working in supportive housing, and how it has felt to me so far
Well, so much for my goal of writing a blog on here at least once a week. I can’t even remember the last time I wrote on here. But anyway, this is a topic I’d been meaning to write for a while, having now been a social worker at a supportive housing site for a little over 2 years now. This post has been a floating idea for quite some time, and I’m sure this post is the first part of many on this topic.
In a way, to me, that’s what progress at a supportive housing site has been like – slow and delayed. The ideas of what needs to be done feel so clear and tangible, but actually getting to see them come to fruition is a process that’s so slow and convoluted that by the time they happen, my coworkers that originally suggested those ideas have already moved onto different jobs. By this point, I’ve come to conclude that to experience the triumphs and joys of supportive housing, one has to play the long game, and develop the patience of a pine tree, trying to stay green all year, but having to overcome a long winter period of being dead and brown in order to do so.
Well, that’s how it’s felt for me at this particular supportive housing site. Since this has been my first and only job since attaining my MSW, I can’t speak for how feels like in other supportive housing sites, and I also can’t speak for how others feel at this particular supportive housing site.
A recent example of this is a tenant on my caseload who has been needing to undergo cancer treatment for over 3 years and the tenant has finally decided to do so about 2 months ago. The treatment is rough on the tenant and it breaks my heart as I witness how rough it is for the person, but my emotions are quite complex, having been a part of a support system for this tenant for over two years and seeing actual change start to happen just recently. I’m not sure if I can definitely state that the patience pays off – and I would think some of my former coworkers might say in many instances that it hasn’t for them – but it does make it really difficult for me to imagine being somewhere else or doing something else with my social work degree.
An overbearing sense of permanence is pretty unique to work at supportive housing. The people that social workers provide services to are tenants most of whom can and will renew their leases indefinitely. This makes for an environment in which the faces of the staff are constantly changing – when an occupational therapist student completes their internship, when a staff nurse retires, when a resident aide gets fired, when a resident aide gets promoted to a different position at a different site, when a social worker moves on with their career to a different position – but majority of the tenants in this community remain as tenants in this community.
Most of my social work education and training were not geared towards this kind of work. To other fields of social a caseload of clients is an ever-changing set of service plan goals and performance measures. A social worker in a homeless shelter has the ultimate objective of getting as many of their clients find housing and no longer be on that worker’s caseload. A social worker in a hospital has the ultimate objective of making sure the patients on their caseload are undergoing appropriate treatment and complying with their treatment plan so they can ultimately be discharged and return safely and healthily back to the community. A social work in a school has the objective of counseling students so they can graduate their class successfully. In almost all other fields of social work, some ultimate objective is the one constant thing that remains largely unchanged.
In supportive housing, there is only one real ultimate objective – to prevent the tenants from becoming homeless again, at least in theory. In practice, the ultimate objective wildly varies depending on the tenant, ranging from providing mental health counseling once a week to guiding them to leave an abusive relationship to ensuring they pay their monthly bills on time. The objectives will always be changing, and a lot of the times, as I said in the beginning of this post, it will take a really really really long time to actually see those objectives being achieved. Some objectives will likely never be achieved, as I think about tenants on my caseload who passed away. So in essence, I’d like to say that supportive housing social work is less about attaining service plan goals and objectives, but more entirely about fostering supportive relationships with the community. Because, for the most part, the community does not change.
This sense of permanence I think is the root cause of almost all my thoughts and feelings about working at a supportive housing site. On the one hand, it is absolutely limiting that the best I do at my work impacts a small caseload of about 20 people, and if I contribute towards the whole site, the impact is always limited to the same 120 households. It also can be quite challenging to remain energetic about a goal or an idea when the process of change happens so incrementally. Seeing the building’s community lounge get a cabinet to store board games, video games and the like should have made me feel so excited, but honestly a lot of my excitement was forced, because in the back of my mind was the knowledge that the push for developing and improving the community lounge for recreational and therapeutic purposes was something I had pitched over 8 months ago. My dad taught me to be self-critical and reflective everyday, so that every night I ask myself, what good did I accomplish today? and what could I have done better? This mindset is not necessarily conductive to social work at supportive housing because if I focus on a single day, it can be hard to ascertain the value of my efforts.
Still, all that said, I want to make this clear – I absolutely love my job, so much so that I’m often worried that I’m becoming too complacent and comfortable with my current lot in life.
Again, it’s the sense of overbearing permanency that makes me feel this way. Also, I should remind you that what truly inspired me to get into social work was when I read about the settlement house movement. I work under this romanticized notion about practicing empathy and compassion as a social worker, that it’s done by working where the people live, really witnessing how they live, and being part of their support system as they live out their lives. Social work in a settlement house back in the days wasn’t about talk therapy, medication follow-up, discharge planning, group therapy, or case conferences… It wasn’t focused on any of that. No, it was about being a part of a local community, actually living with them, having celebrations and parties with them, engaging them in political discussions and advocating fiercely for them and with them, and being there with them when they experience pain and hardships in their lives.
I consider myself still a novice social worker, but I do think that my 9 years of doing non-profit work, even as an intern or as a volunteer, do count somewhat as I reflect on how it’s felt like to me to work at a supportive housing site. I’ve done work in a homeless shelter, in a high school, in a church, in a hospital, in a non-profit law firm, on the streets as a political canvasser, and even in a settlement house. Though I had the privilege of getting work opportunities that I immensely enjoyed, in all those experiences I listed above, I have never actually felt like I was doing the work I had originally been so inspired by which was idealized and practiced by the likes of Jane Addams.
Then there’s supportive housing. There are many times in which the work I do here really does resemble the work I had originally been inspired to do.
Very recently, a colleague contacted me and convinced me to interview for a supervisor position at The Jewish Board. In my cover letter for the job I had wrote that I felt ready to take the next step, and funnily enough the first question I got at the interview was, “Why do you feel ready now to become a supervisor here?” I really fumbled trying to answer that question. In hindsight, I think the issue was that my cover letter was a lie. I did not feel ready. I don’t feel ready. It’s not easy to describe the attachment I have come to develop with this work. In my answer I explained why the supportive housing program was no longer operating like a startup and thus no longer needed me as much, and how the tenants there have made progress and so I could wish them farewells without regrets. But of course that can’t explain why I would feel ready. That’s just giving reasons for how the site and the tenants would feel ready for me to move on.
When my colleague scouted me for the position, the first question on my mind wasn’t about how much of an increase in my salary that would be or how much of a boost to my career that would be, but it was, “well, what about this community of tenants I’ve come to know for over 2 years?”
It’s probably not a very healthy feeling to have professionally. It’s a powerful feeling though, even more so because I know that there’s still much potential left for the tenants here to fulfill. Most of the tenants on my caseload, after 2 years, have just barely begun to make some tiny progress towards their life goals and objectives. Just barely begun! I also know that many tenants outside of my caseload have just barely begun as well. 2 years here has felt like a such a loooong painstakingly long time, but at the same time it feels like I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of all that I want to accomplish at this site.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m a step-parent to the tenants on my caseload, as they’ve remained on my caseload for years. By this point, if you ask me about a tenant, I can tell you what their favorite foods are, what kind of TV shows they’re into, what they do with their money if they were able to save some extra cash this month… They’re people I’ve come to meet and engage with because that’s a requirement of the job, but as a result, I’ve formed relationships with them that’s been built over weeks and months and years of meeting with them on a regular basis.
The thing that’s least permanent in this work though is the staff. So many faces have changed. 2 years in, and the administrative assistant and I are the most senior staff at this site. All other positions at this site are different people compared to 2 years ago. For me personally, that’s one of the toughest things to have to get used to. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with such kind-hearted and inspiring staff members. I of course do understand that it really is challenging to genuinely enjoy this type of work, and for not that much pay and little opportunities for professional advancement within the site. I wish them well as they move on and find opportunities more fitting for them, but it really does sadden me. It feels like a divorce almost every time it happens. I train myself to not get too attached to my coworkers because my experience tells me it’s only a matter of time (about a year or so) before it’s their time to go.
It’s probably only a matter of time before I go myself. It is both a joy and a real challenge working with a community that’s pretty much permanent. When there’s an intense crisis and things are not going well, this is extremely anxiety-provoking. If a client is being unruly and not following the rule in a shelter, they can easily be discharged from the program and transferred elsewhere. In supportive housing, clients are tenants and tenants are entitled a complex set of housing rights. The program is essentially stuck with having to really work with challenging and difficult tenants. Sometimes that makes the work environment feel very unsafe and chaotic. The program can’t really mandate tenants to do anything so engagement and outreach can often feel like catering to the whims and demands of the tenants. I’ve witnessed this type of work environment be too challenging and frustrating for a social worker, probably for many social workers, cause I’ve yet to come across someone who enjoys this work as much as I do.
That makes the work feel lonely at times too. We all operate knowing in the back of our minds that we’ll all eventually move onto something else. Why we do that, I can’t explain or figure out exactly, but I can’t deny that we simply do this. We each carry the burden of our caseloads by ourselves and even as we consult with each other, hang out with each other, and work jointly on things, at the end of the day we are each responsible to our assigned caseloads. As the faces of the staff changes, the identity of the agency as a whole slowly evolves too, and as I remain long enough to witness these changes, it feels lonely. But maybe that’s my personality thing, and not necessarily something that happens with working at supportive housing site.
Well, I feel glad and relieved I put down these feelings via this post. This being my social work memoir and all, I’ll definitely have more to write in regards to the work I do at a supportive housing site. Hopefully this is a good initial insight into what supportive housing social work can entail.