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Interview with a ...
Housing case manager

| May 2021

BLS Fast Facts: Mental health and substance abuse social workers. 2019 employment: 28,300. 2019–29 projected growth: 17% (much faster than the average).Typical entry-level education and training: Masters degree; no on-the-job training. 2019 employment distribution: Outpatient care centers 22%; Government 18%; Social assistance 17%; Hospitals; state, local, and private 14%; Nursing and residential care facilities 13%. May 2020 median annual wage: $48,420

Learn more about this occupation in the Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Patrick Gaitan

What do you do?

I’m a permanent supportive housing case manager. I help the chronically homeless population apply for a housing voucher, apply for housing, and then, just as importantly, make sure they stay housed. That’s the permanent part of my job title.

Describe a typical day.

I have a meeting with my colleagues about important updates from the city’s department of human services. Then, I spend most of my day traveling around to visit clients in all different parts of the city. I schedule home visits with my clients who are housed. For clients who are not housed, I meet them at different points in the city—coffee shops, subway stations, wherever we can meet—and we do paperwork to get them a housing voucher.

The last part of my day might involve going to court, meeting with a landlord, or any other meetings to advocate for the client. For example, if a client violated probation, my colleagues and I would appear in court on their behalf and explain the steps they’ve taken to improve their lives from a housing perspective.

How many clients do you typically meet with?

I have about 20 clients, and we’re required to have direct contact with them at least three times a month. We’re also required to have one indirect contact with them a month. Direct contacts can be in person or over the phone, and indirect contacts could be with their landlord or medical professional. I usually have around 120 “contacts” each month.

What are some of your other responsibilities?

When I’m not with clients, I’m in meetings, preparing case notes, submitting utility bills for clients, and working on other administrative tasks. I also complete an assessment of each client twice a year to determine how likely they are to relapse into homelessness. But this is not a job where you sit at a desk all day. The environment is always changing.

What skills or qualities do you need to be successful in this line of work?

You have to have a high level of flexibility, in that you can plan out your day and have an idea of the way it’s going to go but have to adapt quickly if things change. For example, you may expect to go over paperwork with a client but arrive at the meeting and find out they haven’t eaten for a couple of days, so you shift to working on getting them a meal and food resources. Emergencies come up. Time management and organizational skills are key.

You have to be able to work independently, since you’re in the field by yourself and have to figure out how to solve problems as they come up. People skills and communication skills are also necessary because you’re meeting with people for most of the day. Finally, you need to be empathetic and show clients that you care.

What attracts people to the occupation?

I think what draws people to this type of work is a desire to be of service to the community. That’s definitely what keeps people in the occupation: You feel like you’re making a difference. Take someone who has been homeless for 20 or 30 years, and you can help them get an apartment: Imagine the joy that that person would feel! It’s very rewarding.

I’ve always wanted to work with people and help others. I’ve always wanted to have a positive impact on people’s lives. Through this job, I feel connected with my community and the city.

How did you train for this occupation?

I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology. I also could’ve majored in sociology, social work, or any behavioral health field. My first job out of college was as a rehabilitation counselor at a day program for individuals with serious mental illnesses. I worked there for almost 5 years.

A master’s degree is usually required for this job, but I was able to start with a bachelor’s degree because I had significant work experience.

How has your background helped you in your current work?

Most of my clients have at least one mental health disorder, and we need an understanding of the different disorders and which interventions to use. For example, if a client suffers from schizophrenia, we make sure they get medication—and that they take the prescribed dosage. Otherwise, they may choose not to stay housed. If they are having trouble with drug use or quitting smoking, I may use techniques such as motivational interviewing or cognitive behavioral therapy.

They may also have past trauma, so I have to understand how that may interact with or impact their coexisting mental health disorders.

Any future plans for your career?

I’d like to go to graduate school and get a master’s degree in counseling or social work. I need a master’s degree if I want to advance with my current employer or in my career.

I’ve also considered going into private practice as a therapist later in my career.

Tell me what advice you’d give to someone interested in this occupation.

It’s a job you go into not for the money but out of a desire to help others. It’s important to have hobbies and activities outside of work, because you inevitably encounter secondary trauma. It can get to you, so you need a way to leave work at work. This helps prevent burnout and makes you a better worker.

Look for internships or volunteer opportunities to find out if this field is right for you. There are lots of ways to help, and interning or volunteering is a way to get experience and give back. Try working with various populations to get a variety of experience and build a strong skill set.

What’s challenging about your job?

Dealing with all of the paperwork and how long the placement process can take. There’s a lot involved in going from not having a housing voucher to getting one. As housing case managers, we’re dealing with clients who don’t have housing, and we have to wait for all of the paperwork to be completed and approved before they can get a voucher and ultimately find housing. It can be a frustrating process.

What do you like best?

Seeing clients progress. I see them from day 1, when they are very worn, struggling, and homeless, to finding housing and experiencing joy. Watching them make progress and ultimately become housed is very rewarding. The people I work with have great personalities. Their humility and gratitude remind me to be grateful for all of the things I have in my life.

Ryan Farrell is an economist in the Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections, BLS. He can be reached at farrell.ryan@bls.gov.

Suggested citation:

Ryan Farrell, "Housing case manager," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2021.

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              Patrick Gaitan