Did you know that March is also celebrated as National Social Work month? The theme this year, selected by the National Association of Social Workers, is “All People Matter.” Thoroughly believing this, we want to introduce more of you to Ayana Bellamy, our Senior Permanent Supportive Housing Case Manager, who practices this belief every day in her work.
Where were you before A-SPAN?
I am originally from California and went to school at California State University of Stanislaus. I have a bachelor of science in Psychology. Before A-SPAN, I worked with homeless people in D.C. for an organization called Green Door. I started at A-SPAN on October 12, 2010. To be honest, I was doing a search on Craig’s List and saw an opening for Case Manager at Opportunity Place, which is what I originally applied for.
As a case manager, how do you draw the line between being close with a client and maintaining a professional distance?
That is a very big thing for me. I have to establish those boundaries right off the bat. Even clients will say this: I’m really up-front with what needs to happen in order for them to get housing. If they keep up their end of the bargain, I’m going to keep up my end of the bargain. Establishing that boundary and letting them know that this is case management, that I’m here to give them that kick in the butt when they need it – not to be hard on them but to make sure they know that things need to happen and they need to happen certain ways. To have that structure is important because when they get into housing, everything is about structure and a lot of these clients are coming from the street where there is no structure. That can be a big adjustment for some people.
What are your basic duties as a Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) Case Manager?
I start from the ground up in terms of housing with clients. We do an intake with the client once we see that they meet the criteria – that they are homeless and have an Access 1 mental health diagnosis. We get all the background information to see if this person has a mental health diagnosis, to see if they have evictions, what is their criminal background, and so on, to determine if this person will be a good fit for PSH. If they are, we get the information to the Housing Locator, locate a unit, and do the application. I go with them; I’m with them the whole way. If they get denied, which in some cases they are, we appeal the decision, and if we’re able to overturn that, we get them moved in. We work with Development to get them furniture and household items.
And then the hard part starts –maintaining them in housing. That’s the actual case management. Making sure they’re paying their rent on time, that they’re paying their utilities, and taking care of any landlord/tenant issues.
What do you mean by “good fit?” Why might someone not qualify?
For example, we had a client who was in the program who had a host of medical issues. Our program isn’t really equipped for a ton of medical issues because we’re not able to do that medical piece on-site. Now we’re able to get them connected to the Office of Aging & Disability – if they qualify for that program with the Department of Human Services – and we can try to get them connected to a home aide or someone who can come in and help them with those medical needs, administer medication, filling insulin, and things like that.
And then you sometimes have people that don’t need the intensive case management that you provide?
Yes. We would refer them to another program if they qualify. They might just need rental assistance, which they might qualify for through the Housing Grant with Arlington County, where there isn’t intensive case management but they do get a rental subsidy.
How many clients do you currently case manage right now?
I currently work with 17 in housing and working with another 6 that could be housed soon. We’ll have some openings coming up soon because a few of our folks will transition to the Housing Choice voucher. In the long run, that’s what we really want. When clients have been in the program for a few years and don’t really need the case management anymore, a rental assistance voucher is the next best program for them.
And clients who transition with us get to stay right in their own apartment. That’s the good part about our clients being the leaseholders, because they don’t have to move again.
What are some of the barriers that clients may face trying to rent an apartment?
That might be a conviction, an addiction, or evictions, low income or bad credit, or mental health issues.
I think the most difficult barrier is the criminal background, the convictions. We have some really good partnerships now with landlords who will look at the criminal background on a case-by-case basis and, depending on when the conviction happened and how serious the charge was, they can overturn that denial decision. In terms of credit, you can usually work around that because most of the time it’s hospital bills, student loans, but if they have an eviction and they haven’t paid that eviction off, that could be a problem and pretty big barrier, too.
Are there any bright spots of the last three years?
I have a lot! One of my favorites is looking at my client Chris. Chris was one of my first clients and he came from having absolutely nothing. He had slept on the street, he was in group homes a lot, he had serious mental health problems. But he was friends with another client who told him about A-SPAN and said we were a really good program. Once I met Chris, I knew why my client brought him over: he was one of those clients that just slipped through the cracks. He was almost fine with being homeless because he just saw himself as never having a home. He’d been in and out of hospitals, group homes, and other places like that. We had to start from scratch and get him an ID, get him a social security card, requesting stuff for his birth certificate, getting him into a place, getting him connected to mental health. He’s had his ups and downs. He was someone who was against medication for a while. He would tell me he was taking it, but he’d go off and then end up in the hospital. He figured out then that he needed medication in order to function.
Just seeing him from then til now is like night and day because he’s now more in control of what needs to happen. He comes to me with things he knows he needs to get done. He’s involved in his budget, he’s involved in his treatment, getting to different programs. He was like my diamond in the rough, and he’s doing so good. That’s one of them.
Have you ever had to deal with death as a case manager?
Mr. Smoot was a veteran that came to us from Residential Program Center (RPC). He had been with RPC for a while and had been working at Toys R Us for a few years. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and would not tell me about any friends, family members – he just said that he hadn’t spoken to anyone in years. He had only been housed for a few months when his illness got worse and we started to bring hospice care in and people from the Office of Aging and Disability to help make it easier for him at that stage. He passed away on March 14, 2011, and I was able to find a funeral home (after calling 13) that would bury him at no cost. They buried him at Quantico Military Cemetery. They gave me the flag and buried him with honor.
Mr. Smoot hadn’t cared how he was buried, he had signed away all of his stuff – I think it was more of me saying you served you country and you should be buried with dignity. And I didn’t stop until I got that.
If someone was seeking a career in your field, what’s some advice you would share?
It’s very rewarding, I love what I do. This is one of those jobs where I get up in the morning and I’m NOT “ugggghh – I gotta go to work.” It’s more like “Okay! What do I gotta do today?!” I just start running through my day to make sure it’ll run smoothly.
Best advice – to have patience. That definitely is a big thing. To not walk away when you hear “No.” You’re gonna hear a lot of No’s, from landlords, from clients, from everywhere. You just gotta learn to keep knocking on another door. I take advice from Kathy Sibert (A-SPAN’s Exec.) – she’s just not one to accept the word “No.” You just gotta keep going to figure out the way to get it done. If you’re getting into this field, make sure this is what you want to do. Even clients will say that about me, especially if they’ve worked with other social workers or case managers, they always say, “It just seems like you LIKE what you do.” I LOVE what I do. I definitely do and I want to make a difference – to take somebody who’s experienced homelessness and getting them into an apartment – seeing that difference is very rewarding for me.