Skip to main content

MSW students help to house the homeless

UNC School of Social Work students are learning first hand about the challenges of housing the acute homeless, those who are often the toughest to help because of multiple struggles with mental illness, substance abuse, and unemployment.

First-year students Dustin Rawlings and Kayla Bryant, and final year student Annie Peacock, are among those who gained field experience in working with the homeless thanks to internships this year with the UNC Critical Time Intervention Project (CTI). CTI—a collaborative effort between the School of Social Work and the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health—was designed to provide intensive case management to individuals with mental illness who are going through critical transitions, including from homelessness to being housed, and from institutional to community settings.

Clinical Assistant Professor Bebe Smith, who directs the project along with co-director and Assistant Professor Gary Cuddeback, said involving students in the work is vital for generating solutions to homelessness.

“I think the students bring in new ideas and have the time to think about things that practitioners on the ground can’t always find the time to do,” Smith said. “I think that’s the best thing about working with them. They do bring a lot of energy and commitment.”

Although some students had previously volunteered with agencies that serve the homeless, the work with CTI offered the chance to collaborate with additional partners, including the Orange County 100,000 Homes Task Force, a group of health, human services, and law enforcement professionals who work to find housing for those most at risk of dying on the streets.

Of the 123 people identified as homeless in Orange County last year, more than a dozen met the at-risk criteria based, among other things, on their age, and physical and mental health, Smith said. Social work students worked closely with task force members to engage those vulnerable individuals, Smith said, and to help them find housing, treatment, and services.

In addition, social work students spent a portion of the year working with students from the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC to develop a needs assessment for a day center for the homeless and assisted with Orange County’s Project Connect. This one-day, one-stop center connects people experiencing or at risk of homelessness with a broad range of short and long-term services, including employment, health and dental care, mental health care, and veterans’ and social service benefits.

Rawlings, who is interested in community organizing, said working with the different agencies and community leaders taught him to think more “constructively” about how to solve the challenges of homelessness. Increasing Orange County’s stock of affordable housing is key, he said.

“The area has grown tremendously over the years and with growth, has come the challenge of providing affordable housing for all residents,” said Rawlings, who is enrolled in the School’s MSW/MDiv program. “Many of the homeless population are left without a place because of high rent and limited available low-barrier housing.” Moreover, many low-income families struggle to find landlords willing to accept federal housing vouchers, he said.

Such gaps in services and resources are important to consider, given that homelessness can be connected to so many other social, economic, and health issues, added Marie Funk, a final-year student in the School’s Triangle Distance Education Program. Funk, who volunteered with CTI last year and for a portion of this year, said the problem of homelessness is not necessarily driven by an individual’s needs but by the community’s ability to serve all of its residents.

“So where are healthcare services located? Where are training programs located, and what do they do?” she asked. “Who can one turn to in an emergency, and what kinds of plans are in place to prevent a housing crises? Does everyone in the community understand how truly difficult it is for an adult without health insurance to get healthcare? And how stability can unravel without access to good healthcare?

“Does everyone understand how much money people make in hourly service jobs and what the town would be like if there weren’t people to work in those low-wage jobs?”

Community leaders and agencies must also educate the public on the realities of homelessness and encourage evidence-based solutions, Funk said.

“And we need to be realistic and engage business leaders and major community stakeholders in the conversations so that we are truly identifying all of the costs of homelessness and all of the potential benefits of ending homelessness,” she said.

That social work students understand the complexities of the problem and that good data can help communities more effectively serve those in need is just one of the many reasons why student voices are valued, said Elizabeth Waugh-Duford, MSW, ’01, temporary homeless programs coordinator for the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness.

“Social work students understand that it’s not just about funding but really truly understanding the depth of the need and understanding the different needs that different parts of the homeless population require,” she said. “Because somebody who is temporarily homeless because of a life event such as a job loss, an extended illness, or the death of a partner, is really a different situation from a person who has been homeless and on the streets for 10 years and who has had schizophrenia and doesn’t really know how to navigate their way in society.”

Furthermore, social work students understand the need for different interventions for different groups of people, Waugh-Duford added.

“They know there’s not a one-size-fits-all for homeless people.”