When Mary Dodson, MSSW ’96, was a social work student, she was set on the clinical concentration. We talked with her about how she declined professor Cal Streeter’s suggestion to switch to the community and administrative leadership track, and how she ended up using macro skills many times during her twenty years in homeless services. Dodson is now the Continuum of Care manager at the Texas Homeless Network, a nonprofit membership-based organization helping communities across the state prevent and end homelessness.
What do you do at the Texas Homeless Network?
I work with the Texas Balance of State Community of Care, a group of service providers, advocates, local government officials, and citizens who work to eliminate homelessness in 216 counties across the state. A great part of my work involves helping our partners understand research-based practices like rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing, how to implement them effectively, and how to measure their impact. The idea is that we are preventing and ending homelessness rather than managing it with shelters and soup kitchens. The real long-term solution is affordable housing, which most of our communities don’t have enough of. Once individuals fall into homelessness it’s very hard for them to get out of it.
What is your biggest challenge and what gives you hope?
The sheer size of our state is a challenge for sure! We can’t be present in person in all the communities we serve. We communicate by email, phone calls, and webinars, but it’s not the same as being in the same room. As a social worker, I value the human-to-human connection, and I miss it. It’s much harder for me to work virtually.
The fact that recently many people are rallying behind the initiative of ending veteran homelessness gives me hope. This has helped the general public better understand that homelessness affects people with many different backgrounds and experiences. It’s veterans, it’s single parents with children, it’s youth who are kicked out by their families, it’s the 65-year old who had a medical issue and lost his job. We are hoping that the recent emphasis on ending veteran homelessness will get systems in place that will allow us to tackle other populations.
How is your social work degree helping you?
I was an undergraduate when Cal Streeter arrived at UT Austin. In graduate school I was on the Clinical track but I took a couple of Community and Administrative Leadership classes over the summer and Cal asked a few times, “Are you sure you don’t want to do this concentration?” and I always responded, “No, no, I’m clinical.” And then a lot of my career in homeless services has been about community planning, assessing organizational capacity, evaluating performance, system mapping… I had to do much on-the-job learning after saying no to Cal! But the truth is that throughout my career my position has constantly fluctuated between administration and direct practice. A great thing about social work is that you can actually do that. And social work in general, with its emphasis in learning how to work with people, that’s just invaluable no matter what you end up doing in your career.
By Andrea Campetella | Spring 2016 | Focus