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Stories from the Field: Helping Individuals Experiencing Homelessness
Along with social workers, those in graduate level social work education programs have served as essential workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. One Master of Social Work student at the Tulane University School of Social Work has committed to addressing the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness through his field education placement.
Anthony Critelli-O’Donnell is beginning his third semester in TSSW’s MSW program. At the start of the spring 2020 semester, he started his field placement at the Harry Tompson Center, a homeless service organization housed at the Rebuild Center behind St. Joseph's Church in downtown New Orleans. “We closed near the end of March when the shelter could no longer operate safely,” he says. “At that point I reached out to UNITY, a larger service organization, to see if they could use me. I've been working for UNITY since then on an expanded schedule.”
UNITY of Greater New Orleans is a nonprofit organization leading a collaborative of 63 organizations providing housing and services to the homeless. This includes community partnerships to prevent, reduce, and end homelessness, raising and distributing funds for the provision of housing and services by the collaborative, conducting homeless outreach on the streets and in abandoned buildings, developing nonprofit-owned apartment buildings for those who are homeless or low income, helping the public locate affordable housing, and advocating for public policy to prevent and reduce homelessness.
Since Anthony started at UNITY, the organization has been involved in the state’s efforts to temporarily house New Orleanians experiencing homelessness in hotels to protect them from COVID-19 with the long-term goal of funneling them into permanent housing when the outbreak has ended. “When the state initiated its large-scale hotel pickup, my supervisor and I, along with my fellow intern Tim Davidson, were some of the only people on site with extensive knowledge of the local homeless community,” Anthony says. “We were tasked with conducting outreach and explaining the situation to folks as they gathered their possessions and prepared for the move.”
UNITY also conducted its own hotel rehousing efforts, locating individuals that it knew to be vulnerable to the illness and moving them to rooms spread out across six hotels. “That's taken up the majority of my time,” Anthony says. “I've been contacting churches and other volunteer organizations to obtain food for UNITY's clients in the hotels and spent many afternoons personally delivering meals to clients spread out across the six hotels.”
Anthony and his fellow interns have also been tasked with tracking down the individuals on a "vulnerable list." “We ride along with our supervisor and use our knowledge of the homeless community to find people, address their concerns about rehousing, and transport them to hotels,” he says. “Our home base is at the UNITY Welcome Home center on Baronne, but we spend a lot of time rolling around the city in UNITY's big gold van.”
Since the closure of the Rebuild Center, Anthony has essentially started a whole new placement and provided critical support to the organization and those it serves. “It really feels like I've started my career,” he says. “I've been tasked with a lot of heavy-duty things that wouldn't normally be an intern's responsibility. Myself and other interns have been asked to handle the duties in support of senior staff.”
Anthony has stepped up to meet this rapid introduction to the social work profession. “While these are obviously tragic circumstances, I am grateful for the intense professional experience I'm getting, and the opportunity to be useful to some of the city's most marginalized residents,” he says.
UNITY has hired Anthony full time to do case management for 23 clients at the Midtown Hotel, along with working at the Rebuild now that it's reopened.
Organizations that provide social services and address homelessness will continue to be important and need future leaders like Anthony who truly care about creating lasting change for individuals. “This crisis, like most crises, disproportionately impacts people in our community who are already subject to oppression and economic dispossession,” he says. “We have the opportunity to alleviate some of their hardship, and potentially protect them from this life-threatening illness, and that has been a truly powerful experience that I won't forget.”