Violence In the Shelter: The Price of Underfunding

Hello Readers!  It’s been a while…

This article is a personal response to a systemic and societal ill reflected in the abduction and murder of my colleague, Social Worker and NYC homeless shelter Director Ana Isabel Charle, who died senselessly nearly nine months ago.

So many have worked, and are working, so diligently to develop and implement a meaningful systemic response to this senseless tragedy.  This is my humble contribution to the effort.

Select the link below to view the article, and thanks!

Source: New York Nonprofit Media: Violence In the Shelter: The Price of Underfunding

The publication of this article was made possible through the generosity of NYN Media, with special thanks to Aimée Simpierre.

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The Easiest Hard Decision: When Caregiving Trumps Employment

For someone who has worked their entire life, unemployment is a peculiarly unsettling kind of purgatory.  This social work practitioner was not “practitioning” for nearly 16 months, having resigned my position in keeping with a favorite John Lennon lyric that says, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  That thing that happened had to do with family illness requiring boots on the ground on a full-time basis, and mine were the most qualified boots in the family.  Leaving the workforce was the easiest hard decision I’ve ever had to make.

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At first it was fine, as my attention was appropriately drawn to the business at hand, but then, in my in between moments, I started noticing the figurative dripping of the faucet.  I felt left behind, somehow, that the pace of life had been slowing dramatically as the world rushed forward without me.  And as sweet as that slowing was, in some ways, it soon became scary and disorienting.  Living close to a major highway I had, for years, been used to the sound of traffic.  Several months after plucking myself from the workforce, that formerly familiar sound of cars and trucks took on a different tone.  When the wind blew in the right direction I’d hear the morning rush and think, “That’s the sound of people going to work.”  It was a lonely time and as the months wore on that sound took on an increasingly ominous tone.

As the health of my beloved family member slowly began to improve, I had time to start worrying about dwindling savings and the ripple effects that would have throughout my life—housing, health insurance, car payments, the list goes on and on.  Oh, and did I mention student loan debt?  Three months into my self-imposed exile from the workaday world, I began my job search in earnest.  Three months after that I’d had a number of interviews and a few second interviews, but no offers.  I started to feel that I was at the whim of circumstances that I had no control over and honestly—I started to despair.

So what did I do?  What all obsessive-compulsives do—I made a list.  Two lists, actually.

In the first, I counted my blessings, laughing at the poignancy of what I’d said to a friend years earlier.  “When you have to count your blessings,” I’d quipped, “things aren’t going so good.”


  1. I’ve got my health
  2. I have a roof over my head
  3. I have love in my life
  4. I have enough food
  5. I’m bright and ambitious
  6. I’ve got a strong, marketable skill set
  7. I look good in a suit (old joke)

In the second, I jotted down what I believed I had control over.

What I have control over

  1. How well I love
  2. How honest I am
  3. How focused and organized my job search is
  4. How I react to events as they unfold
  5. How much I exercise
  6. How kind I am
  7. What and how much I eat
  8. What time I go to bed
  9. What time I get up
  10. What media I choose to consume
  11. What I want to write about

Unfortunately, the only thing that would assure #7 was #3.  So, I ramped things up.

unemp hire me

I revamped my resume.  Overhauled my LinkedIn profile.  Created excel spreadsheets to track my applications and follow-up.  Rekindled old business relationships.  Attended events sponsored by organizations I was interested in working for.

And, I created The Social Work Practitioner blog.

Not only did I want to share my knowledge and experience, I wanted to create a presence on the web that I had complete control over, that highlighted my skill sets, my approach to work, and demonstrated whatever abilities I’d developed as a thinker and writer.

Ten months, 77 applications, 18 interviews, 4-second interviews, and two offers later, I was back to work.  Three months in, I’ve attacked my role as Program Director of a residential facility for single adults recovering from mental illness con mucho gusto, to say the least.

unemp hired

Folks, gotta tell ya—it’s good to hear the sound of rush hour traffic again.  From the inside.

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“It’s Not My Job”—Keeping Job Descriptions Current

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Supervisors, how do you react when someone on your staff says, in so many words, “It’s not my job”?  It might come out sounding like “I’m sooooo busy” as they scurry away; “I’m still trying to finish that other thing you gave me”; “Can someone else cover that?”; “I prefer to stay in my lane”; or, heaven forbid, it may just sound like the classic push back of the title—“It’s not my job.”

Before flipping to the “Corrective Action” section of your Employee Handbook, it helps to understand why they might be saying that.  Is it that they don’t care?  Or, is it a legitimate cry for help—a boundary borne of self-preservation in the increasingly overburdened settings in which we practice our craft?

What can we do to reduce the likelihood that we will hear these kinds of messages from our staffers?

Minimize “piling on”

As supervisors, we are constantly prioritizing on the fly.  As we work inexorably toward meeting various program and funder goals, things invariably pop up that will wreak havoc on our best-laid plans.

Let’s say that this morning you asked a supervisee to work on something that will take them an hour or two.  When fifteen minutes later something more urgent comes along, don’t just drop it on them and walk.  If there’s no one else on the team to take this newer task on, set the priority for your staffer.  “I know I just asked you to audit these five case files, but something else has come along that’s more important.  You can put the case files aside for now—we’ll revisit that deadline—and focus on this first.  Let me show you what it’s about.”

I’ve made the mistake, as a supervisor, of “piling on,” and the person to whom I assigned the extra work naturally chose the task they preferred rather than the one that I felt was the priority.  My bad—I wasn’t specific.  It is up to us as supervisors to clearly identify the priority, to determine the timeframe and, if possible, to roll up our sleeves and help our staffer get it done—or at least get them off to a good start.  Especially if this newly prioritized task is something they may not have done before, getting the ball rolling with your staffer will give you an opportunity to make sure your instructions are understood and carried out properly.

“Piling on” is a fairly common occurrence that many staffers will push back on out of sheer overwhelm.  There is something we can do, though, to minimize opportunities for them to shut us down by invoking the nuclear “It’s not my job” option—work from job descriptions that are up-to-date, accurate, fair and relevant to the variety of tasks we ask staffers in every job category to perform.

Reviewing the job description

Supervisors, be sure to carefully review the job descriptions for all the categories of employees you will supervise (Case Manager, Case Aide, et cetera).  This should be done regardless of whether you are new to the organization or program, or if you’ve been there a long time.  Most job descriptions will have an “as of” or “revised” date on them, either at the top of the first page, or somewhere in the footer.  If the job description is a minimum of two years old, it may be time for a rewrite.  If at any time the role changes, even a little, it may also behoove you to do a brief revision.

I would suggest starting by sitting down with each staffer and reviewing their job description item by item.  Flag anything that might no longer apply.  Add any regular, or even occasional, task you may need your staffers to perform.  Do not commit to adding or eliminating anything they may suggest—simply let them know their input is important, their thoughts are heard and appreciated, and any changes will be carefully considered before being put in place.  When changes are finalized, they will be discussed with the staffer so as to avoid any confusion about what is expected going forward.

The one-task-fits-all directive

At the bottom of many a job description is what I call the line-item-of-death, the thing that makes eyes roll and teeth grind like nothing else.  It reads something like this: “All other duties as assigned,” in other words, “Do what I tell you.”  I hate this—I hated it when I was a front-line worker, and I hate it now.  Why?  Nothing says “I have the power and you don’t” like “All other duties as assigned.”  Everyone knows who “the boss” is —it is neither productive nor appropriate to lord over our supervisees the implicit threat of being written up if they don’t cheerfully take on “All other duties as assigned.”

If we as supervisors are doing our job of relationship building with our staffers; if we are demonstrating leadership by being willing to pull up a chair and work alongside; if we are willing to even taken something off their desk so they could focus on other priorities, odds are they will be there for us and for the team when, upon occasion, we ask them to step outside the normal boundaries of their job description.

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Depending on the size of your program or organization, you may need to consult with your Human Resources department.  In this case, the changes you would propose are functioning as recommendations for their consideration.

Matching job descriptions to performance appraisal forms

Once you make revisions to any job descriptions it is essential that you make corresponding revisions to the performance appraisal forms for that role.  It is neither helpful nor appropriate to evaluate a staffer, positively or negatively, for an aspect of their performance that does not exist in their job description.  Nor should they be overlooked for an aspect of their performance that was inadvertently left off their performance appraisal form.  Job descriptions and performance evaluation templates need to be in agreement in order to be comprehensive and fair.

For front-line workers, supervisors, or program managers alike, look at your own job descriptions carefully.  If there is something there that is irrelevant, or something you do of which you are proud that doesn’t appear in your job description, make a few notes.  Ask your supervisor or HR about a possible revision.

There is plenty to do in our efforts to advocate for the oppressed and underserved populations we serve as social workers, social work supervisors, and not-for-profit managers.  Knowing when “It is” or “Is not” the job of your supervisee to do something you ask of them is greatly dependent on the expectations you’ve set forth.  Expectations that reside in an accurate, fair, and current job description.

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Once Upon A Client: The Curious Case of Percy Pointer, Part II

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In Part I of “The Curious Case of Percy Pointer”…

Percy Pointer was my first client as an MSW intern in the Client Advocacy Project (CAP) at Coalition for the Homeless in New York City.  The CAP’s goals are to assist clients in their efforts to secure federal disability benefits and to leverage those benefits into a move from the streets or homeless shelter into housing.  But Mr. Pointer, though he had been referred to my program, didn’t seem interested in what the CAP had to offer.  During a session intended to pave the way for referring Mr. Pointer to outpatient mental health services, he mentioned that he would like to be able to visit his teenage daughter but didn’t have the money.

Was there an opportunity here to join a personal goal of Mr. Pointer’s to the program goal of helping clients secure disability benefits?  Absolutely.

Mr. Pointer’s voice became a little stronger when talking about Ophelia.  He sat up taller in his chair.  His eye contact improved.  Is this what hope looks like?

Still, Mr. Pointer resisted the idea of being “on the dole.”  He knew all about his heroin addiction and why he’d gone to prison, knew what it cost taxpayers to keep him there—it mattered to him.  To “keep taking,” as he put it, was a problem.  He wanted to work.  I knew not to challenge his beliefs or feelings about himself—it was time, again, for information.

I let Mr. Pointer know that SSD and SSI would only be provided if there was a genuine need and if he qualified (I knew he would, based on his history and consistent mental health diagnoses over time)—in other words, it wasn’t a handout for someone who didn’t want to work; I let him know that the housing he could get once benefits were in place would cost taxpayers less than keeping him in shelter; I let him know that he could still work and keep receiving his benefits dollar-for-dollar up to the amount of his award, seeing a gradated decrease in the amount of his award for every dollar he earned beyond the amount of his award (this calculation differs somewhat for SSD versus SSI); and, finally, that he can simply elect to stop receiving the benefit any time he wanted, especially if he was feeling up to working full-time again.  And of course, based on how he budgeted, he would have enough money to visit his daughter regularly.

Now I had his attention.  “Your call, Mr. Pointer.”  He looked at me searchingly, said thanks, and left.

Mr. Pointer was early for his next appointment.  We calculated the train fare, the amount he might expect if approved, other expenses, and determined that he could visit her a minimum of once a month.  “If she’ll see me.”  I shot back, “Hey, you gotta be in it to win it!” and we smiled.

Maybe seeing his daughter would be the meds he didn’t want to take.  Or, for that matter, his heroin.  Maybe regular visits with Ophelia would be the change that flashed the light I’d seen in his eyes for the first time.

We went to the local Social Security office the next day and applied.  I wasn’t going to give him another week to think about it, if I could help it.  Five months later, he was approved, and got a tidy check for benefits accrued dating back to the first of the month after the month in which he applied.  It was several thousand dollars.

I was ecstatic, feelin’ my bad social work self, learning that you could marry someone’s personal goals to your programs’ goals and make it happen—saving, I hoped, a life, and laying the groundwork to build a new life with his daughter.

Then Mr. Pointer disappeared.

After he’d collected his big check Mr. Pointer agreed to continue to meet with me.  The next step was to leverage these benefits into housing.  I’d found it odd that he didn’t show up for our next appointment and the following day contacted his case manager.  “He’s gone,” she said.  “He broke curfew the day he cashed his check and hasn’t been seen since.”

I was a little concerned, but when he didn’t show up the following week and still hadn’t been seen, I started to freak a little.  “Great,” I thought to myself.  “Nice going.  You got this guy benefits, he spent it on smack and is probably laying dead in a ditch somewhere.  Good job.”  I made it about me and was agonizing.  I didn’t have the number of his daughter’s foster family, he had provided no emergency contact information during intake—I had nothing.  I called local hospitals and the police and came up dry.

My supervisor was helpful in framing the situation for me.  “Don’t assume the worst.”  “We are not responsible for our clients’ behavior” and a bunch of other true stuff that I didn’t want to hear.  All I wanted was for Mr. Pointer to walk through that door with that little glint in his eye I had seen that one time.  I got back to work and, eventually, had to kiss the whole thing upstairs.  Someone talked about self-care and I looked right through them.  It was hard to think about myself.  I mechanically reminded myself “I did what I was supposed to do and that’s that.”

Once the need for more active self-care eventually sunk in, I started taking short walks during the breaks I hadn’t been taking and began pondering what I’d learned.  I learned that to engage and motivate clients it can’t be about you and what you are supposed to do to help your program check its boxes.  Clients need to be personally invested in the assistance you would offer.  If you can help your client imagine the future you would help them create and show them the tools to getting there that you have to offer then maybe—just maybe—they’ll buy in.

As for Mr. Pointer?  I completed my internship not having any idea what happened to him.


Three months later, I got a voicemail from one of my colleagues who knew Mr. Pointer, and knew I’d been worried about him.

“Hey Craig, call me.  It’s about Mr. Pointer.”  My heart sunk.  It wasn’t like, “Hey!  Call me!  Great news about Mr. Pointer!”  To me, it was like… it wasn’t a good voice—it was completely flat.  And frankly, part of me wasn’t sure I wanted to know what happened to Mr. Pointer.  I sat on the message for a few days.  But, I knew this particular colleague, and they always sounded like that when they spoke.  They’d be like “Hey Craig, call me.  I won the lottery” and they’d sound the same.

It was about a woman.  I can smile when I think about it now as I remember another client who got in a lot of fights who once said “It’s always about a woman.”

Mr. Pointer cashed his check and went out of state to visit an old girlfriend.  He wanted to show her he had money and try to win her back.  What Mr. Pointer didn’t know is that she’d taken up with another man, and when he rang her bell, they both answered.  There was a fist-fight, and Mr. Pointer spent a few months in the slammer before being released.

Out of sheer relief, I laughed.  Thank goodness there were only fists involved.  With everything I had been thinking I had put myself through hell—unnecessarily.  And perhaps that was the best lesson in self-care I’d ever learned.  When uncertainty is in the air, and it nearly always is, I say the following.

“Craig, until you really find out what’s going on with this you can do hard time, or you can do easy time.  If you want to do hard time, think of all the possible terrible things that can happen and believe them.  If you want to do easy time, accept that you do not know, and do not commit your emotions to worrying about something that you have no idea about, until you do know.”

I choose easy time.

Mr. Pointer, wherever you are, I hope you and your daughter are enjoying one another.  Until and unless I hear otherwise, it’s “Case closed.”

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Once Upon A Client: The Curious Case of Percy Pointer, Part I


Sometimes the only power our clients have is the power to say “No.”

Or so they believe.  My first client ever as an MSW intern, Mr. Percival Pointer, didn’t want any services of any kind.  “If I don’t have anything, you can’t take it away from me.”

“Me, Mr. Pointer?”  I asked.  “Me, Craig, can’t take anything away from you?”  Mr. Pointer nodded.  He tended to talk in those terms—to Mr. Pointer, I was just another person melded with “the system.”  There was him, and there was everybody else.  If you were part of the latter group, he was vulnerable, and clearly, I was part of the latter group—nothing more than a huckster or snake oil salesman.  And Percy Pointer was not about to let himself be vulnerable.

But if Mr. Pointer didn’t want anything, what was he doing slouched in a chair in my cubicle at Coalition for the Homeless, week after week?  A case manager at CAMBA’s Atlantic House Men’s Shelter in Brooklyn had, a month or two earlier, asked him to come talk to me.  He gave Mr. Pointer a MetroCard for the trip into lower Manhattan and assured him that I would give him a card for the return trip.

I already knew, when I’d met Mr. Pointer, that I should never try to “sell” a client something they don’t want.  And what was I “selling?”  Federal disability benefits.  The goals of the program where I interned were two-fold.  To help the medically or psychiatrically disabled single adult homeless in New York City obtain the federal benefits (SSD/SSI) they may be eligible for, and to leverage those benefits into a move out of shelter.

But Mr. Pointer wasn’t buying.  “I seen guys lose the benefits, then they’re back where they started.”  Although it was unusual for someone to lose his or her federal benefits, he was right—people did.  And even if he wasn’t right, if that belief was part of the shield that protected him from being hurt, from losing, from having something taken away, he’d believe it.  You can challenge someone on the facts, but it’s much harder to challenge their beliefs—and it is of questionable value to do so.

But, I shared what I knew.  What he would do with that information was up to him.  I explained to Mr. Pointer about who lost their benefits and under what circumstances and how our program helped prevent people from losing the benefits they’d won and assisted those who had lost benefits and on and on and on.  Folks, if someone doesn’t want it, you can’t give it away.

Nonetheless, Mr. Pointer’s case manager expressed surprise that he continued to come to see me.  “He must like you.”  I was glad he liked me and was happy to see Mr. Pointer, but we had program goals.  I needed to engage clients who were genuinely interested in pursuing disability benefits and moving out of shelter.  And here I was, six or so weeks in, forming a bond with a client who wasn’t there for what I had to offer.  It was suggested in supervision that I meet with Mr. Pointer a couple of more times and refer him to outpatient mental health services, which seemed sensible to me.

But Mr. Pointer wasn’t interested in mental health services and wasn’t interested in meds, though he was seriously depressed.  He had been in prison for robbery and spent years using heroin.  The only reason he’d stopped using, Mr. Pointer told me, was because if he stole money and went back to prison he wouldn’t be able to see his teenage daughter.

“How often do you see your daughter, Mr. Pointer?”  “Almost never” he said.  “I can’t afford the train fare upstate.”

That was my light-bulb moment.


“Mr. Pointer,” I said.  “Let’s talk about these visits to your daughter.”

NEXT WEEK:  “Once Upon A Client: The Curious Case of Percy Pointer” concludes as we explore the marriage of client goals, program goals, and ask “To what extent, if any, are we responsible for our clients’ behavior when they leave our office?”

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Cultivating “The Gratitude Attitude!”


There seem to be a number of articles going around the web recently on the subject of how to deal with difficult bosses, and endless complaints about feeling underappreciated, overworked, stressed, unhappy, and on and on and on.  Fine, I get it, but frankly?  It’s wearing me out.  I’m tired of being told what to look out for, what to do, what not to do, and who to steer clear of.  I need a little positivity, please—a leader, in this realm.  As such, this week I’ve elected myself, and I’ll let you in on a little secret—I won by a landslide.  In fact, it was unanimous.  I chose myself to lead my life in the direction I want it to go, to be the change I want to see in the world (hat tip to Mohandas Gandhi) or, at the very least, to try my darndest to dispense with the negativity.

Therefore, I publicly declare that my first edict as King, President, CEO, and Rabble-Rouser-In-Chief of my life?  To cultivate “The Gratitude Attitude!”

Now I’m not talking good old-fashioned “count your blessings” (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  But I used to joke that if you have to count your blessings, maybe things weren’t going so good.  What I’m talking about is putting the lid on my complaints and instead accentuating the positive—seeing the good in people and drawing out the lessons in the painful and sometimes unproductive encounters dropped at our professional doorstep all too frequently.

The little piles of unpleasantness to which I refer include “gifts” from past supervisors and colleagues, some of whom were great, and many of whom challenged me in ways I didn’t always appreciate.  I’ll tell you one thing, though—most of those times I was thrown in the deep end of the pool (as opposed to under the bus) served the hell out of me because, without them, I’d have never known just how well I can swim.

Here, then, is my very public Gratitude Attitude shout-out to the supervisors and managers and colleagues who, by virtue of their heart and knowledge and professionalism, contributed significantly to the social worker and manager I am today.


In no particular order, then, a hearty “Thanks!” to…

Lindsay Lambert

Lindsay is the first Case Manager I ever hired.  She had been so shy at her interview I had to ask her to speak up, twice.  This almost cost Lindsay the job.  But, I saw something in her.  Lindsay was smart and kind and was working hard toward her MSW, ultimately winning the position over some stiff competition.  Within three months, Lindsay surpassed the six other Case Managers and everyone else on my staff, and there were some real good ones.  Lindsay worked effectively with some incredibly challenging clients, always keeping her cool and getting the job done.  What did I learn from Lindsay?  Quiet people can be fierce!  Wow, if you get to work with a Lindsay, you sure are lucky, because she’ll get her job done very well, go to bat for you and always make you smile.  Thanks, Lindsay—hope to work with you again someday!

Tim Campbell
Coalition for the Homeless

Tim taught me more than anyone about the scrupulous respect and heartfelt compassion required to work successfully with the homeless and seriously mentally ill and, by extension, to all clients in need.  Tim’s an outstanding social worker and leader—a straight shooter, courteous, respectful, and radiates an inner strength that is reassuring to both clients and staff.  Tim held me to a high standard and always challenged me to live up to my promise—under his clear and caring guidance, I’d like to think I have.  Tim was (and still is, I’m sure) an excellent Director of Programs at Coalition for the Homeless, and I have much to thank him for.  So… thanks, Tim!

Samira Alieva
Catholic Charities Brooklyn & Queens

I have never had the pleasure of working with someone in such a senior position who has so much heart and humanity and compassion as Samira Alieva.  On top of that, Samira is competent and real and her heart is always on her sleeve—that’s why she is universally loved and respected by every person I met at Catholic Charities Brooklyn & Queens.  Samira is truly one-of-a-kind, and CCBQ is extremely lucky to have her.  For my part, I was very fortunate to have been chosen by her to run one of the most challenging of the many programs she is responsible for.  She gave me the best professional advice I have ever received, with regards to the role I assumed—“Own it!”  Thank you, Samira!

Additional shout-outs to some special peeps, some of whom are still with these organizations, some who have moved on:

Richard Slizeski, Hermine Pelta, and Giovannie LaRoc at Catholic Charities Brooklyn & Queens.

Jennifer Ponce, Mark Comrie, Julia DiGiacomo, Raisa Torres, Kathy Dros, Christina Hoodho, Shawn Young, and Claire Harding-Keefe at CAMBA.

Dova Marder, Valerie Porter, Jose Correa, Susan Nayowith, Marcelles Georges at the NYC Department of Homeless Services.

Lindsay Davis, Celi Collado, Jesus Velez, Allan Benamer, Rebecca Isaac, Mary Brosnahan, Pam Grove, Tony Taylor, Jerry Breen at Coalition for the Homeless.

I hope you’ll take a moment to think about colleagues present and past.  What qualities can you appreciate about them, even if they rubbed you the wrong way or sometimes made your life more difficult than it needed to be?  How did the ways they challenged you cause you to reach down a little deeper for something you didn’t know you had?  How did they help you become the professional you are today?  These are the things I hope you’ll think about, not only throughout your career but in real time, as things unfold.  There are valuable lessons to be learned, not only from the superstars who inspired us, but from the bosses who pushed us too hard, the colleagues who didn’t shoulder their fair share of the load, and the clients who seemed to find every possible way to sabotage their (and your) efforts to elevate their life condition.

So, let’s roll with the negativity—it’s inescapable—and get our Gratitude Attitude on!

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The Ever-Changing Resume


I made a big mistake early in my career.  I forgot to dust off my crystal ball.

When I put together my first post-MSW resume in 2007, it was pretty simple and straightforward.  But if there’s one thing we can count on in life it’s change, and the resume is not immune.  What would my crystal ball have revealed about the changing face of the resume?

Listing accomplishments is taking on greater importance.

No longer is it the case that recruiters and HR-types are satisfied with descriptions of your skill sets, or thinly veiled lines pulled from a current or prior job description.  They want to know what you’ve accomplished, concretely, in your prior (or current) role.  In other words, how well you did what you were asked to do.

Here, then, is my advice to all newly minted social workers.

Track, in detail, not only your personal accomplishments in any given role,
but accomplishments that were achieved as part of any team effort.

For example, it is nearly always the case that we have funder-mandated goals to achieve.  Did your program meet those goals?  What?  Five years in a row!

“I was selected to represent my department on a five-member interdisciplinary team whose efforts led to our program surpassing contracted goals five years in a row.”

On an individual level:

“For two successive years I had the highest number of permanent placements for residents in our transitional housing program.”

In an interview, be prepared to back that statement up with the numbers you jotted down, back when.

I would be remiss, though, to suggest that this would be beneficial only to new social workers, though the beginning is always the best place to start.  No matter where you are in your career, it’s a great idea to make detailed notes about your achievements. Memorializing these milestones can be critical, because memory is fragile and fleeting—if you’re anything like me, you may not remember a heck of a lot of detail five or six years later.  Take notes and jot down brief stories with talking points throughout your career, for those interviews-of-the-future., a helpful job search site, reminds us that “…every job is temporary.”  This is real and true, and you want to be ready with stories and achievements and skill set descriptions whenever that time may come to make your next career move—whether you initiate it, or not.

A word on that top-of-the-resume “Objective

I think by now we’ve all pretty much done away with the “Objective” at the top of our resume.  “I am seeking a position with a great organization committed to outstanding service delivery to their clients.” “Oh, so you want a job?  I wasn’t sure why you were sending me a resume” says my imagined HR professional.  As things go, the classic “Objective” is obsolete and it’s not likely to come back anytime soon.

However, if the organization you are applying to asks for a statement on your professional career goal or goals you need to respond, and it’s best to be prepared.  In writing this personal mission statement, be specific and tie your career goals to the mission statement of the organization you are applying to.  This will help the recruiter or Human Resources staffer understand that “What I seek for myself aligns with what your organization does—we are a good fit.”  Then, the resume you’ve prepared will demonstrate concretely that you have the skill set(s) they are looking for, and your cover letter will describe, in narrative form, how you will add value to the program and organization.  It’s all got to fit—together, each of these elements (cover letter, resume with accomplishments, personal mission statement) will be greater than the sum of its parts and move you that much closer to winning the position you’re competing for.

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Once Upon A Client: The End of Homelessness

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There is no symbol more reflective of the end of homelessness than a set of keys.

As Manager of the Client Advocacy Project (CAP) at Coalition for the Homeless in New York City, I had the privilege of leading a team that helped put keys in the hands of over 100 homeless men and women.  These single adults, either street homeless or languishing in the city’s municipal shelter system, lived with a range of physical, mental, and emotional disabilities.  With a housing stock that to this day is grossly inadequate, this was no small accomplishment, and I am extremely proud of the team of dedicated individuals who made this possible.

The primary goals of the CAP were to secure federal disability benefits for those who, with appropriate advocacy, were eligible, and to leverage those benefits into a move to supportive, supported, transitional, or independent housing.  The timelines involved were quite long—3 to 5 months for an initial application for benefits and two to four years to appeal the denial of benefits—sometimes longer.  This being the case, in providing intensive case management for our clients we got to know them very well.

One such client, who I’ll call Mr. Franklin, came to the CAP through the Coalition’s Crisis Intervention Program.  Five days a week, homeless single adults, couples, and families would line up to receive services, referrals, or advice at the Coalition’s office at 129 Fulton Street in lower Manhattan.  Mr. Franklin, a lean muscular man of about 50, had been on the street for a few years and was living with schizoaffective disorder.  He was tired of being on the street, but refused to enter the shelter system.  “I’m safer on the street,” he told me.  For some, I knew that was true.  He also was suspicious of “the system” and unwilling to “jump through all the hoops” that were held up as a condition of shelter.  Despite our willingness to advocate for him and the fact that a number of newly sheltered and formerly street homeless individuals were willing to vouch for our program, Mr. Franklin chose to do it his way and remain on the street—of course, we stuck with him every step of the way.

Through our advocacy and with the assistance of our partners at The Legal Aid Society, Mr. Franklin was awarded disability benefits 18 months after coming to the CAP for assistance.  Three months later, together we were able to secure a studio apartment for him in the Bronx with on-site social services—what a victory!

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Mr. Franklin, who rarely smiled and for whom eye contact could be quite difficult, absolutely beamed the day he walked into my office holding a set of keys.  I sat back in my chair and smiled. “Well!  What’ cha got there?” “Could you make me six copies of these?” Mr. Franklin requested.  “Out the front door, make a left, across the street in the middle of the block.”  “No no no…” Mr. Franklin replied. “I mean, on the copy machine.”

I was terribly curious where he was going with this.  “Sure thing, Mr. Franklin.”

I placed Mr. Franklin’s keys in the center of the glass on the copy machine, fanning them into a semi-circle—three keys in all.  Then I took the long cord they were attached to, which he wore around his neck, and circled the keys.  Mr. Franklin took the six copies and sat down to write.

A few minutes later, he handed me a copy with a note of thanks.  “You saved my life.  I love my apartment.  Thank you.  Franklin B.”  It brought tears to my eyes.  Mr. Franklin took the other five copies he had personally inscribed and gave them to the five staffers who had helped him in various ways.  We were all so excited and touched, we were like little kids!

I asked Mr. Franklin if he minded if I put the picture up on the wall in my office.  I explained to him that if other clients saw it, it might inspire them to hang in there a little longer until they got their own keys.  Mr. Franklin didn’t hesitate.  “Go for it.”  With Mr. Franklin looking on, I taped the picture of his keys right in the middle of the wall.  We stood there for what seemed like the longest time, just staring, and smiling.  I turned to Mr. Franklin and shook his hand.

“Congratulations, Mr. Franklin! You are formerly homeless!”

He smiled back then, for the first time, gave me a hug.  It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.

From that day forward, every single client who came into my office looked at those keys up on the wall.  Some of them just stopped and stared, taking it in.  How profound, how potent a symbol to the end of homelessness.  Several of the clients would tear up.  A week later I was sitting with Ms. Carol, who had just gotten a room in a supportive housing residence in Queens.  She leaned in, like she had a secret.

“Mr. Craig.  Can I have a copy of my keys, too?”  I smiled.  “And uh… have you got room up on that wall for me?”  “Ms. Carol, we always have room for you.”

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I made the copy, which she signed, and let her choose her spot on the wall.  She chose a spot directly below and a little to the right of Mr. Franklin’s.  Ms. Carol couldn’t have been more proud!

This started a tradition in the Client Advocacy Project at Coalition for the Homeless.  I can scarcely think of one other person who, when they got their keys, didn’t ask to sign a copy and choose a spot on what I dubbed the “Wall of Fame.”  It was really a Wall of Freedom, though.  Freedom from this affliction, this scourge, known as homelessness.  From time to time, when someone was really hurting and needed a little inspiration, I’d write their name on a post-it and stick it to a spot on the Wall of Fame.  “This is your spot,” I’d say.  “This is where your keys will go.  I’m not putting anyone else’s keys up there but yours.”

It worked—every time.

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Readers Respond to “Social Workers Deserve Higher Pay Now”

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Emotions ran high in response to my September 16, 2013 article “Social Workers Deserve Higher Pay Now.”  While there were several interesting suggestions on how to address the issue of low salaries, three things are abundantly clear.  Social workers are frustrated on the issue of compensation, they are angry at the NASW, and they are hungering for leadership and advocacy.

At the time of publication 36 readers commented on the article, a significant number given the newness of my blog.  Here is my completely and thoroughly unscientific categorization of those comments.

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  • 39% of the responses featured some form of expressed frustration (complaint) as the dominant response; of those
    • 6% asked that someone do something (i.e., “Help!”)
    • 11% offered to help, offered information, or at least one suggestion
    • 22% straight up complained
  • 8% took a stand in support of higher salaries for social workers (without making a complaint, as such; e.g., “It is high time social workers received compensation that appropriately reflects their contributions to society.”)
  • 16% commented without taking a stand in support of higher salaries (e.g., “Social workers knew what they were getting into when they signed on for this profession.”)
  • 3% offered direct assistance to anyone who advocates (e.g., “I can’t do this alone, so if you want to make something happen count me in.”)
  • 34% contributed meaningfully to the discourse in one of the two following ways:
    • 28% provided research or the names of sources where research can be accessed, and or at least one suggestion about how to approach the issue of advocating for higher salaries
    • 6% expanded the dialogue by reblogging my article, providing links, or sharing via other means

Here are excerpts of some of the comments.

“About time social workers & pay equity came into the 21st century.  I have endured low low wages for 36 years.”

“…this issue comes up again and again … we are the lowest paid among those complaining (psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.).  No one will step up as an organization because of fear of “colluding.”  I get that this is a real legal issue (or is it?), but it is laughable.  Really?  “They” won’t allow us to talk to each other about these ridiculously low salaries?  “They” are afraid of us?  And our $43,000 salaries?  Really?”

“We should not accept that Social Worker=poorly paid.”

“I was lucky enough to become a union member when I became a CPS social worker, which directly affected my pay in a positive way.  I would call for social workers to unionize through the help of NASW.”

“Most social work(ers) that do fieldwork are working over 40hrs and are not being properly compensated and there are not enough incentives for anyone to stay in this field.”

“With Medicare cutting reimbursements to the medical field, and most likely private insurers will do the same, I don’t see how social workers will get paid higher.”

“I have been involved in discussions regarding salary with social workers on LinkedIn, however invariably the conversation turns to “we didn’t get into social work for the money”, as if there is something noble about undervaluing your worth.  I didn’t go into social work to be living in poverty, either.”

“Would also be nice if social workers received credit towards their student loans as teachers do.”

“I work two SW jobs and I am always working.  This is terrible.  A 66 credit Masters to be treated and paid like a HS graduate.  The not for profit programs pay even less.  Where can we get some help??”

“The only thing we are doing is complaining and venting our frustrations.  This energy can be directed in becoming active in our cause of insufficient salaries.  Has anyone taken action?”

“For 50 years or more, social agencies have been using all available resources for the clients and hoping that the employees will “hang in there” due to their commitment.  In my opinion, when we start by taking care of employees, the needs of the clients will be met in an even more superior way.  There are many examples in the for-profit world of the wisdom of taking care of employees first.  It results in better customer service and far better financial performance for the organization as a whole.”

“I firmly believe that NASW needs to step up to the plate.  They are the largest professional social work association in the US.  They have the resources (including a team of lobbyists).  Unfortunately they have not shown interest in doing so.”


One of my readers was able to get a response from someone at the New Jersey chapter of NASW on the issue of advocating for higher salaries.  I share this with the understanding that I have not been able to independently corroborate this as of the time of publication.  I will continue to attempt to corroborate it and will update everyone via the News & Notes section of my blog.

“We are often asked why NASW does not negotiate for higher reimbursement rates for Social Workers.  The answer is because it is illegal.  Unfortunately, federal anti-trust laws do not allow a membership organization to negotiate payment rates.  This must be done by the “employees” themselves.  That means YOU.  NASW-NJ is talking with NASW National about how to develop a strategy for organizing private practitioners to work collectively toward this goal.  Nothing would make us happier than to have Social Workers paid what they are worth!  But this is not something NASW can do on its own.  Toward this end, NASW-NJ is organizing a Managed Care Roundtable to maintain ongoing dialogue with representatives of the NJ insurance companies.  We also intend to use the NJ Social Work Summit, a group of representatives from all NJ Social Work organizations, including NASW-NJ, to engage all NJ Social Workers on these issues.”

It is curious to note New Jersey’s effort to organize “private practitioners (italics mine) to work collectively toward this goal” of higher reimbursement rates.  While commendable, this unfortunately does not help social workers who are not private practitioners, thereby reinforcing their “otherness” and driving the wedge between clinical social work practice and “everything else” even deeper.

If the information provided by the NJ-NASW representative is accurate, if it is actually illegal for the NASW to negotiate or otherwise advocate for higher salaries for social workers—where does this leave us?

Among us are individuals with the personal or organizational resources to devote themselves full-time to the intensity of effort required to earn our profession the recognition it so richly deserves, and the compensation that all social work practitioners daily earn.  It pains me as I write this that I am not one of those individuals.  I cannot lead this charge because, like so many of you, my life concerns are very local.  Paying rent.  Putting healthy food on the table.  Funding worthwhile after-school activities for children and saving for college.  Exercising (remember that “self-care” thing?).  And, in my own way, giving to my profession by trying to crank out a thousand or so readable words per week.  After all that I do, and all that you do, what’s left?

By saying this I am in no way conceding defeat.  Nor do I mean to suggest that it is all on one person or organization to make this happen.  I believe what we all wish for ourselves and our profession is attainable—I simply don’t know, any more than you do, how exactly it will come about.  Or when.  But if we individually have no greater role at the moment than joining the chorus of those calling for change, then so be it—we cannot, and should not, fault ourselves for that.  Nor should we fault others.  The important thing is that we do not stop sounding the alarm and calling for change.

In the meantime, the chorus will grow louder and the debate will unfold.  You and I will go to work and we’ll continue being present as we fight for our own calm, looking into the eyes of someone who hurts while we, in our own ways, also hurt.  We’ll keep holding that space and in so doing offer not only our wisdom and pragmatism, but a silence our clients can step into—the possibility, the suggestion, that there is a better way.  And there is.

This is beautiful work that we do.  The moment-to-moment chaos characterizing much of our workday is a battle for health, happiness, and love, the proverbial “good fight”—it is sacred work.  And regardless of how we are compensated or our willingness or ability to do anything about that right now, let us never forget it, and never lose focus.

I personally thank each and every one of you for the courageous, whole-hearted work that you do.  The world is a better place for your efforts.

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Social Workers Deserve Higher Pay Now


A September 2009 CNN·Money article listed 15 stressful jobs that pay badly.  Number 1?  Social worker – median pay: $43,200.

The article states:

“Social workers step in when everyone else steps aside to help people and families in vulnerable situations.  They provide patients with education and counseling, advise caregivers and make referrals for other services.  And with social workers in short supply and programs underfunded, few must juggle the work of many, while reaping little reward.”

An incomplete characterization, to be sure, but basically correct.

Why is this so?  Why is “the system” set up to pay social workers less than we are worth?  Because the value we derive… (Did I hear someone shout, “Because we let them!”)?  The value we derive from helping others is not salary-based.  We choose to go places most people don’t want to go, to stare into the twisted face of pain and feel the thrill of helping those muscles relax—even just a little.  The monetary value of that benefit is the price of our hearts, and that price is $WhatEverItTakes.00.  We exercise our heart muscle in a big way in this profession, and we get the job done or burn out in the effort, which is all too often the case.

Given a degree of burnout that is now legend among our colleagues why, too, are we willing to risk burnout for so little money?  To enable a broken system of compensation to remain broken?  Are we too busy helping our clients and trying to have a life of our own to hold our leaders accountable?  While that may be part of the answer—it’s not all of it.

There is a game of chicken going on between not-for-profits and funders, primarily government entities, and the not-for-profits blink—every time.

About a year ago I attended a meeting of supportive housing providers (not-for-profits) hosted by the New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH) at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens Village, NY.  While we were waiting for the OMH reps to come in, word went around this enormous conference table that RFP’s (Requests for Proposal) were about to be issued for the creation of new CR-SRO’s (Community Residence-Single Room Occupancy residences, a category of supportive housing).  As word spread of these impending RFP’s, the individuals seated around the table, middle- and upper-level managers from an assortment of contracted service providers, looked at one another stealthily, furtively.  First left, then right, a series of head movements that pulsed like a slow wave moving around the table.  I’m watching this, and forgive me for being crude, but it was like someone passed gas and they were seeing if anyone else smelled it.  But instead of “It wasn’t me,” the facial expressions read more like “I don’t want it,” “You can have it,” and finally, “No thanks.”  But sure as heck those same people knew that their organizations would compete fiercely for those contracts, with their puny budgets.

But if the budgets are so puny that the managers responsible for running those programs are looking at each other as if to say “Good luck with that”, why do the not-for-profits blink every time?


Because in the view of many of these organizations we work for, some programs are better than no programs—even poorly run programs, some of which operate at a deficit.  Because it’s better for residents recovering from mental illness to be in a woefully funded community residence than in a shelter, on the street or, heaven forbid, in a jail or prison.  I get it, but—it’s not a good enough reason to underfund a program and underpay professional staff who have families and bills and student loans.  The men and women who live in these residences, many of whom have lived horribly difficult lives filled with fear and tragedy and loneliness, deserve better, and so do we.

But what is our role, as social workers, in perpetuating this ill-fitting status quo of too high stress for too little money?  Are we actually complicitous in maintaining, through our inaction, the very state of affairs we so object to—are we enablers?

An anonymous contributor on, in response to the question “Why are social workers willing to work for low pay?” posted:

“I am just entering the field as an LLMSW and I am very concerned about why we have accepted this (low pay) for so long. We are supposed to be able to advocate for others and we also know that we need to take care of our needs in order to be good social workers. We also know that this is one of the reasons for high burnout. Why have our leaders not stepped up? I am asking that we challenge NASW to do more. If the NASW (2010), “works to enhance the professional growth and development of its members, to create and maintain professional standards, and to advance sound social policies,” then why are they not advocating for our needs so that we may continue working in our chosen field without as much fear and shame of our salaries!”

My colleague—I hear you.

A call-to-action for NASW CEO Dr. Angelo McClain

Dear Dr. McClain,

I hear you are a good man and exceptional social worker, this from a reader of mine who claims to know you for many years.  I don’t doubt it.  And I’ll admit right up front, I don’t know the history of the NASW’s efforts to advocate for better salaries for social workers, nor do I know of any personal efforts you yourself may have undertaken.  Perhaps there are and have been many such efforts and I’m the last social worker on the block to know.  It would seem, though, that despite any such efforts, we as a profession remain in a quandary over the issue of inappropriately low salaries.

In your article “Helping Social Workers Help People” (July 2013 NASW News) you wrote “We know there’s a pressing need to raise social work salaries to levels that allow retention of experienced social workers and incentives for students to enter the field.”

In response, I shared the following with you.

As you know, organizations compete to win contracts from various government entities in response to RFP’s.  To win these contracts, they of course try to offer the lowest bid possible.  As private funding sources began drying up in the economic crisis begun in 2008, the competition for government contracts became even more fierce than it had been, historically.  One of the results of this competition has been that organizations are increasingly willing to overlook social workers as job candidates in favor of individuals with some human services experience and a Bachelors or Associates Degree (in almost anything), or “equivalent experience.”

Why are they doing this?  A trusted friend and colleague of mine who is responsible for recruiting and hiring new Case Managers in her program told me that it saved her $3,000 per worker, per year, to hire someone other than a Social Worker.  Three thousand dollars!  She was allotted $35,000 to hire Case Managers and wanted to hire BSW’s or MSW candidates, but in so many words was told it would be “really great” if she could find “other” new hires for, say, $32,000.  This was extremely distressing to my friend and she tried to hire the BSW and MSW candidates anyway.  She wanted social workers for her clients.  The social workers wouldn’t go for it—and who could blame them?  That’s the reality.  That’s how tight the money is.  And I have it from other sources that this is a generalizable dynamic in cash-strapped not-for-profits.

So will raising social work salaries result in hiring more Social Workers?  Right now, I’m hard pressed to see how.”

I emailed this to you at and on July 17, 2013.  The full article was published in my blog The Social Work Practitioner on July 15, 2013.  The NASW’s auto-reply email notes, “Individual letters cannot be responded to.”  Well, what can be responded to?  I am knocking on your door asking not for help, but to help.  I am publicly asking you how a nation full of social workers can make higher salaries a reality.  Certainly we can go outside the auspices of the NASW, but we are stronger together, don’t you think?

Dr. McClain, we need you to help us see how this is going to work.  Or at the very least what your thinking is, at this point.  If you lead a sensible campaign with a clear and reasonable chance of success I, and others, will rally behind you.  We already have an abundance of the “pressing need” part you referred to—we need a path to a solution.  We need your leadership and we need it to be a very high priority of your administration.

Are you up for it, Dr. McClain?  Are you with us?  We need to hear from you.

Respectfully and with best wishes,

Craig Moncho, Social Worker

Okay, I’ll get the ball rolling here, though I’m sure that I’m less qualified than Dr. McClain to figure this out.  But what the hey, I’m going for it.  Here are two initial thoughts to get this conversation going.

A question for our social work research colleagues

What studies can you cite (or what studies need to be done) showing the benefit to consumers and funding entities of hiring masters level social workers?  Send me links, email me (contact information is available on my blog ‘Contacts’ link) and we’ll move this conversation toward meaningful action.

Political action

We need to compel government entities to require master’s level social workers to fill particular staffing niches in the RFP’s that not-for-profits are competing for.  How do we do this?  Social work researchers, kicking the ball back to you.  We need bona fide research that conclusively proves that client outcomes are significantly improved when masters level social workers are leading the way.  If bang for the buck is the “currency” economists and politicians deal in, let’s show them the research, and push—hard.

Just because no one could pay social workers enough to properly reflect the heart we bring to our work doesn’t mean we, as a profession, should be Number One on the list of the 15 most stressful jobs that pay badly.

There is a silent calculus at play among those who are in the position to fund programs for the needy and disadvantaged.  That calculus takes into account an understanding that those of us who choose to become social workers have uncommonly big hearts.  They know we can’t or won’t walk away from our clients.  They know the price of our hearts: Insultingly low salary + $WhatEverItTakes.00 to get the job done.  And we’ve been doing it, we still do it, and it’s still not okay.

So—what are we going to do about it?

That’s not a rhetorical question.  I really want to know.  I hope you’ll talk to me, and that Dr. McClain talks to us—soon.  If he takes our plea to heart, a plea made innumerable times and most recently elucidated in this article, I hope he will begin addressing the “…pressing need to raise social work salaries…” soon.  I hope we will hear from him via the medium of his choosing by December 31st.

Together, maybe we can make this dream of a higher salary that someone will actually pay, a reality.


Questions for Further Consideration

1)   How can we effectively advocate for higher salaries for social workers?

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