From Homelessness to Giving Back – A Student’s Journey

On August 12, 2020, Gordon Wayne began a 16 day, 550-mile trek from Virginia to Boston College, all on foot. At first glance, Gordon may appear to be an average, middle-class college student. However, last year, Gordon was facing very different circumstances. Despite working extremely long hours and attending community college, Gordon was experiencing homelessness. With his car as his only means of shelter, Gordon applied to Boston College and was accepted with a full financial aid package which included housing. Months after, during a pandemic that caused a rise in foreclosure and evictions, Gordon took to the streets – literally – to create awareness and raise money for homelessness.

Gordon is far from alone in his experience of homeless – in Virginia alone, there are almost 6,000 people experiencing homelessness every night. Throughout the United States, the number increases to over 550,000, with about 68,000 of those individuals being college students. In fact, a recent study showed that 60% of college students had experienced food insecurity or housing insecurity within the last 30 days. The current COVID-19 pandemic has put an increased strain on the available resources for students who were already struggling. The time spent residing on campus during the semester was often a safe space for these students, who may now have to find alternate arrangements.

With many colleges now going remote, some students are left with no place to go to finish their semester. Some schools regularly have programs to address homelessness among students; for example, Kennesaw State University’s Campus Awareness, Resource & Empowerment (CARE) Services is a program that offers assistance with housing, food insecurity, and supportive services. A growing number of schools host campus food pantries, which have grown in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. While other schools may not have ongoing dedicated programs like KSU, many are able to provide guidance to students about local resources.

Depending on the area they live in, people experiencing homelessness can face harsh weather conditions if they are unsheltered and struggle to access basic necessities like food, water, and bathrooms. Without access to bathrooms or similar facilities, it can be near-impossible to maintain a socially acceptable presence, making it even harder to find a job. On top of all of this, many people experiencing homelessness encounter high levels of violence and do not have access to adequate healthcare. The inability to access healthcare can leave many physical and mental problems untreated.

One of the most effective programs to reduce homelessness is the federal housing assistance program. While it can take time to access due to waiting lists, this is a stable solution to housing insecurity. Recent years have seen a push for a new approach using the Housing First model. Housing First means that while housing is the top priority, services are available to help in other aspects of life as well, while taking the whole person into account. Housing First takes away many of the traditional barriers to accessing housing and offers it to those who want it, not just those who have proven they are “ready” for housing by maintaining sobriety or meeting other prerequisites.

Gordon’s journey was an incredible display of both human resilience and generosity. A few strangers brought Gordon supplies during his walk and even more donated to his fundraising site. Since starting his walk, Gordon has raised over $160,000 to benefit the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

This year, the week of November 15-22 was National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. Every year the National Coalition for the Homeless works with the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness to raise money and awareness for individuals struggling with food and housing insecurity. To make a contribution to National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, click here. For those in need of assistance with food, here is a list of food pantries.

With winter approaching and many unknowns still surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the stressors each individual is facing are constantly changing. Until December 31, 2020, there is a national eviction moratorium, meaning you cannot be evicted from your apartment due to the nonpayment of rent or fees. In order to be protected under this moratorium, you must submit a form to your landlord. If you are in need of help with rent, there are COVID-19 rental assistance programs throughout the country. You can also find local resources by calling 211 or visiting the 211 website here.

Want to Debate the Recommendations Being Made to CSWE?

On March 27th at 9PM EST, Thursday night, I will be moderating a live twitter chat using the hashtag #macrosw to discuss the CSWE public commenting period, and we will also conduct a review of the Social Work Helper petition seeking internship reform. Going into this tweet chat, I am open to supporting any ideas put forward to help innovate as well as prevent hardships for those pursing the social work degree.

TweetchatThe petition I created seeks to remove the mandatory minimum internship requirements for BSW students and Nonclinical MSW students which by no means eliminates the internship as part of your plan of study. However, this appears to be a major sticking point for some folks or its interpreted as an elimination of internships all together. I am guessing the concern is without a minimum mandate of hours students would decide not to do internships.

However, if students can’t be trusted to come to the best conclusion on completing an internship under counsel from their advisor, how can we entrust them as social workers to problem solve someone else’s life with no stake in the outcome?

If the social work degree does not innovate and relax the rigidness of the internship requirement, I am concerned enrollment will decline, and the social work degree will primarily only attract students who want to do therapy. Students wanting a macro/policy degree will seek degrees in other disciplines such as the MPA, MPH, or MBA due to their degree having a higher market value than the MSW, both campus and online options, as well as alternatives for experienced and working practitioners. How many students are social work programs losing already when potential students begin comparing degrees when deciding to pursue higher education?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I am willing to put forth my best ideas in hopes of sparking communication and inspiring others to add to the conversation. I know that many of us already have our degree, and whatever policies being implemented by the CSWE have no effect on us. However, I believe we should give this public commenting period some thought and effort to see what we can change for future generations of social workers.

Currently, CSWE does not prevent institutions from making exceptions to the internship requirement based on the needs of the student. However, this decision is in the hand of the institution, and policies vary from institution to institution which mean students don’t have access to the same options. We advocate to get  autonomy for our clients, so why can’t we advocate to get some autonomy for ourselves in tailoring a plan of study to fit our own needs?

The #Macrosw chat is a collaboration made up of community practice organizations and individual macro social workers.  The collaboration consists of ACOSA @acosaorg by(Rachel West @polisw), Network for Social Work Management, Deona Hooper (Founder of Social Work Helper @deonahooper), Karen Zgoda (PhD Candidate at Boston College), The University at Buffalo School of Social Work and the University of Southern California School of Social Work. Each member of the collaboration will take turns moderating the #MacroSW chats. The #MacroSW twitter chats occur on the 2nd and 4th Thursday of each month.

I will be moderating Thursday night’s chat using @deonahooper. Please tweet any questions or responses directed to the moderator to @deonahooper and include the #macrosw in all of your tweets.

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