Eric Dees, Caritas of Austin

Caritas of Austin was founded in 1964 by Father Richard McCabe, who sought to connect the needs of the poor with the benefits of public assistance. In 1977, Caritas of Austin was incorporated as a private non-profit, and in the 1990s it purchased and renovated the present headquarters at 611 Neches Street.

Social work case management is what agencies use to bring resources to vulnerable populations in order to keep these populations stabilized.  In this case, the clientele were formerly chronically homeless adults residing in Austin. This agency not only caters to the homeless and formerly homeless, they also serve people at-risk of becoming homeless as well as refugees (Caritas of Austin 2008).The program I was part of during my internship was the Partnership Housing Program. According to Greg Willis, my internship site supervisor, Caritas of Austin will soon rename this program the Community Court Program because the referrals come from the community court in downtown Austin.

The organizational structure of the Partnership Housing/Community Court Program is fairly simple.  On the front lines are approximately 12 case managers, like Greg, most of who have Master’s degrees in social work (MSW) and are licensed in the state of Texas.  The case managers answer to the Manager of Housing Programs who reports to the Housing Services Director. Above them is the Executive Director who reports to the 17-member Board of Directors.

The Partnership Housing/Community Court Program gets its funding from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Austin Downtown Business Alliance. The Downtown Business Alliance is the entity that pays the salaries of the case managers. In order to pay the rent of a client, Caritas of Austin takes 30 percent of the client’s net income and HUD subsidizes the difference between the amount the client pays and the rent price. If the client has no income, HUD will subsidize 100 percent of the rent. The reason the Downtown Business Alliance has a stake in this process is because they are trying to keep the negative aspects of the homeless problem out of downtown Austin and away from their businesses.

The time I spent shadowing Greg was limited to Mondays and Wednesdays from 8am to about noon.  For this reason, I was unable to ever witness a full day’s work. In addition to client progress sessions, a case manager must also attend meetings, file paperwork, make phone calls, read and type emails, and more.

My main responsibilities as a Direct Service Intern with Caritas of Austin were to listen to Greg interact with clients and to learn from those interactions. Most days I was onsite at the apartment complex where the clients lived. Greg, whose office was also onsite, set appointments with each client to come to his office at least once per week to discuss the client’s progress in the program. The progress evaluation forms that Greg filled out covered what I call the Caritas Triangle; housing, income, and self-care. After each meeting, the client would leave and Greg and I would discuss what had just transpired. Sometimes this discussion was brief and other times we would converse for 30 minutes or more covering several topics.

Another responsibility I had was to drive certain clients to appointments. It is against Caritas of Austin policy for a case manager to give a client a ride in his or her vehicle. However, there was a bus stop next to the apartment complex so clients could use public transportation to get around.  Occasionally we had a client who had some physical ailment that prevented him from being able to take a bus. As an intern, I was exempt from the aforementioned “no-ride” policy.  So several times a month I gave some clients rides to appointments.

A topic of discussion that came up during my training, and which reappeared throughout my internship, was the definition of chronic homelessness. The reason this definition is significant is because the program I was associated with during my internship only catered to formerly homeless people with the chronically homeless designation. According to HUD, a person is chronically homeless when he or she is an unaccompanied individual with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness during the past three years, where each episode was at least 15 days (Nooe and Patterson 2010:130-131; Van Wormer and Van Wormer 2009:153; Tsai, Mares, and Rosenheck 2011:343). However, defining chronic homelessness and fitting real humans into this mold can be very problematic.

The knowledge that I gained from my internship experience has been integral in allowing me to reassess what I am doing with my life. After much thought and careful consideration, I have decided that I would like to enter a career doing case management. I discovered how rewarding it can be serving on the front lines of the fight to end homelessness in the United States. The clients I dealt with during my internship all seemed to be very grateful for what Greg and Caritas of Austin are doing for them. For any students contemplating or considering a career in case management, I highly recommend an internship such as the one I participated in.

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