Addiction & Recovery

How Social Workers Serve the Homeless

How Social Workers Serve the Homeless
Whether handling case management in homeless shelters, working as mental health or substance abuse counselors, or advocating for resources at the macro level, social workers serve the homeless in various ways. Image from Unsplash
Courtney Eiland profile
Courtney Eiland January 30, 2023

The lack of affordable housing and sufficient mental health care have compounded the homeless crisis, sending more than a half million people into crisis. Here's how social workers help the homeless survive and thrive.

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Homelessness is a public health issue affecting a broad range of Americans. The 2021 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, generated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), counted 326,126 people experiencing sheltered homelessness. In addition, 232,733 people were experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the 210 communities that conducted unsheltered counts.

The combined number of sheltered and unsheltered totals over half a million people experiencing some form of homelessness across the United States. New York City, which has reached its highest levels of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in recent years, is now considered “in crisis mode.”

The National Alliance to End Homelessness cites the following causes of homelessness:

  • Lack of affordable housing options, which can result in eviction and housing instability
  • Low-income households, including unemployed or underemployed individuals who cannot keep up with rising housing costs
  • Mental illness or behavioral health problems, including substance use disorders
  • Escaping violence, including survivors of domestic abuse seeking a safe, temporary place to stay
  • Racial inequities showing African Americans and Indigenous people experiencing homelessness at higher rates than Whites

Unfortunately, much of the homeless population lacks adequate access to health care and other social services to support their well-being. How can social workers help? These professionals can’t bear the weight of ending homelessness altogether. However, social workers’ services are critical for the homeless population. This article discusses how social workers serve the homeless. It examines:

  • How social workers serve the homeless
  • Why become a social worker?
  • Can I study to be a social worker online?

How social workers serve the homeless

Social workers perform necessary functions that serve the homeless. Whether handling case management in homeless shelters, working as a mental health or substance abuse counselor, or advocating for resources at the macro level, social workers serve the homeless in various ways.


Social workers cannot provide all necessary services directly. However, they can connect homeless individuals with assistance through partnerships and outreach. For instance, the New York City Department of Homeless Services is home to one of the country’s most comprehensive homeless outreach initiatives, the HOME-STAT Street Outreach team. Composed of outreach workers and clinicians, HOME-STAT works around the clock to engage with unsheltered individuals, connecting them to resources to help transition them off the streets or homeless encampments. The end goal is to bring them closer to stability or permanent housing.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs works to combat homelessness among veterans through its VA Homeless Programs. These programs include outreach social workers committed to seeking out veterans in need of assistance and connecting them with housing solutions, health care, employment opportunities, and access to other local service providers.

Access to affordable housing

Lack of access to affordable housing is one of the most common causes of homelessness. Inflation and rising housing costs have resulted in evictions and foreclosures, putting some of the most vulnerable populations out of their homes and struggling to find alternative housing options.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) identifies four types of housing and shelter programs:

  • Emergency shelters
  • Transitional or temporary housing
  • Permanent supportive housing to help people dealing with mental and substance abuse disorders
  • Permanent supportive housing on a housing-first basis for people experiencing chronic homelessness

Social workers can help connect individuals or families at risk of displacement to temporary housing or emergency shelters to avoid the threat of unsheltered homelessness. They can also assist with eviction prevention, connecting them to federal programs that aid with rent assistance or low-income housing, such as the Housing Choice Voucher Program (formerly known as Section 8) or Public Housing.

Mental health services and substance abuse treatments

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), mental health and clinical social workers are among the nation’s largest providers of mental health services. Most work at the micro level of the social work practice, providing referrals or delivering direct care to individuals, families, and groups.

People experiencing unsheltered homelessness and mental illness commonly struggle with such conditions as schizophrenia, depression, suicidal thoughts, symptoms of trauma and substance misuse, and the emotional toll of exposure, including harassment from passers-by. SAMHSA’s Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) funds essential services for homeless individuals with severe mental illnesses, including outreach, screening and diagnostic treatment, habilitation and rehabilitation, and health care referrals.

Mental health social workers or outreach workers can also assist in transferring unsheltered homeless individuals struggling with severe mental illnesses to group homes (including transitional housing or supportive housing) under 24/7 monitoring. Most group homes have substance abuse and mental health counselors onsite to aid recovery.

Additionally, social workers can assist veterans experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness due to mental health issues stemming from collective trauma by offering counseling services.


Advocacy and community organization social workers primarily engage at the mezzo intervention level, assisting communities, schools, organizations, and neighborhoods. However, some also operate at the macro level, advocating and lobbying for large populations, including disenfranchised, underserved, underrepresented, and marginalized groups. No matter the intervention level, this social work discipline promotes social justice through action.

Social work policy advocacy addresses such issues as affordable housing and police procedures in interacting with homeless individuals. Social workers can also advocate for policies that provide equitable access to human needs, including food (via the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)), healthcare (via Medicare, Medicaid, and mobile healthcare services), behavioral health resources, and affordable housing.

Access to health and human services

In a 1943 paper titled A Theory of Human Motivation, author Abraham Maslow identified five levels of human need: physiological, safety and security, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. The foundation category, physiological, discusses how people require basic human needs such as food, water, clothing, sleep, and shelter to address more complex needs higher up the chain.

For people experiencing homelessness—whether sheltered or unsheltered—access to these necessities often presents setbacks and challenges. Social workers strive to connect this population with human services to assist with everyday human needs. Resources include the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) whose programs offer healthcare, behavioral healthcare, and other essential human services.

Other organizations social workers can utilize to connect free or accessible healthcare for people experiencing homelessness include:


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Why become a social worker?

Social workers most often choose their profession because they want to help others.

Social work practice contains many disciplines and subspecialties that impact underserved or vulnerable populations, including the homeless. An outreach social worker may perform the groundwork to help transition unsheltered homeless individuals off the streets. Once they receive shelter, social workers within homeless shelters or transitional housing can range from mental health social workers to substance abuse counselors. alongside many other subspecialties that provide support services for homeless individuals and families. The types of services these social workers deliver may stem from social work advocacy or public policy at the system level. All areas of social work practice are integral in working toward the greater good.

Can I study to be a social worker online?

If you’re considering a career in social work, many Master of Social Work (MSW) programs offer online programs like Tulane University and Virginia Commonwealth University. These rograms provide future purpose-driven social workers with the tools needed to become difference-makers in the world.

In addition, top schools with stellar MSW programs, like Columbia University and the University of Michigan, among others, also offer flexible online MSW degrees with rigorous classroom instruction and real-world practice through field education opportunities.

MSW programs traditionally take two years to complete. If you decide to pursue a certificate or dual degree, those additions may tack on extra time. Accredited programs like Tulane University offer an Advanced Standing program that can take as little as one year of full-time study for those who qualify.

As the NASW observes, “Social workers are people who care about people, want to make things better, want to relieve suffering, and want their work to make a difference.” If this sounds like you, you can start making a difference in the lives of those in need by obtaining quality social work education and specialized experience.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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