by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When and where did you earn your Masters of Social Work, what was your favorite course, and why was it your favorite?
Rachel: I graduated from George Mason University in 2013 with a Masters of Social Work, with a concentration in Social Change. One of my favorite classes was Influencing Social Policy. During this class we learned about the effects that government policies can have daily lives of our client. Social workers have an ethical duty to advocate for their clients and for policies that impact them. We put this knowledge to work in directly advocating for changes in laws. One of the many benefits of living in the D.C. area is the ability to interact directly with Congressional law makers. My group advocated for changes in Medicaid to allow children to receive in-home mental health services. Others in my class were involved in early advocacy for The DREAM Act.
Gordon: Please share with our readers an overview of your work as a volunteer at AmeriCorps.
Rachel: I worked for about a year in South East D.C. at an adult education center helping individuals to study for the GED test.
Gordon: What did you enjoy most as an Education Instructor at Catholic Charities? Rachel: I was an instructor for men residing at a homeless shelter. The majority of my students were either in a residential drug treatment program or a vocational program. I helped the residents study for their GED and a test to get into a pre-apprenticeship program in carpentry and plumbing. I really enjoyed that job because I could get to know the men personally and see how my work was directly helping the men improve their situation.
Gordon: What were your primary responsibilities as Educational Director at Living Wages?
Rachel: I initially worked at Living Wages as an Americorps member. After my year of service, I was hired on to run the GED program. I wrote grants and participated in audits. I supervised other staff and volunteers who helped the students complete their high school education. One thing I'm most proud of is the partnership I created with a local university that included a special scholarship for D.C. residents who completed their GED. This allowed the students to have a clear path to continue their education and increase their employment skills.
Gordon: What is one of your favorite memories when you served as GED Instructor at Arch Training Center?
Rachel: At the beginning of the school year, we asked all the students to go around and state something they had done in the last year that they were proud of. A young man named Anthony stated, with tears in his eyes, that he was proud that he had reached his 18th birthday. There was so much drug use and gang violence in his neighborhood that he didn't think he would live that long. He later went on the pass his GED exam.
Gordon: Why did you become a Homeless Families Case Management Intern at Northern Virginia Family Service?
Rachel: My internship at Northern Virginia Family Service was part of my social work program. I have had interactions with individuals experiencing homelessness over the years that convinced me to focus on homeless during my MSW program. I was lucky enough to be assigned to an internship at a shelter for families and individuals.
Gordon: What were some of the challenges that you had to address as a Social Work Intern at Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services?
Rachel: My internship with the Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services was in the foster care division. I was working on a research project that focused on involving extended family in the plans to address reports of neglect and abuse.
I tracked whether social workers were able to avoid placing a child in foster care if the extended family members were involved in the child's care plan. Ultimately, the goal was to address neglect and abuse without creating further trauma for children by removing them from their families and having them living with strangers.
Gordon: What were some of the causes of homelessness when you served as an Intern at the National Alliance to End Homelessness
Rachel: The main cause of homelessness, as we have seen nationwide, is lack of affordable housing. A single parent working a minimum wage job is unable to afford a two bedroom, market-rate apartment anywhere in the U.S. A disabled person receiving social security disability benefits can't afford an market-rate apartment.
Individuals with disabilities, mental illness or substance use disorders need permanent, subsidized housing that includes wrap-around services to ensure housing stability.
Individuals at the edges of society slip into homelessness due to low income and lack of social and family supports. Wages have not kept up with the cost of living, and all around prices in the rental market continue to increase.
Gordon: What were your primary responsibilities when you were a Mental Health Companion at Help in the home?
Rachel: I supported individuals with serious mental illnesses more independently go about their daily lives. I helped clients with depression clean their houses and clients with anxiety navigate the crowds at the grocery store. I made sure they were taking their medication and I accompanied them to doctor's appointments.
Gordon: What did you enjoy most when you served as Community Case Manager at Northern Virginia Family Service?
Rachel: I really enjoyed working with families. It was heart-warming to see how excited the children would get when they learned they would be moving out of the shelter. I visited clients in their homes after they moved out of the shelter, and it was so encouraging to see how having a stable place to live would give them the opportunity to make some big changes in their lives.
Gordon: What were some of the challenges that you had to address as Project Coordinator at Friendship Place?
Rachel: As Project Coordinator at Friendship Place, I oversaw the Virginia location of the Friendship Place Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF). I supervised case managers who were tasked with helping homeless veterans find and maintain permanent housing.
The main challenges in this work revolved around affordable housing, credit issues, and income. We relied greatly on private landlords who were willing to rent to low income veterans with a history of evictions. In the D.C. area, to be considered low-income, an individual can make up to $49,850. These veterans and other lower wage individuals are competing with government contractors and highly paid corporate staff for safe, affordable, and quality housing.
Gordon: What are your primary responsibilities as Case Manager at Volunteers of America Chesapeake & Carolinas?
Rachel: I am currently a case manager for the SSVF program at Volunteers of America. I assist homeless veterans in finding and maintaining permanent housing. We assist with rent, security deposits, car repairs, household items and many other services. I also work with the local VA medical centers to connect disabled veterans to permanent housing vouchers and ongoing case management.
Gordon: What are some of the major factors that result in homelessness in the United States?
Rachel: There are specific factors that contribute to homelessness in the U.S. For starters, there's no right to shelter. Certain cities, such as New York City and D.C. guarantee shelter for families.
However, in our society, street homelessness is seen as inevitable and an intractable problem. Our society shows a tacit acceptance of people sleeping in the streets and in cars. If we saw homelessness as unacceptable, we would be more willing to support government programs that help those in need.
In addition, our society believes that assistance should go to those who are worthy of help, not those who are most vulnerable, such as the poor or less educated, or those with mental illness or addition issues.
There are also very few laws that limit how quickly rents can be raised. As we have seen recently as a result of inflation, the rental market can increase the cost of housing by as much as 40% over the course of a few weeks or months. This is devastating to those who are barely making ends meet. It is partly an issue of supply, as there was a slow down in the building of rental units during the Great Recession and housing crash.
However, apartment complexes and landlords are increasing rents across the country to match what other companies are charging.
Gordon: What are some of the actions that states could take to reduce homelessness in the United States?
Rachel: While many states have used funds from the American Rescue Plan and the CARES Act to pay for things such as rental arrears and additional housing vouchers, there are strategies that can be enacted that don't require money from Congress.
One strategy is Inclusionary Zoning, which requires housing developers to set aside a certain percentage of new apartments for affordable housing. Additionally, state legislatures can enact landlord-tenant laws that are more tenant friendly.
For example, outlawing discrimination against people who are paying their rent with a voucher, or providing more legal representation for tenants facing eviction.
Gordon: Thank you for a fascinating and inspirational interview.