Understanding homelessness

"Homelessness is a symptom of a bigger disease of our society," says Charlotte Sanders, a teaching associate in the UW School of Social Work.

Charlotte Sanders recalls a day early in her career when she drove to a house in the far reaches of Yakima County. A case manager for the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, she went to meet the family of a child she was counseling. This was, in effect, a cold call since the family had no telephone and her letters had gone unanswered.

The mobile home appeared unfit for habitation. However, after meeting the family, Sanders was not so much struck by their circumstances but by their determination to provide a stable home. “I witnessed a family attempting to make the best of their situation,” she says. Sanders also noted the mother’s love and concern for her child’s education and success, and that the child was relaxed and playful, not withdrawn as he had been at school.

That case taught Sanders “there is no way to just focus on counseling without considering the social environment and the basic needs of the client,” she says.

Growing up among the fruit orchards of Toppenish, a community on the Yakama Indian Reservation, Sanders often helped her mother, a worker with the Department of Health and Human Services, with donation drives. “My mom was focused on helping in whichever way she could,” says Sanders. “In her professional life and her personal life, she was always giving.”

Decades later, with a master’s degree in social work and a career working with families, children and young adults in shelters, community clinics and crisis centers, Sanders brings her know-how to the classroom as a teaching associate in the School of Social Work.

Last winter, she and Lois Thetford, an instructor in the UW’s physician assistant training program, seized upon the opportunity to bring students face-to-face with homelessness. They designed a 10-week class around Tent City 3, a temporary homeless encampment on the UW’s main campus. Students in the health sciences, including social work, dentistry, pharmacy and public health, joined others to learn about the particular health-care and social-services needs of homeless residents.

“With so many disciplines, we had varying perspectives and dynamic opinions,” Sanders says. The encampment presented the students with real-life, real-time cases.

While the Tent City has moved on, Sanders and Thetford are continuing the course this fall. “This time, we’ll focus more on the various causes of homelessness and the experiences of those who are unstably housed,” says Sanders. Unfortunately, people label what they see, like ‘homeless youth’ or ‘homeless mother,’ says Sanders. “They become what we see.” But Sanders wants her students to “… understand the entire person, to learn that homelessness is a symptom of a bigger disease of our society, and to be open to hearing different understandings of and experiences of homelessness.”