I even think a lot about the clients who I’ve had to say farewell to even when I was a social worker there. I had worked in a supportive housing program for a little over 3 years and in that time few of the tenants were evicted or moved out, or passed away. From time to time I can picture their faces, and I can’t help but wonder about them.
I’m settling into my new job slowly but surely. I’m now a client care coordinator (what a fancy weird way to say social worker o.0) at a shelter for families with children. The work is in a similar field, but I can already see it’s very, very different.
Social work in supportive housing, especially a start-up site like the one I worked in, is all kinds of complicated and frustrating a lot of times, but I really do think it was the type of work that really reflects social work values. I as a social worker didn’t mandate or coerce the tenants to do anything. I developed a rapport and a therapeutic relationship with them, helping them develop their own goals and doing my best encouraging them to strive towards and achieve those goals. My services were free to them as long as they maintained their housing at the program so I didn’t bill their Medicaid or insurance of any sort. Usually for five days a week 7 hours a day, I was available to answer their phone calls or meet them in my office or in their apartments or wherever appropriate to offer them support and care. When they got sick and were hospitalized, I followed up with their family and emergency contacts, and visited them at the hospital. I communicated with their doctors and hospital staff to coordinate for their discharge and aftercare plan. When they had entitlement issues I accompanied them to welfare offices and advocated for them. They asked me to go to court with them when they had housing issues or were experiencing legal issues. Like this I was their social worker for 3 years.
Saying bye to this job, to the tenants I’ve come to meet, was like the emotionally hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
A colleague who – like me no longer works there – told me, “you know, I thought you’d work there forever cause I thought you’d end up to be the program director there or something.” At one point I had also considered such long-term future possible, but I have come to learn, even when doing a job I love doing, it’s not enough when the work environment and culture is too difficult to stay in.
About 45 days before I resigned I informed some tenants on my caseload that I had begun applying for different jobs. Their reactions were telling, because no one I told at that time sounded upset at me. One said something like, “That’s great, cause you deserve better than working here, David.” On the one hand I was a bit alarmed that this was apparent even to the clients, but on the other hand that made me a bit relieved, and I was emboldened to pursue my exit from this site.
Not that I applied to many places but all the places I applied to didn’t get anywhere. I was interviewed by a different supportive housing program, and this other site seemed like a really great place to work in, great enough that I was willing to accept the decrease in my salary to work there. But they didn’t contact me back until two months later, and by that point I was already a couple of weeks into my current job.
The way I got hired to my current workplace is a fascinating happenstance. I was at an offsite training about practical counseling skills. I ended up being late to the training but otherwise I was attentive and participated as I normally do. After the training ended I got into some small chat with someone sitting next to me, and from another table someone approached me and asked if I was looking to work somewhere else. I answered, “Actually, yeah, I have started to apply to work in a different place.” I explained I still loved doing social work, but didn’t want to work at my current place anymore. He said okay and asked me to email him my resume’. From there things happened really quickly. He set me up for an interview two days after he got my resume’ and on the day of the interview, I met with almost all the staff on the site, talked with the executive director of the site who after some point said I’m hired for the position if I were to accept it and if the person who reached out to me – now my supervisor – was okay with it.
It had happened so quickly. A coworker who had been encouraging me to pursue social work elsewhere playfully but also mot so playfully expressed dissatisfaction and annoyance because this person expected to quit before me. So did I honestly. I’m usually very bad at the whole job search process so I had been thinking it would take me months and months to get a job somewhere else.
The hard part of course was what’s called the “termination phase” with the tenants on my caseload. Except for two people (out of 22), I was able to give them a two-week notice, and met with all of them at least twice. For the most part the final sessions were really positive and heartfelt. We wished the best for each other and reflected on the challenges encountered and the progress made in the past three years or so.
It wasn’t all smooth though. One person broke down crying, and said, “you’re abandoning me. All the good people in my life, they abandon me.” We ended up meeting about four times before my last day, and got to reflect on a lot, but yeesh, moments like these made me wonder if quitting a job in another field is as emotionally challenging as it is in social work, especially at a supportive housing program.
I do also feel in a way that I did abandon the people there. There’s a good amount of guilt I carry about that so I still think about the people there from time to time. When an ACT Team (Assertive Community Treatment Team) came by to visit a tenant, I informed them I had submitted my resignation letter and will be quitting in two weeks, the ACT Team psychiatrist said, “don’t say quitting; say you’re resigning. That’s more professional.”
Well, perhaps it’s the more professional way to say it, but to me it definitely feels much more accurate to say I quit. Considering that a number of the tenants in that program were in the middle of serious situations, in a way I did like quit and abandon ship and swam to a different boat. I can say that I tried to make my farewells and terminations ethically as I could but nonetheless the truth is that I quit.
A little before my final week there, two tenants on my caseload ended up being psychiatrically hospitalized. One person is diagnosed with schizophrenia and has a history of being psychiatrically hospitalized so this wasn’t a shocking surprise but while she was hospitalized a city marshal came to the site and served a court summons and respond to the notice to commence eviction proceedings for non-payment. I visited the hospital and was able to meet for one last time but I still feel rather bad about it because when we met the person exhibited many delusions about how someone had tattooed the word spelled “ASMA” on their neck and back. Of course there was no such mark visible on their neck or back. Still we came to agreement that complying with treatment plan would be beneficial in the long run and we wished each other the best in our futures.
Almost 2 years ago that same person had been evicted. Somehow I was fortunate in my efforts to help that person to restore possession of their apartment unit. The city agency HRA (NYC Human Resources Administration) ended up issuing an emergency grant to allow for this and I had to make many offsite visits to the homeless shelters they ended in and to housing court so that the HRA grant checks could be accepted by the landlord. It was one of the most challenging things I dealt with in my work there, and I’m now left to think about how this person probably has ended up being evicted again.
Most likely even if I continued to work there, that person still probably would have been evicted again. But raw feelings wise, I can’t feel completely comfortable that I abandoned the case.
There were a few other cases that I think would have benefited if I continued to follow up and be involved. I remember a tenant who had a pending criminal court case and he was next scheduled to appear at court in August. My last day there was in mid-June so of course I couldn’t accompany the tenant to that court date.
That is the reality of social work when moving onto a different workplace. For the past three years I was a part of these tenants’ support system as I worked there. I had become aware of their challenges and their situations, almost as if I had become their step-parents, at times being involved to assist and advocate for them, but mostly being by their side as they tried things on their own, and trying to encourage and motivate them. I had to believe in their strengths but I also worried for them.
This is essentially about how to maintain appropriate boundaries in social work. What is appropriate? That has been very challenging for me to resolve neatly in this work. I really got attached to the work and to the tenants. Oftentimes I have this urge to call my former clients or visit them. I keep questioning why it is that quitting this job means I have to cut contact completely from the people I had become so accustomed to meeting at least once a week.
Of course, at the end of the day I get the reasoning behind it. We don’t get in to social work to make friends, and the boundaries are important to keep so that we don’t burn out and so that the power dynamic between worker and client remains ethical and professional.
If there’s one thing I deeply regret, it’s that I don’t think I did a good job of preparing my coworkers to deal with the cases I left behind. I hand’t made the time to meet separately with the social workers who’d be covering the cases and explain to them in detail what was going on each of the cases in my caseload. My focus instead had been too much on closure: having farewell sessions with tenants, fulfilling all documentation requirements and updating service plans and assessments so remaining social workers wouldn’t have to worry about them for the next six months or so, and meeting with coworkers privately to share cards I wrote for them and exchanging farewells. Termination involves a lot of work, and though I did leave some pertinent notes for social workers in the client chart folders, I didn’t really do much more than that. I didn’t get to explain about my cases and I didn’t get to write like a helpful synopsis and recommendations about each case as I had wanted to.
Add to that, I don’t think 2 weeks is enough time for proper ethical closure. There’s a good amount of should-have-could-have I’m mulling over, but then again, I’m only human too. I had become so stressed and desperate working there, that 2 weeks of trying to provide closure was really all I had emotional and mental energy for.
All I can do is keep hope that the work I did the past 3 years was enough. I have to move on now and as I think back on my previous caseload, I thank them for the oppressor to have gotten to know them, and I truly wish them the best.