The Experience at the Front Line: Social Workers at Work

Article excerpt

The Experience at the Front Line: Social Workers at Work.

by B. Denise Hawkins

WASHINGTON, DC -- Laura White admits that she doesn't "look like a social worker."

"Just look at the way that I'm dressed," says White, pointing to the Black high-top Filas on her tiny feet and the striped teeshirt, knit slacks and stone-washed denim jacket she's wearing.

But White says her dressed-down look is intentional. "One of the things I've noticed is that if you look like everyone else here, you're more approachable." Everyone else here at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, the nation's largest shelter, is poor, homeless, physically or mentally ill, underemployed, addicted to drugs, in various forms of recovery, elderly, young or disabled.

While clothes and rapport concern her, for many here the three-wheeled, motorized wheelchair to which White is confined is often the first thing they see. For White, who was born with cerebral palsy, the scooter is her only means of moving around the warehouse-like, four-story shelter to conduct assessments or evaluations and to check in on her many clients.

"I have a job to do and that's just the way it is," says White.

According to the "Social Work Dictionary," social workers, despite where they work -- schools, hospitals, nursing homes, shelters or in private offices -- "are graduates of schools of social work who use their knowledge and skills to provide social services for clients."

To become a social worker, says the Washington, DC-based National Association of Social Workers "an individual must have earned a social-work degree (bachelor's, master's, Ph.D.) from a school of social work accredited by the Council on Social Work Education."

NASW represents 155,000 social-work students, professionals and those who are not social workers, but who work in the field as case workers or social service workers.

Always On Duty

White has long done away with scheduling appointments. They were rarely kept. Nonetheless, her caseload remains high. This afternoon, White is parked just inside the 274-bed unit serving disabled men and those over 50.

White has an office on one of the shelter's lower levels, but on most days, she is pressed into action wherever she is. The walk-up sessions she frequently conducts often begin the same way -- "Do you have a minute to look at this?" or "Can you help me?"

"Situations like that account for about 30 or 40 percent of what I do every day. The rest of the time is spent dealing with substance-abuse issues, or issues related to mental illness, or issues relating to the fact that people living here are placed so close together," says White of the days she spends on CCNV's front line.

Most of the elderly men who seek out White this afternoon appear eager for help and clearly relieved after talking with her.

One neatly dressed 55-year-old man who repeated throughout his meeting with White -- "I just need help" -- is searching for public housing after two months at the shelter. When you're waiting for public housing in the nation's capital, it pays to have an edge when it comes to the "big, long waiting list," White warns. The softspoken man flashes a quick smile and says "yes ma'am" to the 27-year-old White, when she explains that his status as a shelter resident and a senior citizen with a disability will work in his favor on his housing application.

Making Life Changes

Until a year ago, social workers didn't exist at CCNV, says Wanda Currie, who directs a six-member team of professional social workers and social-work graduate students. Also until recently, CCNV operated as a permanent shelter. Under the old policy, residents could live at CCNV for up to eight years; today the limit is one year.

During the eight-year stay, a resident met no one in the more than 1,400-bed facility who was trained to help residents apply for food stamps, or who could refer them for public or low-income housing, show them how to locate missing birth certificates or convince them that after years of never having worked, it was time to be trained and gainfully employed, says Currie, who earned both her BSW and MSW degree from Howard University's School of Social Work. …