By: Geremi James, Director of Concierge Services
My career in social work began around 11 years ago. I got a job working as a paralegal that served people who have low to no income. My job was to help our clients access benefits such as food stamps and health insurance.
While I understood that my work was important, I realized pretty early on that my job there was primarily spent behind a desk. A lot can be accomplished behind a desk, but often times it’s the other factors in people’s lives that get in the way of folks accessing the life-stabilizing benefits they need to get back on track—things like not having a stable place to stay, or not having childcare for their kids while they work or look for a job.
In my work I began to sense a theme of maintaining the status quo. Helping people enroll in Medicare is good, but how great would it be if they didn’t need it? What if they had a job and could access healthcare through their employer? I began to wonder if I could do more to tackle the root of the problems these folks were facing. That’s when I shifted away from paralegal work and into direct case management.
The major hurtle that stands between someone living the life they want to live instead of being helplessly cycled through different systems is having someone to guide them. Many of the systems currently in place aren’t developed to be intuitive. My goal as a case manager has been to support folks in navigating these complex systems and advancing past them.
Some folks can achieve this with relative ease, and others will need years and years of support. What I’ve come to understand through my work is that one of the most crucial assets to folks reaching their goals is the ability to foster community.
Many of the people we reach here at BSM are those who are unemployed or underemployed, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes the folks we see are those who have worked hard all their lives, but they simply didn’t earn enough while they were working, they don’t have enough retirement to be able to support themselves now.
They no longer have the same community they once had, they lack financial stability, stable housing, and many other indicators of wellness that they had when they were working.
A guest I have been working with comes to mind. Andre had a very successful career working as the Head Maintenance Supervisor at a large building downtown. Then during the recession his employer laid him off and replaced him with somebody who was younger for half the pay. He found himself facing the job market as an older man with plenty of job experience, but unable to find work that paid sufficiently. He went from having a 5 bedroom house to living on the street.
Just like countless others who have faced similar circumstances, he found himself at Broad Street Ministry’s doors looking for a meal. He found what he was looking for, and much more: he found an opportunity to foster community.
Andre stayed at the BSM overnight café for a few months while he saved up money. During his time with us, he took a bunch of people under his wing, shared how he was able to find his own way out and offered them guidance. This gave him more confidence to do the things he needed to do for himself. Embracing this community was his first step in his recovery from homelessness. The community fostered his wellness, it gave him hope, and it gave him the opportunity to share his strengths with other people. Now he is finally off the streets and has his own 1 bedroom apartment.
So even though my job is to support a team of people who are helping folks access services, my job is also to remind my team and the larger Broad Street team that these people are human beings and that means they deserve to be supported, they deserve to participate in the community, and they deserve the opportunity to share their strengths with other people. All of those things are essential to achieving wellness, and helping a person feel whole again is the most important part of social work.
I want to be able to teach the next generation of social workers to keep this goal at the forefront. Anyone can learn how to help someone fill out a welfare application, but it takes more skill to be able to do that intentionally and to help foster that sense of empowerment in folks.