Ethics and Advocacy, de nuevo

We're held to the same Code of Ethics, even with the "holes"

It’s “update” week at Classroom to Capitol.

As I read through previous posts for my summer maternity break hiatus, I found a few that I really wanted to revisit, rather than repost. This is the first of the three that I have chosen for this week, with new thoughts and, of course, new questions.

One of the first twenty or so posts that I wrote for this blog, back in June 2009, dealt with the ethical challenges faced by advocates, organizers, and other macro practitioners. I outlined some of the biggest holes, as I see them, in the NASW Code of Ethics, and how vague, contradictory, or rather unworkable guidance there can cause problems for those of us whose social work practice doesn’t really conform to the traditional, agency-based, more direct interaction model.

I continue to weave content on ethics into all of my classes, and I continue to struggle, at times, with some doubt about whether what feels like natural and “good” community or advocacy practice is really the most defensible, based on my social work Code of Ethics. And I continue to be frustrated by the relative paucity of dialogue about those gaps in our ethical guidance, and especially about the self-doubt that creeps into my practice, and, I know, into the minds of my students, too.

So, I’m revisiting this topic in the hopes of enlisting other social workers in not only offering some of their consultation, but also joining in the conversation about what may need to be added to our NASW Code of Ethics, or perhaps tweaked a bit, for we macro social workers, who, after all, deserve clear ethical guidance just as much as our clinical colleagues–just as our clients deserve just as clear an understanding of the ethical rules that shape us.

In class, I raise a lot of different questions about ethics in advocacy and organizing: means v. ends, informed consent, competency, loyalty to employing agency…but below I’ve tried to distill those thorniest areas that truly vex me, with some examples of how these issues manifest themselves in practice. I’d really appreciate other macro social workers willing to share some of their own ethical dilemmas, or any social work professionals willing to offer some insights from their perspective as people committed to living our Code. Ethics are, after all, about protecting those we serve and the reputation of our profession, both causes of critical importance to me as an advocate. So we have to get this right.

  • The dual relationship thing always gets me: So, our Code of Ethics doesn’t have an absolute prohibition on dual relationships, but we are instructed to avoid dual relationships where they could harm the client. Sounds reasonable. Except, in community practice, this is often pretty tough. Do I keep someone out of a community organizing effort because we also go to church together? I can’t. Yet when they get somewhat confused about how I relate to them differently as an organizer than as a fellow parishioner, is that introducing the potential for harm? What about when someone I’ve been developing as a leader asks me to come to her high school graduation. To not go would seem to deny the power that that diploma has for her, but, when I do go, I’m inevitably asked to come to dinner at her parents’ house, and they want to talk about my kids, and…where do you draw those lines?
  • Boundaries v. “whole person” organizing: I can talk on and on about how we need to integrate organizing into this full sense of self, and I totally believe that, but then, I have to live it, too. I mean, my own children are a big part of the reason that I work for the social justice causes I do, and, yet, if I’m supposed to maintain boundaries around a professional relationship, I have to be careful about how much I divulge. It feels awkward, and it is awkward, and sometimes a little disingenous. But I don’t want to be responsible for someone being confused about whether we’re “friends” or not.
  • Dignity of every person in nasty advocacy fights: So I do immigration advocacy, right? And I know that my Code of Ethics means that truly underhanded tactics are off the table, then–I wouldn’t want to be that kind of lobbyist, anyway. But to what extent do I need to uphold the dignity and worth of those who would seek to, say, shoot members of my community from helicopters like feral pigs?
  • Informed consent and compromise: I struggle with this one a lot; we can never truly say that we “represent” any community (which is why I’m a proponent of advocacy with instead of advocacy on behalf of), but, even when we’re practicing empowerment and maximum participation, there are going to be those who would be affected by the policies we promote (or oppose) who haven’t been consulted in any meaningful way. And, when it comes to the inevitable compromises, coalitions can fall apart and even those with whom you have been working closely can feel that their interests were not well-represented by those who were at the table. How can I ethically work as their “social worker” knowing that I can’t get their informed consent for every possible outcome of the policy change process?

    There are other issues that have cropped up–Can I work ethically in coalition with organizations whose values are not perfectly aligned with social work’s? Can I advance the interests of one group of clients over another, in pursuit of incremental policy change? Can I represent an issue as being worse than I can prove it is (if I really believe it to be so)? The list above, though, represents my kind of perennial ethical challenges, the ones that I feel really torn about, and the ones where I feel that I’ve probably made some missteps, in both directions–sometimes not practicing great social work out of an abundance of caution, and sometimes walking in a gray ethical area.

    A favorite social work instructor of mine once said that some of what we call ethical dilemmas are really just crises of conscience–where we know what to do and just need to muster the courage to do it. And that’s the case, sometimes, with advocacy: we know when we should stand up and speak out, and, in fact, our Code of Ethics demands it.

    I’m glad every day that I belong to a profession that expects people to take real risks in order to bring about a more just society.

    But I do wish that I had a Code that defined “client” more the way it is in my practice, that offered more guidance for my greatest dilemmas, and that created a more standard and workable ethical framework so that my macro practitioners would feel as compelled as our clinical colleagues to follow it.

    Our clients, whether they make a 50-minute appointment and sit down across a desk from us, or march side-by-side on the institutions of power that shape our lives, deserve no less.

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  • 27 responses to “Ethics and Advocacy, de nuevo

    1. I often times find myself mulling over the relationship between the NASW Code of Ethics, personal morals/ethics, and social work as a profession. What real value does a code of ethics bring to the profession and practice if we do not swear an oath to it and are not mandated to adhere to it,”The NASW Code of Ethics is to be used by NASW and by individuals, organizations, and bodies…that choose to adopt it or use it as a frame of reference” (NASW)? Social work lacks a uniformity and commitment that all other professions with a ethical code abide by in the strictest of manners. What I mean by this is that a doctor or lawyer must sever their personal beliefs and serve their client to the best of their trained ability. Social work is not like that. There are factions in social work that are in direct opposition of each other i.e. women’s productive rights advocacy groups and faith based organizations that will not even provide education about alternatives when an unplanned/unwanted pregnancy occurs. How and why does empowerment and client self-determination get redefined to fit an ethical code not solely defined by the NASW? Referring a client out because you or your organization does not have the resources necessary to properly serve an individual is far different than referring someone elsewhere because the services they may need clash with non-professionally defined ethics. Does that make sense? I mute my personal beliefs as much as possible when examining policy and/or advocating to better serve my population. Granted, no one can ever fully ignore their personal code of ethics… it’s why we don’t rob banks and large corporations in order to provide for our clients. However, other professions do not allow their personal ethics to trump their professional code. It seems to me without a shift toward uniformity, there will always be “Robin Hoods” out there working under the umbrella of “social work” coloring public perception and hindering social justice. Perhaps I should be primarily concerned with how I adhere and function under the NASW code, but then again, I am a huge proponent of social work gaining credibility and respect among other professions and in the average citizen’s perception.

      • You are raising so many critical issues here. I really appreciate the thoughtfulness with which you are approaching this. First, I do think it’s important to distinguish between ‘social workers’ and organizations providing social service, because, truly, our NASW Code is quite clear that we all have an obligation to uphold our Code, even when it might conflict with our personal values. So, if we see an organization acting in ways contrary to the Code, it’s not necessarily the case that it’s an example of social workers violating the Code, although it would certainly raise concerns if social workers are employed there (because of our simultaneous ethical obligations to clients and to our employing organizations–exactly why choosing your place of employment carefully is so important!). Second, I don’t know if it’s a case of needing to set your personal ethics aside, as much as critically evaluating our commitment to the profession and what that calls us to in terms of personal reflection and ‘stretching’ in terms of our own development. I mean, your personal worldview is part of what you bring to the practice of social work. The problem is when that worldview makes it hard for you to act in ways that are consistent with our Code. I do think that your final point about the relationship between the Code and the profession’s reputation is an important one. There is a tension in social work between ethical examination as professional ‘risk management’ and, conversely, the creation of safe spaces where professionals can hash out ethical dilemmas (which often means acknowledging ethical quandaries). To the extent to which it’s hard to maximize both, I am worried about our ability to stay true to our ethical principles. Again, thank you for thinking through these dilemmas with us!

    2. I recently learned of a private social work program at a college in the midwest that is religiously affiliated. Some of the religious beliefs espoused by the school are directly oppositional to the values guided by the NASW Code of Ethics. This is an accredited social work program. This contradiction has my head spinning a little bit. How can they be considered a quality social work teaching environment when they actually believe in discrimination. This contradicts, not only the Code of Ethics, but also being a social worker. I know that we all have biases, and for some there are populations they will not work with, but as a social worker (on the individual level) you have the opportunity to filter those experiences and use discretion by not applying for that job treating sex offenders, but that, to me, is different than teaching an entire school of future social workers that it is okay to discriminate based on their religious beliefs. And, again, how is this school accredited? Mind-boggling.

      • Wow, Grace–I honestly didn’t know that. I wonder the extent to which the religious affiliation of the school influences the teaching and orientation in the classroom. A lot? Or are these different approaches distinct? And accreditation isn’t based on ethical congruence, really; it’s about academic achievement…which means that ‘accreditation’ doesn’t necessarily say anything about whether the school will equip someone to be a ‘good’ social worker or not, as we might measure that. And, on the other, it’s a slippery slope, no? I mean, when is it OK to say that we won’t work with someone, and when is it not? What criteria are acceptable ‘screens’ here?

    3. Long before college had even entered my mind, I saw and recognized how not to advocate. A man of our tribe would bang his fist on the city council table or chime off to a newspaper reporter “I speak for all Indian people when i say…” I knew this was not good advocacy and really more harmful than anything. The truth, he made is all look like jokers to anyone who believed he spoke for us all. My point being, I had no idea what the NASW Code of Ethics was but even I knew that this was against SOMETHING.

    4. Wow, Jon, great points–sometimes, what is unethical just ‘feels’ wrong, even before we can articulate exactly how or why. Thanks for sharing this story; I can really imagine it.

    5. As a social work researcher and social work program evaluator, I often encounter ethical dilemmas in my work. When I train new research staff or program evaluators, I usually ask them to review the NASW Code of Ethics in addition to completing human subjects training if they do not have any social work background. It is not always easy to translate the Code of Ethics for the ethical dilemmas we encounter in the social work research or program evaluation contexts. In particular, these practices easily drag our attention from the real “community.” We do not always interact with individual clients or advocate for the particular individual, rather we tend to have very limited contact/access to client information (under the IRB, for example). We communicate with the “community” or “individuals” through aggregated numbers or de-personalized quotes. The practice tends to easily fall in the ivory tower. This happens even among social work researchers and evaluators. We often collaborate with people from different disciplines who are not familiar with the Code of Ethics. I always tell myself and others that we need to use our maximum possible sense about individual clients in research and evaluation activities as we value the dignity and worth of the person. I would not say all social workers who work in macro practice should have some experience in micro level practice, yet it is sometimes easier to explain the continuum between micro and macro level advocacy and how to address the ethical dilemmas at the macro level practice.

      • Interesting–how closely do you feel that IRB regulations align with the Code of Ethics? Where they diverge, which do you view as more difficult to adhere to? What do you see as the greatest value in having your staff review the Code, even if they are not practicing social workers?

    6. I think IRB and the Code of Ethics are very much aligned to each other — protecting human dignity. I believe the Code of Ethics is applicable to any human (and could be for animal) service activities. Only difference between the two activities may be – we intend to generalize the social phenomenon in the research contexts (trying to de-individualize), while we try to personalize the phenomenon as much as possible in the micro practice contexts.

    7. Oh, great point. I totally see that. Thanks for that insight.

    8. It is a good reminder to have a healthy frustration with the system at large and the powers that be, as well as a sense of self-monitoring as a macro- (or any) level social work practitioner. How do I carry out sound ethical services in the absence of a Code that fully includes the nature of our macro- level work? It is difficult enough to interpret ethically ambiguous situations let alone without having a road map. It is not that I need a document or a set of standards to pass off the responsibility on making often difficult ethical decisions by essentially saying that ‘my hands are tied: see subsection 3’. Rather, it’s about presenting a unified front in the profession, in my community, in my department, and even as an individual. Questions like ‘How far should I take a friendship in the community?” and “What is the extent that I can advocate without assuming the agreement of the entire community?” are multi-faceted and grey in nature, but having a Code of Ethics that is largely mute and conflicting on those matters is frustrating.
      For someone as experienced as yourself to continue to come back to certain aspects of practice that continue to remain ‘unresolved’ in a sense reminds me how much learning I must do as a professional and as a person. Does this issue of an obscure Code of Ethics imply some internal advocacy within NASW? Does it suggest that macro-practitioners must develop additional independent ethical reasoning skills? How would college programs at the BSW, MSW, and Doctoral levels reflect this need in the Social Work community?

    9. Yes, Jacob, I think there’s a continuing need for conversation within the profession about the evolution of the Code of Ethics, not because we want ‘special treatment’ as macro practitioners, but because the entire profession could be enhanced by continuing to grapple with these issues. I think it’s important to frame the concerns as you do here–not that we want to be able to check a box and move on, but that we want clients to have the benefit of a consistent application of our most sacred obligations.

    10. I think it’s interesting you included the dignity and worth of those who oppose the population you are advocating for. I often hear or see my social work friends advocating for a freedom and in the same breath attempt to deny opposition’s freedom to have an opinion. I agree that it is tough to practice ‘dignity and worth of each person’ when people are obviously disrespectful to the point of physical harm. For me it’s important to remember that they were not born believing whatever inappropriate comments they are making. They learned it. Whether it was through upbringing (or lack of), negative experience, or geographical location – somehow they came to feel a certain way about a certain population. Their ignorance doesn’t negate our responsibility to recognize their dignity and worth. In doing so, we might be able to peel back those layers of bigotry, hate, and threats to find that there is a person who needs a social worker!

      • And, I think, it’s also more about who we want to be, than about who ‘they’ are (even the ‘they’ language, I think, can be dehumanizing). We treat others with dignity and respect not so much because of anything they did, but because of how we are committed to living. Thanks for commenting.

    11. Kelly Harrington

      In my experience, another ethical dilemma perhaps more often encountered by macro-social workers is deciphering how to negotiate ethical dilemmas with colleagues from other professions that either abide by an entirely different code of ethics or lack one altogether. As macro-social workers, it is not uncommon for us to find ourselves in contexts in which we are the only social worker among colleagues from law, public health, public policy, public administration, etc.—professions that often have similar goals but go about getting there in different ways. For example, as a social worker, I am committed by my worldview as well as by the NASW Code of Ethics to prioritize the best interest of the client, however, this is not necessarily the case in other professions. With other social workers, it is easy enough to appeal to the NASW Code of Ethics for guidance, but when working with colleagues from other professions, this strategy may not hold as much weight. I think it would be helpful for the Code of Ethics to acknowledge this likely common scenario and provide guidance to macro social workers (and perhaps micro social workers as well) for how to negotiate an ethical conflict with colleagues not bound by the same code of ethics.

    12. Yes, Kelly–we face questions about, then, not only how to ‘police’ our own behavior, but also how we are to engage with those whose ethical standards don’t match our own. That can certainly be challenging, maybe not always ethically (inasmuch as there may not be ethical ambiguity about how we should proceed), but, at least, practically, as we seek to preserve relationships while staying true to our convictions.

    13. I really enjoyed this post and found it very informative. It seems surprising to me that NASW Code of Ethics does not have been guidelines or principles that are more geared for macro social workers to utilize in their professional life. I can relate to the comment above, made by Kelly, because last year I found myself in a position working with other professionals with different backgrounds and we disagreed on a course of action for the care plan. I think that it would have been helpful to have a guide for how to negotiate ethical conflicts with colleagues bound by other codes of ethics.

      I think it would be helpful to engage a large community of macro social workers and poll different ideas to create an addendum for the NASW Code of Ethics that would be applicable for the macro social workers. This may be a large task to undertake but the importance of guiding the macro social workers is extremely important for the profession as a whole.

    14. I am really eager to see what those revisions may look like, Darcy. Actually, I am meeting with a national NASW Board member today and that is one item on our agenda. YES, interdisciplinary ethical dilemmas are huge challenges, not just in macro practice, but I think we encounter them particularly frequently there. What do you think would have been most helpful–a mentor? Different guidance in the Code? (if so, what?) What lessons did you pull from that experience?

    15. Brandy Williams

      As someone who has been working at the micro level for many years with a psychology background, learning about the Code of Ethics for social work has been an interesting experience. When reading the code of ethics I realize now that I have been viewing it from the micro level, very rarely looking at the Code through the lens of a macro social worker. Your points are so valid in understanding how we are able to abide by the Code when it can be contradictory during advocacy or organizing. It would appear that there should be some additions or language changed to reflect the fact that social workers are not just solely direct providers. The Code itself mandates social justice and there are many ways that can be administrated, including through advocacy and organizing. I loved how you referred to your prior social work teacher noting that sometimes what we call “ethical dilemmas are really just crises of conscience.” It’s hard to do the right thing sometimes, but that is what we signed up for by becoming social workers. Some of the ethical dilemmas I have observed recently has been appeasing to funders based on grants and data reported, even when the reported numbers may or may not have been met. I have also seen this dilemma come up, but instead of ignoring it, administrative staff bring it up to other administrative staff and executive directors. I think that this is an example of one of those times it’s hard to do the right thing, but knowing that the role of the agency is to serve clients, when that is need is not being reflected accurately by the agency, there has to be discussion about modifying program outcomes to reflect the true nature of the agency, regardless of what numbers may have been written into the grant.

    16. Thank you for sharing the example, Brandy, about the tensions that can arise around the perceived ‘costs’ of honestly reporting having failed to meet particular benchmarks to a funder; to me, that falls into the category not of a ‘dilemma’, but of a decision that definitely carries consequences, including some that we would rather avoid. It also illustrates what I see as a truth regarding ethical dilemmas; failing to make the hard decisions now often results in even poorer options in the future, as when we miss the chance to educate funders about the outcomes that we have achieved, and what is really possible, and can then find ourselves held accountable (perennially) to unreasonable expectations. Leadership matters, here and in all aspects of practice.

    17. The NASW Code of Ethics is very difficult for me. I think about the ethical dilemmas I have dealt with this past semester and how the Code of Ethics, in many ways, is as oppressive as any other ethical code in the systems we navigate through. I think because I do that a lot, that my perspective is kind of jaded. I know how ethical dilemmas manifest and I tend to make the choice that follows a path that strays away from human relationships and is trumped by social justice. It makes me question if ethics for each person is based on their value biases/interpretation of the Code rather then this rulebook that we all follow. I never was good at following rules anyway, so the Code of Ethics feels like guidelines rather than rules.
      I think that something that comes up a lot for me is mandated reporting. The agency that I am at does not do mandated reporting for very particular reasons to the community we work with. LGBTQ youth can end up back in abusive situations due to mandated reporting and, usually, their concerns are never heard. I have discussed this with my field instructor to the point that I was getting angry that she did not get how the community I serve cannot operate under the control of mandated reporting to the point I sent her every article that ended with harm happening to someone due to mandated reporting. This still haunts me today and I think about it often.
      So why is ethical dilemmas so common, especially in macro practice? Why must ethics govern our work if ethics are means to an end that I do not want most of the time? I honestly think this is the biggest point of contention when it comes to my social work practice… who knows where I will be when I graduate

    18. The challenge, though, is that our profession’s Code of Ethics is not just for any given professional, but for us in the aggregate. This means that, while you may not feel well-served (or, by extension, your clients) by the rules in the Code of Ethics, those same clients may very much need for other social workers to have those guardrails, in order to prevent harm. It’s hard to imagine how a singular Code could be simultaneously ‘flexible’ enough to avoid constraining your actions unduly, while prescriptive enough to be a check on others–right?? I have a question about the mandated reporter issue, too; do you mean mandated reporting re: self-harm, or are you talking about a perception that you cannot report when children are being abused? If the latter, while I totally acknowledge that harm can come of reporting, how do you reconcile this with the reality of harm from not reporting? In other words, if one purpose of an ethical code is to provide guidance to help professionals avoid having to guess or ‘gut’ their way through ethical dilemmas, then how does this process of harm-weighing inform the thinking around when and where and why such codes may be valuable? I look forward to talking more about this in class next week!

    19. This post brings up so many important issues regarding the Code of Ethics. As a social work student who has worked in both direct practice and macro social work settings, it seems as though the Code of Ethics neglects macro practice social workers in a variety of ways. One thing you mentioned in your post which I have noticed myself, is how the definition of “client” changes so much in macro practice and the Code of ethics really fails to address this. I feel that this particularly comes up in regard to informed consent and dual relationships. How can we realistically inform every person that could potentially be impacted by policy change outcomes? This seems insurmountable. Dual relationships are much more likely to occur in large organizing efforts that happen in macro practice work when we are working with groups of people rather than individuals. Is this type of dual relationship harmful? An ethical dilemma that I have encountered at my practicum is the issue of working with organizations which may not be totally aligned with social work ethics. My practicum is at a death penalty abolition group. We get a lot of support from the catholic church, partner with them in a lot of policy change efforts, and have numerous board members from the catholic church. The catholic pro-life stance is great when it comes to our death penalty abolition work and the social work value regarding the dignity and worth of the person. However, when it comes to women’s reproductive rights, our values are at odds. Does this mean we can’t work with them, accept funding from them, or work towards death penalty abolition together? In practice, we continue to work with these catholic groups on our death penalty work, while also recognizing the areas in which our values differ. We are certainly not joining their pickets outside of the local Planned Parenthood. Is this an acceptable practice within the parameters of the Code of Ethics? As a student, I am left with a lot of questions as to how the Code of Ethics should relate in practice to my macro work. I’m curious as to whether social work macro practitioners have taken this issue up with the NASW.

    20. Thanks so much for weighing in here, Christina, and for sharing your particular experiences of value conflicts, in terms of those potential partnerships with your faith allies–with whom you are certainly not aligned on all issues. I’m interested in the process(es) through which you approach these conflicts; whose decision is it, in terms of who to partner with and how? Who is responsible for navigating those boundaries? How does your Board of Directors manage conflicts internally, if some of those same ideological dynamics manifest within your own organization? How well do you think these systems govern the challenges that arise?

    21. Marqueia Watson

      I encounter many challenges in homeless services that seem to pit our social work values against each other. One of the most gutting I’ve experienced is the dilemma of advocating for the dignity and worth of our client population, while having to, out of sheer necessity, refer them to agencies for emergency shelter and crisis services who do not share my social worker priorities. Because of the way funding for homeless programs is setup, the Continuum of Care does not pay for emergency shelter, but has instead prioritize permanent housing as the ideal intervention to prevent and end homelessness. The federal government is not wrong in its belief that people experiencing homelessness need forever homes, not short-term fixes. The challenge however is that until we have the available housing stock it would require to physically house all the people in our community who need it, and the funds to pay for rental assistance and the supportive services that would also be needed to keep them all housed, there will always be a need for short-term emergency housing. Historically, this need has been met by smaller non-profits, and of course, faith-based organizations. What I have found in all the years I’ve been working on homelessness, is that the agencies that offer this type of housing are not the most affirming, and usually have many requirements that act as barriers to clients’ success and long-term stability. Religious organizations are addressing a critical service need and do lots of good work to get people off the street, and put food in their bellies. At the same time however, staff, and in some cases, the way the programs themselves are designed, are not person-centered. To receive help in many cases, clients must attend church or prayer meetings, must present clean and sober and stay that way as a condition for housing, and comply with all sorts of rules and regulations that range from merely paternalistic to simply unreasonable.
      During the annual Point-in-Time count for homelessness HUD requires, I had the most appalling experience I’ve had to date. The day shelter I was assigned to as a volunteer is one of the larger programs in the Downtown area, which offers two meals per day, laundry, and a host of other much-needed services. For this reason, it’s an important resource to the homeless community and an ideal location to set up shop for the count because of the volume of people served by the program every day. I was astonished however, at the treatment shelter guests endure to get a meal. That day, they essentially forced visitors to participate in the census, which is supposed to be 100% voluntary, before they could queue up for breakfast. Worse still was the executive director of this agency who wanted us to WRITE AN “X” ON EACH PERSON’S HAND WITH A SHARPIE once they had completed the survey to à la Donald Trump in Puerto Rico with the canned food and paper towels. All he was missing was a t-shirt cannon. I literally thought my head was going to explode. Unfortunately, stories like this are not unusual.
      Despite this fact though, the agency I’m referring to provides the local shelter and street homeless population many needed services. If done badly advocating for clients by perhaps lodging a complaint with program administrators could truly harm the many individuals who rely on the help. Fortunately, in this case my own executive director was also there volunteering that morning and saw the same stunning display of disrespect for clients. She was not impressed. We spoke at length about the incident and decided it necessary we do something. She asked for a meeting with the other agency director, which resulted in a conversation that went nowhere. What we decided to do instead is offer more trainings open to members of the continuum, on topics like Trauma-informed Care and cultural competency. This stance, though not as confrontational as I felt about the situation at the time, offers agency staff some tools they can incorporate into their daily work that could potentially mitigate the types of behavior on display that day. My only hope is the shelter workers, especially Mr. T-Shirt Cannon, take advantage of the opportunity.

    22. Marqueia Watson

      My first reply was cut-off. Please disregard it. This is what it should said:

      I encounter many challenges in homeless services that seem to pit our social work values against each other. One of the most gutting I’ve experienced is the dilemma of advocating for the dignity and worth of our client population, while having to, out of sheer necessity, refer them to agencies for emergency shelter and crisis services who do not share my social worker priorities. Because of the way funding for homeless programs is setup, the Continuum of Care does not pay for emergency shelter, but has instead prioritize permanent housing as the ideal intervention to prevent and end homelessness. The federal government is not wrong in its belief that people experiencing homelessness need forever homes, not short-term fixes. The challenge however is that until we have the available housing stock it would require to physically house all the people in our community who need it, and the funds to pay for rental assistance and the supportive services that would also be needed to keep them all housed, there will always be a need for short-term emergency housing. Historically, this need has been met by smaller non-profits, and of course, faith-based organizations. What I have found in all the years I’ve been working on homelessness, is that the agencies that offer this type of housing are not the most affirming, and usually have many requirements that act as barriers to clients’ success and long-term stability. Religious organizations are addressing a critical service need and do lots of good work to get people off the street, and put food in their bellies. At the same time however, staff, and in some cases, the way the programs themselves are designed, are not person-centered. To receive help in many cases, clients must attend church or prayer meetings, must present clean and sober and stay that way as a condition for housing, and comply with all sorts of rules and regulations that range from merely paternalistic to simply unreasonable.
      During the annual Point-in-Time count for homelessness HUD requires, I had the most appalling experience I’ve had to date. The day shelter I was assigned to as a volunteer is one of the larger programs in the Downtown area, which offers two meals per day, laundry, and a host of other much-needed services. For this reason, it’s an important resource to the homeless community and an ideal location to set up shop for the count because of the volume of people served by the program every day. I was astonished however, at the treatment shelter guests endure to get a meal. That day, they essentially forced visitors to participate in the census, which is supposed to be 100% voluntary, before they could queue up for breakfast. Worse still was the executive director of this agency who wanted us to WRITE AN “X” ON EACH PERSON’S HAND WITH A SHARPIE once they had completed the survey to confirm their participation before allowing them into the dining hall. I was flabbergasted, but this was only the beginning of a disastrous day. A security guard got into a near fist fight with a guest, and was screaming at him about an inch from the tip of his nose before ejecting him (without breakfast). About halfway through the four-hour volunteer shift, we realized the goodie bags we had brought filled with socks, hand warmers, and other often-requested items meant to be a takeaway to compensate survey participants were not being distributed. When I brought this to the attention of a staff person, he took the bags into the dining hall and began lobbing them out to people, a la Donald Trump in Puerto Rico. All he was missing was a t-shirt cannon. I literally thought my head was going to explode.
      Despite this fact though, the agency I’m referring to provides the local shelter and street homeless population many needed services. If done badly advocating for clients by perhaps lodging a complaint with program administrators could truly harm the many individuals who rely on the help. Fortunately, in this case my own executive director was also there volunteering that morning and saw the same stunning display of disrespect for clients. She was not impressed. We spoke at length about the incident and decided it necessary we do something. She asked for a meeting with the other agency director, which resulted in a conversation that went nowhere. What we decided to do instead is offer more trainings open to members of the continuum, on topics like Trauma-informed Care and cultural competency. This stance, though not as confrontational as I felt about the situation at the time, offers agency staff some tools they can incorporate into their daily work that could potentially mitigate the types of behavior on display that day. My only hope is the shelter workers, especially Mr. T-Shirt Cannon, take advantage of the opportunity.

    23. Wow, Marqueia. This story is appalling and disturbing. Even more than this incident, though, are the issues you raise that are systemic and pervasive–the tensions between navigating the services that are available now, to try to relieve immediate suffering, and the change we want to see–including not just the services that need to be built, but also the structures and power dynamics that we know we need. There aren’t easy answers to this, but I wonder if there are ways to be transparent about the tensions you feel, with those who are most affected–so that, at least, the reality they’re presented isn’t framed as ‘normal’ or acceptable, in any way?

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