Counseling Today, Member Insights

Homelessness: A counselor’s role in alleviating a complex systemic issue

By Zach Bruns and Cody Andrews July 10, 2017

How would you know if your client is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless? For counselors working in school or community settings, this seems like a simple question to answer. In reality, homelessness is a complex status that may be layered with shame, guilt, addiction, trauma, family strife, legal pitfalls, economic and employment barriers, and inadequate physical and mental health treatment.

As professional counselors, we are challenged with trying to meet the psychological and emotional needs of our clients. How do we properly treat individuals with mental health symptoms whose needs are so intricately interwoven into personal and environmental factors, especially housing instability? The professional research correlating homelessness and mental health counseling is surprisingly minimal (although not nonexistent), whereas the efficacy of current popular psychotherapy techniques (e.g., cognitive behavior therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, motivational interviewing) has been repeatedly demonstrated throughout research literature. Therefore, it is reasonable to ask: Is psychotherapy alone enough to adequately help individuals living in homelessness or without permanent housing? We will attempt to answer that question in this article while emphasizing the importance of instilling hope in the lives of our clients.

As an American Counseling Association member and a licensed professional counselor and substance abuse counselor in Wisconsin, I (Zach Bruns) have the privilege of working as a mental health clinician on a multidisciplinary team that serves individuals who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in Milwaukee County. Our nonprofit agency, Outreach Community Health Centers, receives funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to run a Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) program (see bit.ly/2hcldEg). We do not have all the answers and resources to solve the systemic societal issues of homelessness, but I would like to share my insights on practical ways to help individuals who are living in homelessness or at risk of homelessness.

Let’s start with the basic concepts of homelessness. Each community in the United States has different access to resources for people experiencing homelessness. Smaller rural communities may rely heavily on faith-based organizations to assist individuals experiencing homelessness or economic hardship. Larger urban communities such as Milwaukee often have emergency shelters, open year-round or seasonally, that cater to specific populations (e.g., survivors of domestic violence, single women, women with children, families, single men). Depending on a shelter’s funding source — i.e., private or governmental — shelters may enforce their own rules or be required to abide by certain rules and regulations that dictate who can and cannot be admitted into their shelter, how long residents can stay and what services are offered to individuals or families during their shelter stay. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also organizes collaborative countywide Continuum of Care programs throughout the United States. These programs seek to provide services to those who are homeless, including helping individuals, unaccompanied youth and families transition into housing (see bit.ly/27ioSpd).

Emergency shelters that receive funding through HUD are expected to track the types of services they provide to individuals and the dates of shelter stays. HUD also funds permanent housing programs such as the Rapid Re-housing (see bit.ly/1MtqB19) and Housing First (see bit.ly/1HGeOsl) initiatives, which are required to provide documentation of a client’s homeless status before enrolling an individual or family in services. HUD created criteria for classifying homelessness into four categories (see bit.ly/1Ir9R9v): literally homeless, imminent risk of homelessness, homeless under other federal statutes and fleeing domestic violence. Individuals are placed into housing programs based on their category of homelessness, the length of time they have been homeless (e.g., 12 months or more in the past three years) and their documented disability status.

With this general background of homelessness in mind, how can counselors provide hope and encouragement and help our clients who are struggling with housing instability?

Primary health care. Help your clients get connected to a primary care doctor. This is vitally important because many (but not all) individuals who are homeless or at risk of homelessness have not had a recent physical exam or have unaddressed medical issues. You may be able to make an internal referral if you are affiliated with a medical clinic. Otherwise, you may need to help these clients research clinics that accept their insurance (if insured) or clinics that accept uninsured clients or work on a sliding fee scale. 

Psychiatry services. Not all clients’ mental health symptoms rise to a level requiring medication management just because they are homeless or at risk of being homeless. However, many individuals can benefit from the therapeutic effects of psychotropic medications as prescribed by a psychiatrist, advanced practice nurse prescriber or other credentialed prescriber. Depending on where you practice as a counselor, psychiatric services may be difficult to access or feature long wait lists. A primary care physician may be an alternative option, depending on your client’s mental health needs. A primary care doctor may be able to prescribe psychotropic medications for common mental health diagnoses such as mild to moderate mood disorders. Consider asking your clients to sign a release of information so that you can communicate with their doctor and coordinate appropriate services for them.    

Public benefits. If your clients are living in poverty and struggling to secure consistent employment and stable housing, they may benefit from public benefits. Help your clients enroll in and utilize benefit programs such as Medicaid or state-based health insurance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and unemployment insurance. If you are not the right person to assist clients with these tasks, refer them to an agency in your area that helps with public benefits. Also consider researching additional special benefits that may be available in your area. For example, SAMHSA’s SOAR program helps individuals who are homeless and living with a mental illness apply for and increase their chances of successfully obtaining Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits (see bit.ly/2eM4YPr).

Emergency shelter. If your community has a coordinated entry system for shelter, you may need to help clients make calls for shelter services, especially if this is their first time experiencing homelessness and they are feeling scared, ashamed or hesitant to ask for help. In Milwaukee County, most shelter bed openings are currently coordinated through IMPACT 2-1-1, which can be accessed via phone or online chat. Private shelters follow different rules and often accept individuals who present to a shelter in person. We recommend that you call the shelter in advance to check for current bed openings.

Disability documentation. Unless it’s your initial intake session with your client, you likely have already completed a formal intake process, including using relevant evidence-based screening tools, so you now have a sense of the mental health needs and issues that affect your client’s quality of life. The next step to helping your client is to vouch for your client in writing. Many supportive housing programs require documentation from a medical or mental health professional noting the individual’s current medical or mental health diagnosis. Work with your client to obtain housing application paperwork, and offer to write the client a letter on your agency’s letterhead documenting any disabilities that you are qualified to diagnose.

Food and clothing (and maybe a sleeping bag). As counselors, sometimes we forget about the physiological and safety needs at the bottom of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid. Consider obtaining or creating a list of local community resources, including food pantries, free meal sites and clothing banks, to share with your clients. Many secondhand clothing stores, such as Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul, offer voucher programs for people in need of clothing and furniture. Consider reaching out to local churches, temples, mosques, synagogues or other nonprofits to request donations of material goods that your clients may need, such as personal hygiene supplies, coats or jackets, boots, blankets or even sleeping bags. 

Transportation. Transportation can be a major barrier to a client obtaining and keeping employment and attending regular appointments such as counseling sessions, supervised visits with children and apartment showings. In Wisconsin, individuals with Medicaid can qualify for assistance with transportation for medical-related services, usually via public transportation (if available) or contracted transportation services. Some cities also offer discounted public transportation for seniors, individuals with Medicare or persons with qualifying disabilities. In Milwaukee, our PATH team helps qualifying individuals apply for a GO Pass, a discounted bus pass for county residents older than 65 or for younger residents who receive SSI or SSDI, or who have a veterans disability designation and also have Medicaid or SNAP benefits.

Cell phone. A cell phone is a simple everyday device that most of us take for granted. However, if your client is living on the streets, under a bridge, in his or her car or even “couch surfing” with friends or family, a phone can be that client’s lifeline to the outside world. If your client is enrolled in public benefits, he or she likely qualifies for a free government-issued phone. You can help clients apply for a cell phone online through programs such as SafeLink Wireless (see bit.ly/1ISUYOD) or in person at local cell phone retail stores (call first to check availability).   

Long-term case management. We all have worked with difficult clients — individuals with complex mental and physical health needs whose level of care may extend beyond the scope of outpatient counseling treatment. To better support these clients, consider submitting a referral to a long-term case management program in your county. In Milwaukee County, the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division contracts with community agencies to offer three different types of case management programs for people whose primary diagnosis is related to mental health (see bit.ly/2q1uGSl). For individuals whose main diagnosis relates to physical health, there are additional agencies and case management programs, such as Family Care programs (see bit.ly/2hKeRg8), that offer services.      

In conclusion, psychotherapy is not enough to treat all the mental, social, emotional and environmental aspects surrounding individuals or families who are experiencing homelessness. By stepping outside the traditional boundaries of a counselor’s role, you can greatly benefit and encourage your clients as they progress along their recovery journeys. By using your person-centered counseling skills, you will encourage and build up hope in your clients, especially if they are struggling with issues surrounding homelessness. Remember the beloved Carl Rogers, who urged us all to treat our clients with genuineness, empathy and unconditional positive regard.

 

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Zach Bruns, a licensed professional counselor and substance abuse counselor, has been practicing community-based clinical counseling since 2013. He serves as the mental health clinician for the multidisciplinary Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness team at Outreach Community Health Centers in Milwaukee. He also works through Dungarvin Inc. and the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division’s Community Consultation Team to provide mobile crisis services to individuals diagnosed with intellectual/developmental disabilities and mental illnesses, their providers and loved ones. Contact him at zacharyb@
orchc-milw.org
.

Cody Andrews has served as the lead service provider for the Street Outreach Team at Outreach Community Health Centers since June 2015. He is starting graduate school this fall to obtain a master’s degree in social work and from there hopes to pursue a doctoral degree in social welfare. His research interests include housing interventions, social support systems of people experiencing homelessness and homeless outreach. Contact him at codya@orchc-milw.org.

 

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