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  • Writer's pictureRachel Nelson

Student Social Workers Helping Senior Homeowners

NeighborLink Indianapolis works hard to connect with each of the homeowners we work with to truly understand their needed repairs and situation for aging in place safely. The homeowners we work with are typically among the lowest income in our community and their standard of living often surprises some of our volunteers who are pretty far removed from anyone who would qualify as “low-income.” Last year, we partnered with Marian University’s School of Social Work to provide an opportunity for Social Work students early in their education to get a real-world look into the world of social need. From the classroom, education and role-playing can take you far, but truly looking someone in the eye when you ask questions or have a conversation is a far more intense experience.

One of the built-in programs of NeighborLink Indianapolis is our Client Services program. This program is the bridge between someone calling NeighborLink Indianapolis for help and someone’s project being fully vetted and ready for action. Our Client Services Director along with Social Work students meet with a homeowner and through a series of questions and conversation confirm their qualifications for the program, help them sign any documents that need to be signed and walk them through all expectations of the program including a reasonable timeline for their particular project. The Marian University students bring a new layer specific to their instruction in Social Work. They determine if there is a need for resources beyond NeighborLink’s typical assistance. Is the homeowner experiencing food insecurity? Is there evidence of social isolation and a detriment to their mental health? Students then take that information back to the classroom and work through the best possible resources for that homeowner. Part of their classwork is to then work with the homeowner to be connected to those additional resources.

We spoke with Hannah, a junior in the School of Social Work who has participated in several home visits and volunteer work at homes.

First, what brought you into the field of Social Work?

“I started out as a nursing major. I have always wanted to help people, but that path wasn’t fitting with my learning style and I could tell it wasn’t exactly how I wanted to help people. I wanted to see progression in people’s lives, not just a period of time when they’re in the hospital. I wanted to have more personal time with them, more intervention opportunities. I switched over to Social Work. I worked in a second major and a minor to help support my overall interest in mental health.”

How has this NeighborLink Indianapolis experience been for you?

This was a class assignment and first, I was very nervous. Not for safety reasons, but I was worried I was going to intrude on someone and make them feel uncomfortable. We paired up with other classmates for our visits to help and the experience was just so eye-opening for both of us. The homeowners were just so welcoming. I didn’t think they would be nearly as welcoming because of the way their home looks or a messy yard. It wasn’t until then that I realized those appearances aren’t what they’re choosing, they just can’t do anything about it on their own.

Being able to offer help was both empowering and humbling. Offering solutions to help and go beyond just a home repair was huge. We offered additional help for services to make sure they had money for utilities, trash service, and overall help in a broader resource sense.

We had a bunch of follow up assignments and reflections. After a site visit we would talk about it with our partner and the teacher. We’d discuss the resources we talked with the client about. My client had said yes to a resource so in my follow up class I needed to learn how to walk through the process and call them back to walk them through how to sign up for a program. Not just telling them about the assistance but actually helping them get it.

Has anything about the experience surprised you?

Self awareness. I had just bought new shoes. I was intending on wearing them but stopped and thought it through. Was that really a good idea? I was about to go to a home to talk about assistance programs and I really had to do a self-check. No, I didn’t want to portray myself as being better or anything like that. I didn’t want to be perceived as far removed from them. Going into someone’s home made me evaluate myself and it was beneficial to me. How you present yourself to clients - the clothes you wear, those first impressions, they make a big difference. You have to build rapport with someone quickly so really looking at yourself from someone else’s perspective as best as you can is important.

Before I went into a home, I would drive around the neighborhood just to look at the environment. So many of the [citation] reports* seemed to be from maybe newer people moving into the neighborhood and thinking these older-run down homes were bringing their property value down. It seems so selfish. It makes you think the nicer homes are meaner people. Why wouldn’t they just ask if they could help instead of reporting them?

Has this experience contributed to how you are approaching your degree?

Yes, I’ve learned a lot more about poverty and how that really affects your ability to fix things, get medicine, food, and how mental health issues come from poverty and stress around that. Taking into consideration the area and conditions someone lives in, how they’ve grown up.

A neighborhood doesn’t define a person, there are areas where homes are run down but that isn’t by choice. Really being able to see poverty from a different perspective helps open my eyes. Getting this kind of perspective is huge for Social Work students. It gave an insight into populations that we would potentially be serving in our careers.

*Citation case reports are when a homeowner is given a citation from the Marion County Public Health Department for a health and safety violation. These cases can actually result in the loss of a home due to liens against the home, fines, not to mention whatever unsafe conditions may be present. Reports are often called in to the MCPHD about a home as the MCPHD does not actively seek out homeowners to report.

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