Extern News How I became a Homelessness Social Worker Give a brief outline of your career to date. During the final year of my degree in Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast, I did a placement at one of Extern’s hostels. I enjoyed my placement so much that I applied for a job there as a social worker when I graduated. After 18 months, I took up the role of Assistant Manager there for two and a half years, before moving to Extern’s Multi-Disciplinary Homeless Support Team (MDHST) as a Senior Practitioner in June this year. What was your favourite subject at school? I loved Theatre Studies. I studied it for A-Level as well as gaining a Diploma in Acting outside of school. I love acting and enjoy reading plays, and analysing and understanding the work of playwrights. Did you go on to further/ higher education, if so what did you study and where? I completed my Bachelor’s degree in Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast and in 2020, I went back to Queen’s to complete a Postgraduate Certificate in Dual Diagnosis. How did you get into your area of work? I think it was hard work, a bit of luck and finding the right opportunities at the right time. I have always wanted to help the local community and had a drive to improve life for people, so social work seemed to be the right fit for me. I was lucky to get my placement in the Extern hostel and that I enjoyed it so much, especially as this was an area of practice I hadn’t had the chance to experience before. I had great opportunities to develop my practice and skills as it was a fast-paced, challenging role. Extern also have wonderful opportunities for employees to work in different areas of practice and to develop and progress as practitioners. Is this what you always wanted to do? I have always had an interest in working with people and considered a career in social work since I was in secondary school. Whilst I initially thought I would like to work with children, I have really enjoyed working with adults, especially in the voluntary sector. Were there any particular essential qualifications or experience needed? To be a Senior Practitioner, you need to have a social work qualification and experience as a practicing social worker. Part of my role also involves supporting a team, so experience around managing staff is beneficial. Are there alternative routes into the job? There’s no alternative route for a Senior Practitioner, as you need to be a social worker to apply for the role. What are the main personal skills your job requires? Communication is key to my job, as I am in constant contact with staff, service users and other professionals throughout the day. Empathy is also an important skill as it helps build relationships with staff and service users. This enables you to understand each individual’s unique situation and provide the proper support to achieve the best possible outcome. You also have to be flexible to meet the needs of service users and staff, as well as think on the spot during a crisis and be creative in your approach to managing issues that arise. What does a typical day entail? Most days start with a coffee and checking in with staff, before going through my emails. Throughout the day I’ll go out on visits with colleagues, attend meetings, support my team-mates with casework and complete supervision sessions. I try to catch up with paperwork in the afternoon, but this doesn’t always go to plan! ‘To do’ lists are essential in this job because you can never plan how the day will go. What are the best and most challenging aspects of the job? The best part of the job is working with the service users, developing relationships and providing support. It’s so rewarding when you have built a relationship with a service user over time and you can see them achieving the goals they wanted to work towards. The most challenging aspect is when we meet structural barriers that we cannot overcome, and this directly impacts on service users. We work as a team to overcome these challenges by engaging with other services and becoming involved in steering groups to feed back on these issues. Why is what you do important? Our team provides support to anyone experiencing homelessness in Belfast. Sadly, over 8,600 households presented as homeless in Northern Ireland in the first six months of 2021. As a team, we support people like these to access essential services, such as housing and benefits, but we also support them to link in with services to support their physical and emotional wellbeing. How has Covid-19 impacted your business/role? We have remained a frontline service throughout the pandemic and have continued to support people face-to-face, as well as via telephone calls. Our work in the office has seen the biggest change, as staff now wear masks when interacting with service users and each other. Covid-19 has also had a big impact on the vulnerable and isolated people we support. It has exacerbated mental health issues, affected people’s physical health, and we are now seeing homelessness as being directly related to Covid-19 due to issues such as family breakdown or loss of employment. What adjustments have you had to make? More of our interaction with service users is via phone now, but we still have a lot of face-to-face contact as many may not have access to phones and prefer to speak to someone in person. Staff wear PPE and maintain social distancing when interacting with people and those coming into our office are encouraged to sanitise and wear a mask if they can. What advice would you give anyone looking to follow a similar career path? Try and get some experience so you know for sure that it is something you’re interested in. This kind of career requires passion and commitment, so it is something you need to know is suited to you. Even volunteering and working with people will be a big help. If you weren’t doing this what would you like to do? I really enjoy my job and can’t imagine doing anything different! My back-up plan for going to university was to study psychology, so maybe something in that field. I have always been dedicated to helping people, so this is something I think I would seek in any job. What is the one piece of advice you would give to yourself on your first day? Don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek support from your team. This job can be challenging but by asking questions and seeking support from your colleagues, your confidence will build and your practice will continue to improve. Describe your ideal day off. My workdays are very busy so I really enjoy a quiet day when I’m off. An ideal day off would be a catch up with family over coffee and either a walk or some shopping, before dinner with friends. And finally, what’s the key to any successful job search? Have a good idea of what you’re looking for in terms of role, area of practice and salary. Then make sure you can clearly state that you meet the criteria before you start writing the application. Homelessness Awareness Week runs from December 6-12, visit www.extern.org for more information and to help.