Tag Archives: homelessness

Voice of Experience: Invisible people, Part 3: The homeless

By Gregory K. Moffatt June 3, 2019

He was the only student in my class who didn’t turn his papers in on time. He was constantly late and regularly fell asleep in class. I felt insulted by his seeming lack of respect for my classroom, for me and for our discipline. If I could have dropped him from the class, I would have. I almost resented the days he showed up.

But he wasn’t truly lazy, and he wasn’t intentionally disrespectful. Instead, he was a struggling member of the third group of invisible people I am highlighting in this series. It had never occurred to me that this student might be homeless, but a conversation with one of my colleagues opened my eyes to his situation. What I learned totally changed the way I saw him. I had been so blind.

The student was the eldest of three siblings who had been living with their mother in a homeless shelter. Mom had married young and had no job skills. When her husband left her, she had no money to pay the rent for their meager apartment. After months of eviction notices, the movers came in and swept everything in the apartment to the curb in less than an hour.

His mother spent the rest of that morning trying to find a place for them to stay. In the meantime, thieves helped themselves to their unsecured possessions on the curb. An afternoon rain had soaked their clothes, bedding and personal belongings. Much of what they owned was ruined. When my student and his siblings came home from school, they found their mother sitting on a broken dresser — dropped by a member of the eviction team — guarding what possessions they had left.

My student slept on a cot in a large room with several other families in the shelter. There was no place to store things other than under their cots, and things put there were often pilfered by other residents. Even an old pair of shoes might be better than those someone was already wearing.

Common bathrooms meant lines, especially in the mornings as my student tried to ready himself, wearing one set of clothes one day and his second set the next. Like others in the shelter, he washed out what he could in the sink, hoping the clothes would dry on the end of his cot by the next day.

This family was homeless because of divorce and a thoughtless ex-husband. Divorce happens to almost half of the U.S. population, so there was nothing unusual in that circumstance alone. My attitude toward my student made it clear I hadn’t even considered that there might be much more to his story.

Many of the people who are homeless in our nation struggle with addiction. Others are seriously mentally ill. To save money many years ago, my home state decided to get out of the mental health business. Mental health patients who were deemed not to be a risk to self or others were sent home or let out on the street, and the facilities closed. Some families couldn’t care for their family members who were mentally ill, and these individuals became nomads.

But there are also many people who are homeless who have merely fallen on hard times. Some men and women travel from one state to the next in search of job opportunities that might enable them to settle down with their families. They spend their nights in shelters, doorways, alleys or their cars.

Those who want to pull themselves out of the abyss of homelessness are met with barriers at every turn. Businesses don’t want them warming themselves in their shops. Cynical pedestrians cross the street to avoid saying, “I don’t have any money for you.” Esteem is further eroded by words such as, “You’ll just spend it on drugs.”

Services for those who are homeless are often inaccessible. For example, in Atlanta, the labor pool (where men and women go to find work) was many blocks away from where most shelters were located. It was smarter to sleep under a nearby bridge, thus possibly being first in line the next morning. Better that than to sleep in a shelter and not being allowed to leave until 7 a.m., thus risking being at the end of long lines and having less chance of securing a job for the day.

People who are homeless can also be stalled by people like me — a college professor and professional counselor who should have known better. My student had no place to study at the shelter, no place to keep his homework, and no money to buy his books. With limited transportation options, he was perpetually tardy. And he was exhausted all of the time from caring for his family, working when and where he could, and getting insufficient sleep in the crowded shelter.

Our clients who are homeless need transportation, food, clothing and jobs. I know that we aren’t social workers, but those who work with the homeless have to think pragmatically.

I’m glad that I learned about this student’s story — which has a happy ending. He and his family got back on their feet, he graduated from college, and life is better. It frightens me to think how many other people I might not have seen clearly, however, because of my cultural blindness.




Dear readers: I would value hearing from you if you found this series on cultural awareness (invisible people) helpful. My primary writing goal is always to help us do our jobs better. You help me do that with your comments, questions and ideas.

Previous articles in this series:

Voice of Experience: Invisible people, Part 1: Native Americans

Voice of Experience: Invisible people, Part 2: The incarcerated




Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.



Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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.




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@

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.


Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.




Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Putting a human face on homelessness

By Lynne Shallcross January 14, 2010

Sandy Sheller understands that, sometimes, the best counseling session might take place just waiting for the bus.

Sheller, the coordinator of mental health training for the Salvation Army of Greater Philadelphia, vividly remembers a client who was having trouble making it to a drug rehabilitation program. A caseworker informed Sheller that the woman, who was in her late 30s, was being “noncompliant” by refusing to go to the rehab program, which was a requirement for her to stay in the shelter.

Instead of lecturing the woman, demanding an explanation or jumping to conclusions, Sheller asked the client to talk about her situation. The key, Sheller says, was asking in an empathetic, nonjudgmental way. “I wasn’t trying to make her do anything, and she knew that,” says Sheller, who worked as an art and family therapist in an inner-city Salvation Army family shelter for about five years before becoming a coordinator a year ago.

The client explained that the rehabilitation program had changed locations, meaning she now had to take multiple buses to get there. Waiting for the first bus, the client had experienced panic attacks that prevented her from making it to the rehab program. Eventually, Sheller says, she and the client worked on the triggers and history that fed into the woman’s panic attacks, but first they took it slow and brainstormed more immediate solutions.

Sheller asked if going to the program was something the woman wanted to do and thought she could do, and the woman confirmed that it was. Together, they decided it would help if Sheller stood outside the shelter with the client as she waited for the bus. “She said, ’I think I just need somebody to be there, to remind me it’s just waiting for a bus and I’ll be OK,’” Sheller remembers. After about a week of waiting for the bus together, the client felt she was ready to handle the wait on her own. From then on, she came back to Sheller each day and reported how things had gone.

Much of the work Sheller does with clients facing the challenges of homelessness is simply about recognizing them as fellow human beings, she says. Given different situations or circumstances, any of us could find ourselves in the same position. “If I had gone through your life experiences,” Sheller tells her clients, “there’s no telling if I wouldn’t be where you are.”

Waiting at that bus stop was one of many experiences that taught Sheller the importance of simply being there for clients who are confronting homelessness. “To work effectively in the shelter means you have to really be where they are and go where they need to go,” says Sheller, a member of the American Counseling Association and assistant clinical professor in Drexel University’s Hahnemann Creative Arts in Therapy Program. “It requires you to be open and nonjudgmental, to be there for what’s needed. Get rid of the preconceived ideas that counseling is sitting in an office — be there in a very humanizing way.”

Nowhere to turn

Homelessness leaves people feeling they have no one to turn to and nowhere to go, Sheller says. “It’s the sense of feeling very isolated, very helpless, very alone and, at the same time, very stigmatized by society. You feel like a failure. The sense of feeling helpless is one of the hardest things that we, as human beings, endure. No one who’s homeless wants to be homeless.” There are complex situations underlying why each person becomes homeless, says Sheller, adding that she’s never met anyone who wants to be in that situation.

Michael Brubaker, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Human Services and academic coordinator in the addiction studies program, says the stigma surrounding homelessness stems in part from the Protestant work ethic on which the United States was built. Not only are people thought to be responsible for pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and getting themselves out of homelessness, he says, but there also exists a general bias that these individuals are solely responsible for their becoming homeless in the first place.

Brubaker has worked with homelessness for the past 12 years and conducted a study that involved taking counseling students to a shelter to learn from the residents. “We realized that we, as counselors, are not immune to influences from society,” he says. “(The shelter residents) can probably teach us better than we can teach them what their circumstances are about.” Brubaker, a member of ACA, emphasizes that homelessness is more of a situation and less of a population. Approximately 80 percent of those who become homeless in a given year are transitionally, not chronically, homeless, he says.

A large percentage of people in shelters have trauma in their history, Sheller says. Many of the shelter residents she sees grew up in foster care, aged out of the system, had children and are now homeless. They’ve had little or no consistent support for the long haul, she says.

The experience of being homeless can be traumatic in itself. “That experience of losing support — of realizing that family is not there to support, that friends are not there to support, to realize that society is not there to support — can be a very disheartening and even traumatic experience,” Brubaker says. The physical aspect of being on the streets is also traumatic, he says, in part because people experiencing homelessness are vulnerable to attacks by youth and predators, as well as harassment from authorities.

Sonya Lorelle, a doctoral candidate in the Old Dominion University Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling, says systemic barriers can provide significant hurdles for people attempting to overcome homelessness. Lorelle, an ACA member who spent time as a counselor in a shelter system in Norfolk, Va., recalls instances in which parents secured a job on the late shift in hopes of providing their family some financial stability. But, Lorelle says, barriers popped up from every angle — the bus route back home would stop running at a certain hour or child care wouldn’t be available after 6 p.m. “During a holiday when child care and school were closed or when the child became ill or had a doctor’s appointment, the balance would be thrown off,” she says. “More than once, I saw a parent lose a job for having to take a day off to take care of their children, putting them back at square one. Everything had to be perfectly balanced.”

Telling the story

Because of the struggling economy and the shortage of housing, Sheller estimates the current average length of stay for residents in many of the Salvation Army shelters is approximately a year. “It’s a really long time that you can get to work with them and create healing environments for them,” she says. Many shelters must refer clients out to other agencies for mental health care, but Sheller and other counselors who work with homelessness say having in-house mental health services, whenever possible, is helpful.

Although none of the shelter residents were required to see Sheller for counseling, she tried to build relationships with them and improve their experience within the “system.” Many shelter residents had encountered authority figures elsewhere who were supposed to help them but instead made them feel powerless and at fault for their circumstances, which only added to their sense of shame. “We (as counselors) are changing the paradigm,” she says. “We tell them in words and in actions, ’You’re not sick. You’re not bad. It’s what has happened to you. Let’s tell the story, and let’s help you out of it.’ It’s a trauma-informed perspective counselors should adopt when working with the homeless and one I have found extremely useful.”

Society’s biases against the homeless are often internalized by the people who experience homelessness, Brubaker says. “We offer something unique as counselors in our ability to help expand the perspective and encourage change,” he says. That means helping people take the blame and burden off themselves, while simultaneously empowering them to take the lead in changing their circumstances.

The counselors interviewed for this article agree that the first step in helping is simple and straightforward: Simply listen. “Having someone just listen to your story is really important. They haven’t been heard, they haven’t been validated. They would tell me, ’I feel like a number. No one cares about me,’” says Lorelle, reflecting on her work in the shelter system.

The real key is listening with an open mind, Sheller adds. “Homelessness doesn’t fit into a neat, stereotyped box. It’s an experience that anyone could have. Therefore, we shouldn’t have any preconceived ideas about what a homeless person is and what he needs — it has to come from the person.” Someone might arrive at a shelter with the attitude that all people in authority roles are evil, she says. Rather than telling the individual that isn’t true, it’s important to be respectful, listen and try to understand how that perception has been formed by the person’s past experiences, Sheller says. Many of the systems the homeless go through want these individuals to change themselves, she says. “But they just want someone to understand them first.”

Given their immediate needs and their sometimes-negative experiences within systems theoretically set up to “help” them, it may seem a daunting task to convince shelter residents that counselors have much to offer. “Much of our convincing will not be in words, but rather in our deeds,” Brubaker says. “Are we physically available to those in need? Are we willing to step out of our offices and meet with individuals on a park bench or over a meal at a shelter? Are we quick to judge a person who lives without a home? A caring presence can make a huge difference.”

A place to belong

The specific approach counselors use with these individuals isn’t the most important thing, Sheller says. “Whatever (technique) you use, the basic ability to relate to people and to build those relationships are really the most important,” she says. Homelessness can feel isolating and disconnecting, she explains, so forming relationships can build connection and empowerment. “From that, people can rise up. You’re fostering an experience where they feel like they’re OK and it’s going to be OK.”

Building relationships with homeless clients begins with simply getting to know them, Sheller says. Counselors can strengthen the relationship by being open, joining them where they are and focusing on being with them instead of imposing requirements or restrictions, she says. Counselors should strive to reach a level in the relationship where they can readily recognize when the person is struggling. If Sheller noticed that a resident didn’t seem quite right, she might ask that person to take a walk with her to Dunkin’ Donuts. Counseling in shelters doesn’t adhere to hourly appointments in an office, Sheller says. “You have to build relationships and build community, not just be in an office waiting. You’re just there and available and real.”

One part of getting to know clients is understanding why they act in certain ways, Sheller says. She recalls a particular shelter resident who seemed to be having unnecessary trouble getting food stamps and setting up her gas and electric accounts so she could move to available housing. Instead of jumping to conclusions, Sheller sat down with the client and asked what the problem was.

“What I really needed to understand was that it wasn’t her being noncompliant or resistant, but something else was going on that was preventing her from doing that,” Sheller says. The woman revealed she was frightened that if she followed through on those tasks and moved into new housing, a perpetrator from her past would be able to find her at her new address. Avoiding the move and remaining at the shelter felt safer, she told Sheller. Sheller helped the woman find ways to make herself safer, including getting a restraining order, and also helped her work through some of the trauma she had experienced. After that process, the woman was able to fulfill the requirements to move out of the shelter. “Don’t always assume the behaviors that seem to be uncooperative or unmotivated are really that,” Sheller says. “They may be behaviors people have adapted to help them survive.”

Many people who have experienced homelessness have also experienced trauma, which often makes them hypervigilant and hyperalert, Sheller says. Creating a safe environment — an environment that isn’t further disempowering or demoralizing — will encourage these clients to seek out the counselor. “If people can’t feel safe, it’s really going to be hard for them to move forward in their lives,” she says. Safety encompasses feeling safe within yourself and learning how to handle your own emotions, Sheller says.

Loss is also inherent in homelessness, Sheller adds. Many people find themselves in shelters after a loved one becomes ill or dies, someone loses a job or a home burns down. Helping people deal with their losses is critical, Sheller says, and one way of doing that is through building a sense of community because when people break through their isolation, they realize they aren’t alone in their problems. In addition to community meetings and therapeutic groups, Sheller has organized rituals to help shelter residents deal with loss. For example, she led a “balloon memorial” during which individuals wrote down a loss they wanted to let go of and then attached the paper to the string of a balloon. “It could be a tangible loss or a loss such as loss of missed years while I was using, loss of childhood innocence because of abuse, etc.,” Sheller says. “The balloons were simultaneously released as a group on the grounds of the shelter. We held hands and had a few minutes of silence together. It was very powerful.”

The most important component to building trust with homeless clients is following through and doing whatever you say you’re going to do. “If I said I was going to make a call for them, I needed to make that call. Otherwise, the trust was broken,” Lorelle says.

Contrary to what most traditional counseling teaches, Sheller says it can be helpful for counselors to be vulnerable and share their feelings when working with homeless clients. Let these clients know that you’re sad or hurt or angry about what has happened to them, Sheller tells counselors.

Changing the path

Looking back, Brubaker says the most important thing he learned about helping people who have experienced homelessness is to focus on their strengths — what they are doing well and what has enabled them to survive on the streets. “The mere use of the word homeless is a deficit-based identifier,” he says. “The biggest change for me was seeing the strengths of individuals and being mindful of that. I wish I had been trained from the beginning to really look for that. That’s made a huge difference in my approach and how effective I can be.”

Considering the high incidence of trauma among people who experience homelessness, Brubaker says training in trauma would serve counselors well. “This will hopefully wake up many counselors to their need to obtain training in the area of crisis and trauma work,” he says. “Counselors should also know their limitations, consult with others who know this population and advocate for the best services possible. No counselor should feel alone in their pursuits, so networking with competent professionals, indigenous healers and other service providers is essential.”

Counselors agree that working with homelessness is very demanding. It’s challenging emotionally, Lorelle admits, and if a counselor feels hopeless for too long, burnout might be waiting around the corner. “The lesson I learned is that you have to find that hope and find the value in what you’re doing. It may not (come in) huge leaps and bounds, but appreciating the small things along the way and celebrating their successes, that’s an important piece, and that’s what kept me going.”

No counselor can fix everything, Sheller says, and it’s important for counselors to accept that truth while maintaining the proper perspective. “You might not ever see the change; you might just be planting the seed,” she says. “You have to go in there and believe that if you can create an experience that is different, that you’re setting the course. You’re changing the path for that person, and that’s all you ever have control of.”



Lynne Shallcross is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lshallcross@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org.



Effects on education

Sonya Lorelle, currently earning her doctorate from the Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling at Old Dominion University, worked for two years as a children’s counselor with an agency providing emergency and transitional shelters in Norfolk, Va. School was a common area of struggle for the children, Lorelle says. “It was not uncommon to have children who were at least one grade behind, which often seemed to stem from the history of residential instability and resulted in switching schools often.”

Research has shown that children who experience homelessness are at increased risk for developmental delays, Lorelle says, so she often requested a full psychological assessment to check for learning problems or delays. The assessments sometimes helped secure the children extra assistance at school in areas in which they were falling behind.

In addition to providing counseling services to the children, Lorelle says the case managers helped inform parents of their rights under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which allows children to remain at their home school for the remainder of the academic year if there is residential instability. Schools are supposed to provide transportation for these children, and Lorelle says case managers and counselors can help parents work with a school liaison to ensure that happens.

— Lynne Shallcross