Framing Conversations about Human Services

frameThe FrameWorks Institute has published a series of studies investigating the most effective ways to communicate about seven social justice issues: criminal justice, human services, affordable housing, education, budgets and taxes, parenting, and aging. The issues of human services and affordable housing are particularly relevant to homeless providers and advocates. This blog post summarizes some of the key points from the institute’s Talking Human Services report, but interested readers are encouraged to check out the full document available here.

The Talking Human Services issue addresses where we are going wrong in talking about human services and how best to engage the public in supporting and understanding the field. The main barrier in the human services narrative is that it remains anchored in a charity model; in this model, we often get stuck in a differentiation between the “deserving and undeserving poor”, and much of the action is focused on proving the worthiness of those receiving services. In reality, human services do much more than address problems for those who are experiencing the worst possible conditions. Human services focus on prevention with a large focus on social determinants; promotion of well-being through ensuring supports, such as employment, transportation, and education; and direct supports for those exposed to multiple stressors so they can regain and maintain an improved quality of life.

Image retrieved from

Why are human services messages failing? The study first analyzed how Americans think about what well-being means, what threatens it, how we improve it, and what human services are and how they work. They found that the public tends to associate well-being with financial self-sufficiency and physical health, and that lack of willpower, bad parenting, and dangerous communities threaten well-being. In regards to improving well-being, the most common answers were that individuals are responsible for improving their own well-being, that the government should but cannot help due to greed on the parts of both politicians and recipients of services, and that informal networks need to step in to help. When asked what human services are, many did not know what the term “human services” meant and if they did, they defined them as purely direct services, charity, or a temporary provision of basic needs. In these answers, there is a prominent theme of individualism and a misperception of what human services are or how to help.

How do we change these messages? The study found that the use of a “building well-being” narrative provides the most effective answers to questions about human services:

  1. What is at stake?
    • Human Potential – Help people recognize that everyone needs support and human services benefit everyone.
  2. What kind of support do people need?
    • Construction – Use a construction metaphor to explain what well-being is and how it is shaped. Explain that well-being is built and strengthened by things such as social relationships, community resources, and opportunities. This metaphor communicates the importance of a strong foundation for growth and the need for ongoing support, and emphasizes that human services construct well-being and address faults in the way well-being was constructed rather than focusing on or blaming personal characteristics.
  3. What threatens well-being?
    • Construction – Use extensions and implications of the metaphor, such as bad construction or unpredictable weather, to explain how context affects outcomes. For example, discuss how “spotty construction” of a house, like inadequate support, can lead to later problems. The “unpredictable weather” metaphor emphasizes that there are things outside of an individual’s control, such as economic downturn, that affect well-being, much like how bad weather can affect the stability of a house. 
  4. How do we ensure well-being for all?
    • Construction – Use this metaphor to help people think about the different ways human services support well-being. Compare human service professionals to the professionals who construct buildings. Point out that there are several specialists who help in the construction of a building, such as planning, building, and ongoing maintenance specialists, much like how human services professionals are involved in many different areas of building and sustaining well-being.
    • Life Cycle – Use life cycle examples to help people understand that human services help people at all stages of the life cycle from infancy to older adulthood. Provide concrete examples of different programs that serve people in all stages of life and to a diverse array of recipients.

The public tends to fall into traps of thinking that make it harder to gain support for human services, such as misunderstanding what these services are and a large sense of individualism that can be difficult to break. This framework provides a tool for human service professionals and advocates to break through these traps and further human service efforts.

Keep an eye out for an upcoming post about the FrameWorks Institute’s issue on framing conversations about affordable housing.



Blog Post Author: Kelsey Whittington, MSW, graduate assistant for the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services.

Like this post?
Check out this one Kelsey wrote about employment supports for people experiencing homelessness.

Want more info?
Visit our website to learn more about us and our National Homelessness Social Work Initiative. And, join our mailing list to receive our newsletter.

On social media?
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Students’ Excellence in Homeless Services and Research Recognized at NYU Silver School of Social Work’s Annual Awards Night

On April 20th, NYU’s Silver School of Social Work Annual Awards ceremony included awards given for Excellence in Homeless Services and Research to MSW student Julianna DiPinto and PhD student Yeqing Yuan. Made possible by the National Center’s National 2017 Student Awards-Yeqing Yuan4Homelessness Social Work Initiative (funded by the New York Community Trust), these awards included a check for $1,500 and a plaque. Ms. DiPinto was recognized for her internship at the Coalition for the Homeless where she excelled at working with and advocating for homeless adults and families. Ms. Yuan was cited for her commitment to helping homeless persons, from her social work practice in Boston to her current research involving services for persons at risk of homelessness, serious mental illness, and substance abuse.

Ms. Yuan (pictured right) said:

“I’m extremely grateful for having received this award. I would like to thank the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services for making this award possible. I also thank my faculty mentors, Drs. Jennifer Manuel and Deborah Padgett, for their generous support and guidance. I’m very proud to be part of the homeless services community and will continue to strive toward ending homelessness.”

NYU Silver faculty members, and National Center faculty contacts, Peggy Morton and Deborah Padgett, oversaw the award’s creation and the selection of recipients.

2017 Student Awards-Julianna DiPinto

Like this post?
Check out this one written by a student at the University of South Florida about a recent Hack for Homelessness event at the school.

Want more info?
Visit our website to learn more about us and our National Homelessness Social Work Initiative. And, join our mailing list to receive our newsletter.

On social media?
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.



The Aging of the U.S. Homeless Population

Our nation’s homeless population is rapidly aging. The older homeless are largely young baby boomers who grew up during a time when the country experienced back-to-back recessions and a crack-cocaine epidemic. As highlighted in an article in The Nation, other causes include years of trickle-down economics, welfare cutbacks, increasing income inequality, the disappearance of unions, and the privatization of public services.

Dennis Culhane, PhD, from the University of Pennsylvania, predicts that this trend of older homeless individuals is likely to continue as many youth growing up in foster care or in juvenile justice systems, as well as new Veterans returning to civilian life, face challenges finding employment and housing and are therefore increasingly at risk for experiencing homelessness. Additionally, while recent initiatives to develop alternatives to incarceration have decreased the prison population, individuals reintegrating into society are often unprepared for life outside of prison and find themselves homeless or unstably housed.

In 2014, there were 306,000 people over 50 living on the streets, which is a 20% increase from 2007. People over 50 constitute 31% of the U.S. homeless population, a NY Times article points out (see also The Annual Homeless Assessment Report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development). A large majority of the older homeless population have been on the streets for a significant portion of their lives and often have complicated health issues that are difficult to address while living on the streets.homeless-man-mdn

Life on the streets would be hard on anyone’s body, but for older adults who have spent many years homeless it can be physically debilitating. Without regular access to a doctor, the consequences of living on the streets are extreme and can result in frequent visits to an emergency room for serious conditions, such as chronic pain and diabetes. A lack of healthcare often has homeless individuals in their 50s experiencing health problems similar to housed individuals in their 80s.

Advocates for the homeless point out that this problem is causing the cost of healthcare and social services to rise, which is creating a public health and policy crisis. Many point to permanent supportive housing as the solution to this problem, a solution that combines affordable housing with support services. If older homeless individuals are given homes, their health might not deteriorate as quickly and they may need fewer social services. Supportive housing has been instrumental in greatly reducing the number of chronically homeless individuals over the last decade.

To prevent the new trend of chronically homeless adults, Dennis Culhane recommends a wider range of preventative services to target populations at-risk of homelessness, including short-term emergency housing assistance, ongoing housing, financial, and educational supports for young adults, prison reentry programs, and Veteran support programs.

Ben HenwoodBen Henwood, PhD, from the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, is studying ways to make supportive housing services more suitable to the needs of older adults. He’s leading a two-year project to explore ways to reduce the gaps between the needs of L.A.’s older chronic homeless population and existing housing and support service options. This study focuses on health symptoms, such as delirium, falls, incontinence, and frailty, that are frequently found in older adults but are not specific disease categories. The goal is to provide data on how addressing age-related health conditions can be integrated into housing services and how to adapt screening services for the elderly in non-clinical settings.

Blog Post Author: Kelsey Whittington, MSW, graduate assistant for the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services.

Like this post?
Check out this one about employment support programs for people experiencing homelessness.

Want more info?
Visit our website to learn more about us and our National Homelessness Social Work Initiative. And, join our mailing list to receive our newsletter.

On social media?
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Binghamton University Hosts Film Screening and Panel Discussion to Raise Awareness about Homelessness

This past November 18th, in recognition of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, faculty and students from Binghamton University’s Department of Social Work collaborated with the Southern Tier Homeless Coalition to host a screening of the film Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell. A panel presentation and community conversation followed to raise awareness of homelessness, its potential ramifications, and to identify next steps. Binghamton’s mayor, Rich David, opened the event with a brief speech about his ongoing efforts to address homelessness.

The film follows the continuing life story of Erin Blackwell, who was first introduced to audiences 20 years ago in director Martin Bell’s Streetwise, a documentary about youth homelessness. Bell’s follow-up documentary profoundly chronicles the resilience and ongoing traumas encountered by the protagonist over the course of two decades.

More than 60 community members and students attended the event.


The panel included:

  • Cassandra Bransford, Associate Professor of social work at Binghamton University and faculty contact for the National Center, who served as moderator;
  • Shari Weiss, President of the Executive Board and Chair of the Southern Tier Homeless Coalition, who spoke about developing community partnerships to end homelessness;
  • David Wallace, Clinical Director at the LaSalle School (Albany, NY), who spoke about trauma, homelessness, and youth;
  • Jessica Peruse, Homeless Team Leader at the VA Medical Center (Syracuse, NY), who spoke about the Housing First model; and
  • Jed Metzger, Associate Professor of social work at Nazareth College and the school’s faculty contact for the National Center, who spoke about what we can do to end homelessness and poverty.

The panelists presented their perspective following the screening, answered audience questions, and encouraged audience members to get involved. Continuing education credits were offered to social workers for attending. The event was otherwise free and open to the public.

Panelists answered audience questions following the film.

Donations were solicited for the ongoing Freeze Fund initiative. Both prior to and during the event, students collected non-perishable food items, toothbrushes, socks and foot warmers to hand out in care packages to community members over the frigid winter months.

Ending Homelessness in Binghamton

The city of Binghamton has long been on the forefront of the struggle to eradicate homelessness. In late 2014, Mayor David announced a landmark accomplishment in this effort as part of the national Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. On a single night across the city, not a single veteran experienced unsheltered homelessness, earning Binghamton the distinction of being the first city in the country to meet the Mayors Challenge.

These efforts continue to this day, led in large part by the Southern Tier Homeless Coalition, which coordinates services and conducts the yearly point-in-time count. The Coalitions’ work helps provide critical support to the community and gathers crucial data to secure funding for services both in urban Binghamton and in the surrounding rural counties.

Advancing Social Justice Together

This event supports the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare’s Grand Challenge to End Homelessness and aligns with CSWE’s fifth core competency – advancing human rights and social and economic justice. Homeless or otherwise, our most vulnerable community members deserve better, and it is our responsibility as social workers to help build a social safety net to protect them. This event to raise community awareness is only one step in the broader struggle to end homelessness.

Ultimately, ongoing collaboration among stakeholders is key. Rebecca Rathmell, the Southern Tier Homeless Coalition’s coordinator, said it best:

“It has to be a collaborative effort and everything from street outreach and making sure we’re identifying the youth and the families experiencing homelessness all the way to permanent support of housing.”

We were grateful to be able to collaborate to make this event happen and we at Binghamton University are looking forward to future opportunities moving forward.


About the Author: Michael Cole is a second-year master’s student and Graduate Assistant at the Binghamton University Department of Social Work. He is currently interning at the UHS Wilson Medical Center. In his spare time, he enjoys baking and blogging about social justice. 

Like this post?
Check out this one written by Robin Petering, doctoral candidate at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

Want more info?
Visit our website to learn more about us and our National Homelessness Social Work Initiative. And, join our mailing list to receive our newsletter.

On social media?
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

What Does Your “Perfect Life” Look Like?

I am fortunate to be a co-Investigator on the Homeless Risk and Resiliency Survey, which is a multi-city assessment of the behaviors and experiences of homeless and unstably housed youth. This past summer myself and my team collected qualitative interviews with a subset of the youth participants in Los Angeles. One of the questions we asked seemed overtly simple for a research question. We asked everyone: “If you woke up tomorrow and your life was exactly the way you wanted it to be, what would it look like?” The answers we got were endearing, funny, honest, and inspiring. Some really pulled on the heartstrings, but as a whole, the answers provided an honest picture of the hopes and dreams of youth experiencing homelessness or housing instability.

In writing this piece, I asked myself the same question. If I woke up tomorrow and my life was exactly the way I wanted it, I would be living on the West Coast in my own home, I would be surrounded, supported, challenged and inspired by family and friends, I would be working towards a career that makes me happy and gives me purpose, and myself and the one’s I love would be healthy. Over the course of my life, I’ve been asked and have answered this question many times. Each time, my answer changes. The more times I articulate my answer to this question, the closer my answer gets to my reality. With each contemplation, I get a new opportunity to reflect on my core values and identify what are the most important things I want in my life. Homeless and unstably housed youth deserve these opportunities as well. I feel that sometimes as service providers and researchers we can get caught up in the minutia. So keep asking the simple questions and ask them over and over again.

Below is my favorite quote from the interviews:

“I would be in a queen size bed firm but soft, my bills would be paid off, my storage unit that I have would be paid off for like five years, I would have my associates degree and would be working on my masters no bachelors in law or criminal justice anything crime wise, um yeah that’s pretty much it. And I would still be advocating for the underdogs somehow. But all that if I just woke up tomorrow and all that happened it would feel great but it would be hollow. ‘Cause no effort was put into filling it up and making it solid. I wished it but the outer shell is there. The process is that makes it sweeter. I want to fill it up that shell with the blood sweat and tears of me getting there. It would be lovely if that just happened and kind of I wished it did. I would get over the hollow feeling but pretty much yes. I have to work for it because I feel like it will be snatched away if I don’t.”

Scroll down to see more quotes from the youth interviewed, and you can download a pdf of them here.




Note: The Homeless Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey (HYRRS) investigators include Anamika Barman Adhikari, Kimberly Bender, Hsun-ta Hsu, Kristen Ferguson, Sarah Narendorf, Diane Santa Maria and Jama Shelton.

robinAbout the Author: Robin P. Petering, MSW is a PhD candidate in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Her research interests center on understanding the social determinants of risk behaviors among vulnerable youth. She is a co-Primary Investigator on a multi-city study assessing the health risks and resiliency of homeless and unstable housed young people. She also recently received an NIH fellowship to support her research on gang-involved homeless youth.

The Future of Innovation Lies in Collaboration – USF Social Work and Engineering Students Pave the Way

The 2016 Hackathon Codapalooza, sponsored by the Tampa Innovation Alliance, took place over the weekend of June 3-5, 2016, where diverse groups of individuals came together for 72 hours to respond to the challenge to design an app to help the region’s homeless population. The University of South Florida’s team (Team USF), composed of students from the College of Engineering and the School of Social Work, represented a unique and wide range of skills sharing one common goal—a desire to use their education and passion to help ease a problem faced daily by those on the streets.

Team USF: Osniel Quintana Salgado , Ricardo Carrion-Carrero (both Engineering students), Dana Gyroko, John J. Beggs, Gillian Penn (all 2016 MSW alums), and Erin Fowler (Communications)

The team (pictured left) began their collaboration with a discussion on the epidemic of homelessness overall. For some engineering students, this was their first time hearing about the realities that the community faces. For these students, hearing the answers only prodded more questions—about topics like federal funding, shelters, and housing vouchers. As the social work students presented case examples of the difficulties accessing resources and the impact of the lack of funding dedicated to help this vulnerable population, it was clear that the engineering students were feeling a variety of emotions. Ultimately, this made them eager to learn more and above all determined to find a worthwhile solution at this event. The social work students were eager to provide information on the current status of the homeless, not only from the factual laws and regulations perspective but also from their view of raw, first hand experience gained from working directly with Tampa’s homeless population. They knew the reality of what was most needed and practical in the community.

The social work students told many stories of homeless people being unable to find an open shelter bed. And, if they did, being tired of waiting in lines all day trying to secure a bed only to find they did not qualify, because shelters often have admission criteria for special subpopulations of homeless people. For example, perhaps he or she is not a veteran, not disabled, not a woman with children, or doesn’t meet any of the other possible prerequisites for a shelter. This is what ultimately led to the app that Team USF created.

This is how the general idea of the app would work. Users would be prompted to answer a series of questions (e.g. gender; age; if accompanied by children, how many and how old; veteran status; disability status, etc.). Once the information was processed, a series of shelters they qualified for would pop up, based on their GPS location, along with the addresses and phone numbers.

The engineering students, as they were developing the app, went step-by-step through the coding process with the social work students. While they possessed so much technical skill, the social work students would remind them about nuances within the homeless community that made designing this app different from any other. For example, the coders assumed after the user downloaded the app that they would create a login, as one would do with most apps and websites. However, the social work students made the engineering students aware that the homeless population is already wary of authority.

The realization of the need to protect personal information infused the conversation as engineers realized the sensitivity of the state of homelessness. The login idea was nixed. After that, the coding students began speaking in highly technical jargon about html, and the social work students eagerly inquired about what specific terms meant—respect and admiration in their voices, an exact replication of the excitement the engineering students had when learning about the needs of the homeless. Both the engineering and social work students wanted, with such fervor, to ensure the app went beyond just the Hackathon, and that it could actually be implemented as a helpful tool for a community desperately in need.

Team USF presented their app at the conclusion of the event. As they showcased their prototype, it was clear that each decision made for the app was a deliberate one and one that was discussed and explained in great detail within the group. From the minute they started, there was a practical and thoughtful reason for every decision made. The decision to make the app for Android phones, for example, was because it was mentioned that a vast majority of the homeless do not have iPhones, and thus it would be less important to make the app Apple-friendly. Every choice being a conscious one was a huge aspect of what made the process so invigorating. The app was clearly tailored to the user and provided access to an important service.

Overall, the Hack for Homelessness event is part of a bigger picture of “Hack For” events that are changing the world. Every team participating created something useful that did not already—but absolutely needs to—exist. This event facilitated integral dialogues between social workers and coders and, most importantly, collaboration in the face of determination. It showed how eager people are to learn about other fields. Social ErinFowlerworkers and engineers both work to solve big social problems. More opportunities to collaborate like this are needed to do just that.

About the Author: Erin Fowler (pictured right) is a third-year senior at the University of South Florida studying mass communications and interning at Moffitt Cancer Center. In her spare time, she enjoys doing yoga and building her book collection. 

Like this post?
Check out this one written by Kelsey Whittington, UAlbany MSW student and graduate assistant for the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services.

Want more info?
Visit our website to learn more about us and our National Homelessness Social Work Initiative. And, join our mailing list to receive our newsletter.

On social media?
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Incorporating SOAR Training into Social Work Education

The National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services is working in partnership with the SAMHSA SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR) Technical Assistance Center. Three of the National Center’s partner schools launched SOAR initiatives last fall, which were featured in the August issue of CSWE’s Full Circle newsletter and in an accompanying blog post. Following are progress updates from each school.

University of Texas at Austin
ut-ssw-logo2Beginning last August, three MSW students from the University of Texas at Austin were placed in agencies serving the homeless as part of a SOAR internship pilot. The students completed the SOAR Online Course and received certification early in the placement and began working on applications under the supervision of the Travis County SOAR lead. As of March, the students had completed and submitted for review a total of eight applications. Feedback from the agencies has been positive and the school is looking for ways to expand the pilot during the next academic year. One of the students, Josh Kivlovitz, wrote a blog post for the SOAR Voices Blog about his experience with SOAR as an intern at Austin Travis County Integral Care.

Catholic University of America
cua-logo-small2Linda Plitt Donaldson, Associate Professor at the CUA National Catholic School of Social Service, participated in a series of meetings this past fall with SOAR providers and leadership in Washington, D.C. Following that, they asked her to facilitate a strategic planning process to identify priorities for the next year. Linda facilitated this process in February and the following goals emerged: 1) expand SOAR capacity by offering additional online trainings and collaborating with D.C.’s Interagency Council to engage additional agencies; 2) develop a SOAR sustainability plan, including identifying new funding to support implementation; and 3) improve communication with the Social Security Administration and the Department on Disability Services. SOAR leaders may invite CUA to support one or more of these initiatives.

California State University at Long Beach
CSULB developed an advanced practice elective in their MSW program that covers best practices working with clients who are at-risk of or currently experiencing homelessness. As part of the course, students completed the SOAR certification and gained experience using the tool. In the fall of 2016, 13 MSW students completed this certification and will be graduating in May. Additionally, the school is continuing to collaborate with social work programs in Los Angeles County as well as surrounding
counties to develop a plan to provide SOAR training to all interns who are placed in hdr_blk_id2agencies serving homeless or at-
risk of homelessness populations.

These three projects are excellent examples of integrating homelessness content and related skills into social work curriculum. If you’re interested in other ways to do this, check out the on-demand webinar series on homelessness in social work education produced by CSWE in partnership with the National Center.

Other Examples of SOAR Implementation
SOAR has been successfully integrated into the learning curriculum of social work interns at the University of Montana School of Social Work. BSW and MSW students preparing for a field placement in the Missoula County’s Jail Diversion Program take the SOAR Online Course. They then complete SOAR applications as part of their placement in a program at the jail that provides mental health and case management services to individuals experiencing incarceration and severe disabling mental illness. Once approved for Social Security disability benefits, the benefits help to stabilize individuals in the community through housing and other necessary services. Through SOAR implementation, recidivism has dropped and applicants with severe and persistent mental illness are able to be served in their community.

If you’re interested in learning more about how communities are implementing SOAR, check out the SOAR Voices Blog. It features stories of successful and creative implementations of SOAR in communities across the U.S. For example, we enjoyed reading this post on the use of SOAR integrated with supportive housing services to help individuals balance paid employment with disability benefits, and this one on a program that provides SOAR services to Veterans, in addition to connecting them with VA benefits and other community resources.

Where to Go to Learn More
Interested in learning more about SOAR implementation in your community? Each state has a SOAR team lead and SOAR TA Center Liaison who are available to contact for more information or for any questions you might have. Click here for details about your state.

Blog Post Authors: Amanda Aykanian, Research and Project Lead & Kelsey Whittington, Graduate Assistant. Special thanks to Cal Streeter (UT-Austin), Linda Plitt Donaldson (CUA), Nancy Meyer-Adams (CSULB), and Kristin Lupfer and Abigail Lemon (SOAR TA Center) for providing content.

Like this post?
Check out this one about other ways the UT-Austin School of Social Work partners with local agencies to create community-based learning opportunities for students.

Want more info?
Visit our website to learn more about us and our National Homelessness Social Work Initiative. And, join our mailing list to receive our newsletter.

On social media?
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.