Addressing “The Many Faces of Homelessness in New York State” was the focus of the Syracuse University School of Social Work’s 20th Annual James L. Stone Legislative Policy Symposium held Friday, October 26, 2018, at the Onondaga County Legislative Chambers in Syracuse, New York.

As a central feature of our Bachelor of Science in Social Work (BSSW) and Master of Social Work (MSW) curricula, this event is designed to reinforce the importance of, and commitment to, policy practice as a professional responsibility. Each year students and faculty take a day to explore the roles that social workers, advocates, legislators, community leaders, and service providers play as issues affecting vulnerable populations emerge onto the public agenda, move through legislative processes, and as policy and programmatic interventions are implemented. The goal is to further strengthen the commitment of social work students to participate, as professionals and citizens, in advancing the ideas and values of the profession through policy practice. These symposia have been made possible by the generosity of James L. Stone, a distinguished alumnus (MSW ’64) and former Commissioner of the New York State Office of Mental Health. IMG_7131

Dr. Robert L. Okin (pictured right)  recipient of the American Psychiatric Association’s Human Rights Award and author of Silent Voices: People with Mental Disorders on the Streetkeynoted the conference, noting that “when you see homelessness up close and personal, it’s clear that it represents a severe moral problem for society as well as an absolute humanitarian crisis.”

Notwithstanding that “19,000 more people became homeless than stopped being homeless last year,” Andrew Hevesi, New York State Assembly Member and Chair of its Social Services Committee (pictured below with Amanda Aykanian, Research and Project Lead at NCEHS), warned that “the state has been walking away from its responsibility.” Relative to the expenses incurred by counties, New York State is paying a smaller portion of the cost of housing and related services for people who are homeless than it had in the past. Other presenters highlighted how they harness their own homelessness advocacy skills, with and on behalf of persons who are homeless, to educate the public and expand services. Still others, while also discussing how much remains to be done, shared their knowledge of innovative efforts to address homelessness in central New York, including providing “street corner” health interventions, constructing tiny home communities, forming coalitions, and implementing social services.

We invite you to take a look at the following videos of the presentations made over the course of the day. They are available for classroom and other professional usage.

Conference participants learned about the problems facing New Yorkers who are homeless  89,500, according to a point-in-time survey, including 526 in Onondaga County. When “doubling-up” with relatives or friends is counted, frighteningly, the Syracuse School district reported that one-in-ten students, 2,464, were homeless in 2016 a number only exceeded by the New York City school district. We were reminded that the experience of being homeless falls disproportionately on persons with physical and behavioral disabilities, communities of color, LGBTQ youth, people who are impoverished, and children and women, including families experiencing domestic violence. And, many of our presenters discussed the harsh reality of how homeless populations are often marginalized and unseen. They are sometimes criminalized, often experience a loss of personhood, and subject to routine violations of “civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, …especially the rights to housing and freedom from non-discrimination and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty).

IMG_7183This year’s symposium was well-timed to the Council on Social Work Education’s growing interest in integrating homelessness into social work curricula. We were fortunate to have the advice and presence of Amanda Aykanian (pictured left, with Assembly Member Hevesi), a Ph.D. candidate at the University at Albany (SUNY) School of Social Welfare and Research and Project Lead at the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services. She and her colleagues are working to strengthen social work education to better address homelessness and to expand field placements for students in homeless settings. According to Ms. Aykanian, it is important that social workers continue to advocate for change at all levels.IMG_7283

The importance of this work to the social work profession, and more importantly to people who are homeless, was driven home by Al-amin Muhammad (pictured right), founder of We Rise Above the Streets Recovery Outreach, a Syracuse organization recognized for its “Sandwich Saturdays.” He regularly engages large numbers of volunteers on Saturdays in directly engaging and providing food to people who are homeless. Here’s what one interaction with a social worker meant to him when he experienced homelessness:

“I was about to commit suicide until a social worker walked up to me. He remembered me when I signed up for the detox center and told me my name was at the top of the list. He’d been looking for me. This social worker saved my life.”

Later in his journey, he says, “I finally told myself I was somebody. All my life people told me I would never amount to anything, and I believed that, until the social worker told me that I was somebody.”

We are a profession that respects the resiliency and strength described above. Our profession’s work embraces the tradition of respecting the worth of humankind.

Syracuse University School of Social Work is pleased to be a part of the National Center’s New York/New Jersey Regional Network. We have many excellent field placements that connect to homeless services. We are currently infusing more content on homelessness into our course offerings. We will continue to maintain a focus on empowerment and ethical adherence associated with homeless populations.

The slide show below features additional pictures of presenters, students, and other attendees.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Blog Post Authors:

Eric R. Kingson, Ph.D., Professor, Syracuse University School of Social Work, Falk College

Keith A. Alford, Ph.D., M.S.W., Director and Associate Professor, Syracuse University School of Social Work, Falk College

Alexandra Leigh Kerr, M.S.W. Student, Graduate Assistant, and Coordinator of 2018 Legislative Policy Day Symposium, Syracuse University School of Social Work, Falk College

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