Social Workers Drive Change, Empower People

March is National Social Work Month. This year also happens to be the 60th anniversary of the National Association of Social Work. Indeed, 2015 is a landmark year—we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Older Americans Act of 1965, Medicare, and Medicaid, as well as the 80th anniversary of the Social Security Act of 1935 and the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. These pieces of legislation help protect and provide a safety net for millions of older adults and people with disabilities.

Tom Warner

In honoring social work's history, it is important to reflect on the role that social workers play in advocating for and strengthening the social safety net through these celebrated programs.

For 21 years, Tom Warner has worked with older adults through the Case Management Program at Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County. Tom helped frame some of the challenges faced by older adults in King County and also offered insight into how social workers make a difference in the lives of these individuals.

"The challenge for many people who are now retired," Tom says, "is that their income is not able to cover their most basic needs." He says that economic security has been an ongoing issue, but is steadily becoming more apparent. Tom has seen homelessness sharply increase in the Seattle area. Ten years ago, he occasionally received referrals for housing. Today, these referrals make up 60 percent to 70 percent of his work.

For the older adults confronted with foreclosure and homelessness, social workers like Tom utilize their knowledge of complicated systems and leverage limited resources in order to alleviate some of the hardship and financial burden. Social workers are also able to connect with older adults who are isolated, building a long-lasting relationship that may not otherwise be present. Social workers are able to link individuals with resources that they may not have previously known existed or that they might not be aware that they are eligible to receive.

As Tom says, "for many people, this wouldn't happen without social workers." Here are some of his examples of how social work services have helped make a difference:

"One woman we worked with had gotten sick and had to retire. Her Social Security income was barely enough to cover her rent and she was suddenly faced with eviction. Since there is no emergency housing, and subsidized housing has long waiting lists, it was not clear if our client might have to go to a shelter or live on the street. She became depressed and anxious. We applied for housing, and supported her during the months that it took to get housing. Four months later, she was living in her own apartment."

"We worked with one man whose home was about to go to auction due to the money that he owed. We discussed the option of designating a payee to manage his finances and supported him in his decision-making process. In turn, we were able to prevent his house from being put to auction, which allowed him to remain in his home."

"One man slept on a wooden pallet in a warehouse when we first met him. He had no income or housing. As we began to work with him, it became apparent that he had mental health needs. We were able to help him apply for Social Security Disability Income and a housing voucher. Within a few months, he was living in a new apartment."

Given the overwhelming number of older adults confronted with homelessness and other complex situations, it is clear that there is a great deal of work that needs to be done in order to address gaps and unmet needs in our communities. Social workers can play a critical role in helping to create this change.

"I think that it is the social worker's role to advocate on behalf of and for the needs of these individuals," says Tom. "It is important to connect the decision makers with the people who are affected by these decisions. As social workers, it is our job to make these human connections. Our program is a good example of this. We are out on the streets, meeting these people every day. What I see and what they say is important—we must speak up about these hardships. This is everyone's responsibility, but social workers make a vow to do so."

As we reflect on our past and look towards the future, it is important to recognize the role that social workers play in driving change and empowering individuals, families, and communities. Social change is part of social work history and will undoubtedly be part of its future.

Contributor Allison Boll is a University of Washington Master of Social Work candidate currently interning with Aging and Disability Services. She contributed several previous articles to AgeWise King County, including Common Concerns for Community Living: Housing, Transportation and Health Care, "Hub" Model Will Increase Equity and Access, and Frequently Asked Questions about Community Living Connections.