by Matthew Esteymestey1975@hotmail.com
Originally posted March 15, 2010

The Social Work internship requirement is an integral part of our education. Each year, social work students participate in a year long internship (approximately 500 hours). Internships are fertile ground for applying aspects of one’s social work education in the field. Thus, we can see how theory informs practice, and vice versa.

My first year internship is at Healthcare for the Homeless Houston (HHH). HHH has two locations and I am at the Cathedral Clinic in downtown Houston. The goal of HHH is to provide basic medical care to homeless clients. No payment is expected. Social workers participate by connecting clients with resources after they have visited with the health care professionals. Learning the varied, and often limited, resources of the greater Houston area is akin to putting a jigsaw puzzle together, blindfolded, on an airplane tray table with high turbulence. I have had the opportunity to visit a number of agencies and referral resources to meet case managers and enhance my understanding of what is available.

In addition to working with medical staff in a support role, I also participate in the HHH Jail In-Reach program. The In-Reach program was developed by HHH to address the issue of serial recidivism among the homeless population. Our goal is to work with homeless clients while they are in jail and connect them with services before they are released to reduce the likelihood that they will re-enter the criminal justice system.

My only prior experience working with homeless clientele was when I volunteered at a soup kitchen for a few years. Interning at HHH has opened my eyes up to a world that seems to exist in a parallel universe. Many of my preconceived notions regarding homelessness have been altered or shattered. Homelessness affects a broad range of individuals and there are many atypical ‘homeless’.

In general, I have found all of the clients that I work with to be gracious and kind. Dignity is hard to maintain when you are living on the streets, but it is evident that people struggle to preserve their self-respect. There are many occasions where all I can do is listen to someone’s story because there simply are not resources to address certain needs that they might have. I have learned a lot about humanity working with the homeless and I plan on continuing to volunteer here over the same and throughout my time at school.

Working at HHH has also informed my macro understanding of homelessness and mental illness. My preceptor took the time to give me a number of books and articles about mental illness and homelessness. In the 1950’s there were about 550,000 state hospital beds available for the mentally ill. Today, our population has nearly doubled and there are approximately 50,000 beds for the mentally ill. Has our society eradicated the scourge of mental illness? Actually, mental illness is criminalized or ignored. Thus, we find that a large percentage of the chronically homeless (people who live on the street or in shelters for years) are also mentally ill. In addition, many mentally ill are arrested and jailed. While in jail, and able to receive mental health treatment, clients are often stabilized on medication but lose access to that medication when they are returned to the streets and tend to slide back into mental illness and incarceration quickly. Interning at HHH has kindled a passion to understand, perhaps the most marginalized group in our society, the homeless.

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