typically participate, she said.

“It’s great for students,” Atherall said. “They’re getting outside their comfort zone. It’s a learning experience.”

The college group works Penn Station every year.

“In the area in which we surveyed, there were not families,” Atherall said. “The LGBT community was not there.”

But they heard a different story from teams and agencies working in different locations, she said.

“They said there were a growing number of youths in other areas,” Atherall said. “The number of young adult couples was on the rise. The numbers within the outlying Penn Station area had significantly increased from the previous year.”

HUD’s Sullivan said social workers are core to connecting to these persons and families, and that can go a long way toward ending that person or family’s homelessness.

“(Social workers) can be absolutely instrumental in getting these persons and these families to the right intervention, and they can answer the questions that drive policies that can end homelessness,” he said. “It takes a social worker to sit down in that human way and figure out what’s going on here.”

A closer look at the different groups included in the annual homeless count shows some of the problems and challenges are similar.


The homeless report shows reducing the number of homeless veterans is the area with the greatest success. HUD attributes the progress to “significant investments” made by Congress and the HUD-Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing program, or VASH. Since 2008, VASH has served more than 101,000 veterans and awarded nearly 80,000 rental vouchers, HUD stated in a November press release.

Lisa PapeLisa Pape, LISW, an NASW member and National Director of Homeless Programs for the Veterans Health Administration within the Department of Veterans Affairs, said getting the right resources “is always a battle.”

“Federal money allows us to provide the programs that we do,” she said. “What that tells us is that homelessness is a solvable issue, and agencies, philanthropies and businesses can make a difference — and actually make history.”

Pape said 21 communities, including New Orleans, Houston, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Montgomery County, Md.; the state of Connecticut; and the Commonwealth of Virginia have actually ended veteran homelessness.

Because the VA is such a large health care system that operates in all 50 states, it is able to offer a continuum of services aligned to veterans that “allow them to put their lives back together,” she said.

While the VASH program has helped thousands find permanent housing, the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program “has really been a game-changer for veterans,” Pape said.

“The big kicker for this is, this program by law provides grants to nonprofit agencies” which, in turn, provide additional supportive services to veterans’ families, she said.

Those can include health care, daily living services, personal financial planning and legal services, and child care, as well as outreach, case management and assistance with obtaining VA resources and other benefits, according to the VA website.

“It’s really poverty and lack of affordable housing that contribute to homelessness for any population, not just veterans,” Pape said. “When a minimum wage job doesn’t pay the rent, and there are other issues like a history of mental health or health issues, that impacts an individual’s ability to live.”

“A past history of incarceration, a difficult childhood or substance abuse can also be factors, but it’s mostly about poverty and the lack of affordable housing.”

Case managers at the VA have 78,000 active vouchers through the VASH program, she said.

“We started with three-to-five thousand,” Pape said. “It’s a great program that started with housing first. It’s a social service wrap-around — our shining star. We’ve heard time after time from veterans that they couldn’t even think about treatment until they had a place to lay their heads.”

The VA’s 152 medical centers nationwide all have homeless programs, and the main focus is about case management and working with veterans to get the social services that they need as they transition out of homelessness, she said.

“It’s the whole gamut of care,” Pape said. “It’s counseling, helping them find housing, helping find things they need to move in — it’s all of that. And that’s why social workers are perfect for this: they have such a wide gamut of skills.”

The VA employs more than 11,000 social workers within its system, according to its website.

Single Adults

The D.C. Coalition for the Homeless primarily serves two homeless populations: single men and families with children, Executive Director Michael L. Ferrell said.

Substance abuse — drugs and alcohol — is the most common problem shared by homeless men, and mental health issues also are common. But economic issues factor in too, he said.

“Economic issues related to unemployment and underemployment are a factor for the homeless in general,” Ferrell said.

In finding solutions, the roughly 20 social workers on staff first assess the problems of that one person, he said.

“First and foremost, the services that are provided should be tailored to the individual’s problems or issues they’re presenting,” Ferrell said. “It’s not a cookie-cutter approach. It should be individualized.”

About 60 percent of the homeless men the agency serves have substance abuse problems, so abstinence programs are used, he said.

“They look at the employment needs of individuals to help the individual to re-enter the workforce,” Ferrell said.

That may call for work training or programs that increase skills. And the person’s mental health must be assessed and appropriate treatment provided if necessary.

“Sometimes they have all three problems, so it’s complex and challenging,” Ferrell said.


Updated June 2017

Homeless single adults can get linked to core services for housing (transitional and permanent), health care, mental health, and family services. The resource references for those services are:




“With families, you see fewer instances of substance abuse and mental health problems,” Ferrell said. “You do see a higher incidence of domestic violence, either in the history of the individual or it being a direct cause of homelessness at this time.”

The lack of employment is another common issue, and it is a “critical issue,” he said.

“In D.C., approximately 80 percent of families who become homeless are on public assistance,” Ferrell said. “The majority are 18 to 25 years old, and most have never been a lease-holder. By and large, the young adults who have children are not in a position to take care of themselves.”

Many do not have high school diplomas, so there is an educational or skills deficit that they have to overcome, he said.

“We have been successful in helping these individuals move into permanent housing and acquire employment,” Ferrell said. “Those are our primary goals.”

The coalition is a direct service provider that helps about 850 men, women and children annually. The total number of homeless they serve has been pretty steady, he said.

“If you look at the District of Columbia as a whole, what you see is a slight decline in the number of homeless individuals in the system,” Ferrell said.

“Unfortunately, that is offset by the number of families we’ve seen in the system.”

Homelessness is a byproduct of poverty, he said.

“In this country, we haven’t resolved the issues of poverty and the lack of affordable housing,” Ferrell said. “Those are the drivers of homelessness across the country. Most people who are homeless come from a low social and economic background. Does it happen to college graduates? Yes. So they fall into that social and economic disadvantagement and lack sustainable employment and affordable housing.”

Young Couples, Teen Runaways, LGBT Youth

Touro’s Atherall said during the homeless survey her group listened to young couples’ stories. Whether their problems were difficulty with their family relationships or substance abuse, they had left their homes for New York City.

“It can be more difficult for them to be homeless,” she said. “Social workers will work from the lens of seeing the entire person, then work with what our resources are. In New York City, we are engaged in the community, engaged with the resources, and we can refer them to those resources.”

And if the resource is not there, “social workers are really good if the resources don’t match the needs,” Atherall said. “They’ll go out and lobby to get those needs (met).”

In its 2015 report, HUD stated its data on homeless youth “is a work in progress because communities are still learning how to collect this data accurately.”

Megan Hustings, director at the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., said the number of homeless youths is difficult to track because they tend to stay in the shadows.

“The number of these homeless youths is probably increasing, but there is not good data,” she said. “The population is hard to find.”

Homelessness is a huge issue for youth, especially those identifying as LGBT. Even young adults up to 24 or 25 years old have trouble finding shelter, Hustings said.

“Then, there’s the issue of discrimination, which often is an issue,” she said.

Hustings said there is “really a dearth of services for youths on their own,” and the cost of housing coupled with the low wages of jobs that are available is “just making their situation more difficult.”

Ending homelessness does not mean there will never be someone who will fall into it, Sullivan said.

“It’s creating a system where homelessness is rare, brief and nonrecurring,” he said. “That’s what it means to end homelessness.”

Until that comes about, the annual count of homeless will continue.

Van Cooten hopes more people — especially social work students — will take part in future homeless counts, because the experience helps you pick up skills like empathy and compassion.

“You hear the individual’s story, and you realize this could happen to anybody,” she said. “This is a scary time. A lot of people are one paycheck away from losing everything. It’s one thing to learn about social problems in the classroom. It’s another to look it in the face. That brings it to life.”

“I have a new appreciation for things I have in my life; basic things we take for granted like a place to lay our heads, a lock on the door, food in the refrigerator. A lot of people take these things for granted.”

That’s why, Van Cooten said, it’s important for more social workers to advocate for changes within the social structure.

“A solid foundation is necessary for our society,” she said, “so people don’t have to ask for help.”

Ending homelessness is one of the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work.

During Ending homelessness is one of the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work.

During the course of a year, nearly 1.5 million Americans will experience homelessness for at least one night.

The challenge is to expand proven approaches that have worked in communities across the country, develop new service innovations and technologies, and adopt policies that promote affordable housing and basic income security.

The Grand Challenges initiative was launched in January at the Society for Social Work and Research conference in Washington, D.C. The initiative launched with the hashtag #Up4theChallenge.

A comprehensive overview of the effort and more information is available at: