The facts about homeless people in the United States are dim. Each January, counties across the country perform a point-in-time count to uncover just how many homeless people there are in their community. Last year, the total number of homeless people across America was nearly 600,000, and 7.8% of them were youths under age 18.1 It’s a staggeringly sad number, but there is a bright side to this dim picture: slowly but surely, the number of homeless people is getting smaller every year. This is largely in part to recovery from the Great Recession and an increased investment in homeless outreach programs and resources nationwide. In fact, targeted federal funding to address homelessness is at its highest level in history: $4.5 billion in fiscal year 2015 for a variety of programs. Social workers working with the homeless have played an essential role in this uplifting change, but there’s still much work to be done in the fight to end homelessness.
Homelessness doesn’t discriminate — it comes in many different shapes, forms, races, ages and severities. Veterans, children, former professionals, the poor, victims of abuse and the mentally ill all comprise today’s homeless population, though some are more at-risk than others. A range of social and economic factors may contribute to a person finding themselves homeless. One family may be so poor that the loss of a job forces them and their children out of their home. A child, teenager or battered woman may decide to escape an abusive home by running away. Others suffer from mental illness or substance abuse disorders. New immigrant families and veterans are also vulnerable to homelessness. Social workers are uniquely positioned to help these individuals, either clinically or by connecting them to resources in their community.
With funding to address homelessness at an all-time high, there are a number of unique opportunities for medical, psychiatric, military, clinical and community social workers who want to work closely with the homeless population. A social worker may be employed by local, state or federal-level organizations that offer homeless outreach services. These may include homeless charities, youth centers, government agencies, medical clinics, housing programs and organizations targeted to veterans or safe havens. A safe haven may be a shelter for abused women or children, a homeless shelter or a transitional living facility for someone recovering from addiction. A social worker may work as a community outreach worker, youth worker, child care attendant, mental health counselor, substance abuse counselor, case manager, human service specialist, research associate or program supervisor. Bilingual social workers, particularly those who speak Spanish, are in high demand as a result of the growing Hispanic community.
Other local feet-on-the-ground organizations are embracing social workers in completely new ways to improve access to resources for the homeless. Public libraries and police departments across the country have hired social workers to help address homelessness in a more proactive way. Because many chronically homeless individuals are so focused on day-to-day survival, they’re not actively seeking treatment.2 The goal in immersing social workers in places the homeless naturally convene — such as public libraries — is to meet the homeless where they are.
If current trends continue, the rate of homelessness will continue to decline, and professionals with a master’s in social work dedicated to serving the homeless have an opportunity to help shape the future and help put an end to homelessness in America.
1The National Alliance to End Homelessness. “The State of Homelessness in America 2015.” http://www.endhomelessness.org/page/-/files/State_of_Homelessness_2015_FINAL_online.pdf
2National Association of Social Workers, “Clinical Social Work with Homeless People.” http://www.naswnyc.org/?page=173