Learning, caring, sharing
The Community Services Center's expertly trained faculty, staff and students battle homelessness, poverty, domestic violence and other complex social issues
Aching feet in ill-fitting shoes shuffle along the pavement in east Fort Worth. Walking, endlessly walking. Finally they find a place to rest for the night, but tomorrow will bring more of the same. Walking, walking, walking.
For the homeless, sometimes the smallest luxuries mean the most. Sometimes a person just needs to sit.
For the past two years, researchers at the UT Arlington School of Social Work's Community Services Center have been developing a needs assessment of homeless residents of Tarrant County. In partnership with the Day Resource Center for the Homeless, the Salvation Army, Union Gospel Mission and Presbyterian Night Shelter, social work graduate students have conducted in-depth interviews with almost 200 people.
The study, which supplements the 2004 Tarrant County Homeless Survey, incorporates information specifically from the perspective of Tarrant County's homeless. In Assistant Professor Emily Spence's view, theirs is a "huge" problem.
"Agencies that serve the homeless are comprised of people who are very passionate about their work but have far too many people to serve. It's been very helpful for them to have us come in and conduct detailed, one- to three-hour interviews with their clients," said the center's director of community development services.
"Everybody has ideas about why people are homeless. It was great for us to give them [the agencies] data to use in the community. We found that every person's pathway to becoming homeless was really different."
Dr. Spence believes that "you can't just throw services" at people. "A whole host of services are available that aren't even used. This data will help organizations get grants and design programs to meet the real needs of the people. There is a serious dialogue going on in Fort Worth about the homeless, and our assessment gave them more data to work with."
The majority of respondents represented a variety of concerns—unemployment, disability, mental health issues, physical health problems, criminal history, domestic violence, lack of education. Sixty-three percent of the respondents reported experiencing two to four of the listed problems. An additional 27 percent reported five to six problem areas.
For many homeless people, daily survival is a matter of priorities. Addressing all of the problem areas is impossible. One study participant said she does not get her antidepressant prescription filled because she requires five other medications to stay alive. The county hospital, John Peter Smith, only allows five prescriptions per month, so she is forced to choose between maintaining her mental health or her physical health.
With information gathered from the UT Arlington assessment, such needs perhaps can be addressed more effectively.
"Projects like this are a great opportunity for our students," Spence explained. "Of course there are people in the community who do what we do; we're just more cost effective and certainly more affordable for agencies like those that serve the homeless population."
Under Spence's guidance, the community development arm of the center has tackled a host of challenges. For the past two years, social work interns have worked with the city of Fort Worth to evaluate the Early Childhood Resource Centers. Community development students are working with Tarrant County Youth Collaboration on a project to reduce family re-referrals to Child Protective Services, with Navarro County on a needs assessment for the local United Way, and with the Salvation Army on an evaluation of long-range planning.
"All of these projects allow us an inside peek into what's happening in organizations where our students will be employed," Spence said. "Plus, these placements are good opportunities to strengthen our relationships with local nonprofit organizations."
Alumna Courtney Van Zandt earned her master's degree from the School of Social Work and now serves as assistant director of community development services. She sees yet another contribution UT Arlington students can make to community agencies.
"We spend a lot of time talking about how to incorporate current research into what practitioners are doing," she said. "Our students going out into the community provides an easy way for practitioners to access that research—to work with the latest and best information available.
"Often those working in various social service agencies don’t have the time or the budget for that kind of effort, so we can be a tremendous information resource as well as offer other analysis and assistance."
Social work graduate students may work in either community development, the program Spence directs, or in clinical services, a program headed by Associate Professor Peter Lehmann. The latter program offers individual and marital counseling, as well as family, group and play therapy programs. A majority of clients are referred from the Arlington Independent School District.
"We have a longstanding collaborative relationship with the AISD to provide counseling for any student or family referred by the district," Dr. Lehmann said.
The clinical services program also works with Tarrant County Criminal Court 5, dealing with domestic violence cases.
"First-time offenders come to us for assessment," Lehmann said. "I feed the assessment and recommendations to the court. The court then requires offenders to undergo treatment. This is the first time these people have been charged by the police. The hope is that if you can address first-time offender needs, you can prevent them from re-offending further down the road.
"So far, the data bears that out. The whole program seems to be working."
In fact, both directors constantly look for what works.
"So much of social services is focused on what's wrong with people," Spence said. "We're not going to focus on what's dysfunctional; we’re going to find what works and build off that."
The Community Services Center has operated for the past 25 years and serves an average of 300 AISD-referred families per year, as well as an additional 50-60 community clients. During its five-year relationship with Criminal Court 5, clinical therapists have completed assessments in more than 1,300 domestic violence cases.
The community development projects are not as easily quantifiable, but those interns are also having an impact throughout North Texas.
"Our basic philosophy is to focus on strengths and competencies," Lehmann said. "I don't assume that we're miracle workers, but small steps can have ripple effects in people's lives."
Spence and her interns approach agencies the same way.
"They're much more receptive if we say, 'Wow, here are some things that are going well.' Then we can give guidance for future improvement. Neither the clinical interns nor our development students disregard issues that are problematic; we just come at it from a different direction. It's a process for our students, learning how to do this well."
And, according to Lehmann, this focus-on-the-positive attitude creates better community and therapist practitioners.
"For students, the Community Services Center is a unique environment," he said. "They learn a lot here in a very short time. Our students are ambitious, highly motivated, wanting to improve their skills. This center is a win for them and a win for the entire community because they leave here with very advanced skills."
Skills that can give hope to the homeless and to others who are struggling.
— Sherry W. Neaves