By Kendra Sitton
Social work is a challenging profession at all times, but a year in pandemic meant many local social workers had to adapt quickly to changing conditions in order to serve some of the people most affected by coronavirus.
“I’ve come across, countless individuals who are unemployed and became homeless at the beginning of the pandemic or during and have connected their homelessness directly to the pandemic,” said Rosalias Read.
As a social worker for Home Start, she does outreach to unsheltered people in East County to help connect them to services and housing. However, many of those resources evaporated during the pandemic. There are also waitlists for emergency shelters and permanent housing as the number of people experiencing homelessness rapidly increased in the past year.
Karina Hernandez, another social worker with the nonprofit organization Home Start, also works with unsheltered individuals, particularly transition age youth who are 18 to 24. She found assisting them to be a challenge this year because there were not many available jobs.
“With the lack of the opportunities for employment, it has been really hard,” she said.
Both Hernandez and Read continued their jobs in person since they are on the front lines of reaching out to unsheltered individuals and holding office hours. They helped people navigate systems made even more challenging when they went virtual.
Home Start was contracted by a few cities to distribute rental and utility assistance during the pandemic. Grants and private donors helped the organization provide financial help to many low-income families.
Some social workers were able to shift to primarily safer virtual work. Ebony Brown is a therapist for Home Start who works with children who have experienced trauma. For most of her clients, she conducts telemedicine appointments although she does meet with two clients in person whose needs she felt could not be met virtually.
“My work has changed tremendously from going into people’s homes and having them come into my office to be totally remote. It was very challenging because I’m used to doing play therapy with children. play therapy is the most crucial key to building rapport and building a connection,” Brown said. “Just imagine going from being in person to going remote, which was very difficult to build connections with kids with high-risk needs.”
Some of Brown’s clients did not continue therapy at the start of the pandemic. Through those that did, Brown has seen families struggle to keep kids engaged in virtual school and feel frustrated being stuck in the home.
Despite the difficulties inherent in this past year, all three women said being social workers is still rewarding and worthwhile for them.
“I feel that this is my life’s purpose to be in this field. I just really enjoy being of service to individuals,” [Rosa] said.
Brown and [Karina’s] mothers were both social workers. The women watched them navigate the field growing up so they saw the positive and negative aspects of it.
“My mother was a social worker. She actually tried to talk me out of this profession because she saw the trials and tribulations of being a social worker,” Hernandez said.
Although they are in the same field as their mothers, each took significantly different roles than their parents because of the wide variety of jobs under the social work umbrella.
“My mom was a social worker, and I was inspired by what she does. She mainly worked for [Child Welfare Services], which was a very, very difficult field to work in. I did see the dangers and things that she did go through to be a CWS worker but I wanted to do it on a different note where I provide one-on-one therapy services rather than to be in the field,” Brown said. “I look at my role as a supportive role. I don’t look at it as the enemy trying to break up a family, even though that’s the how most people see it.”
Brown tries to provide the resources and support that help families stay together. This has long been an aspect of Home Start’s mission. The organization was founded 49 years ago in a five-year experiment to see the outcomes of people visiting at-risk homes to provide parenting lessons and tools. According to Home Start CEO Laura Tancredi-Baese, the county found that the children in households visited by Home Start social workers had better outcomes as their parents learned best practices for raising kids.
From that time, the field has changed significantly even before the pandemic. Tancredi-Baese emphasized that trauma-informed care is a major focus now.
“I think our recognition of trauma and the impact of trauma is something that we’ve learned a lot more about in the last 10 years than when I was first in the field. Having that lens of how trauma impacts the individuals and families and communities that we serve and keeping that front and center in everything that we do is key,” Tancredi-Baese, who has been in the social work field for over 30 years, said.
That trauma-informed lens helps social workers strengthen families and provide supportive services.
“[Social work] is rewarding. It also can be hard at times, but in the end, I feel like if you help even just one person, it’s gonna make an impact on your life and feel like you’re doing the right thing,” Hernandez said.
— Reach Kendra Sitton at email@example.com.