A Look Inside Operations at a Housing Agency

How organizational politics can undermine efforts of social workers to help the homeless

(This article appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of SSA Magazine.)

Permanent supportive housing has become a popular weapon in the fight against homelessness. The idea is to offer homeless people two things they badly need: a place to live and the support of social workers who can help them confront the chronic problems that are often associated with homelessness, including mental illness, substance abuse, and HIV/AIDS. But what happens when the social workers can’t do their job?

This was the predicament facing social workers—and their clients—at a large supportive housing agency in a major American city with 20 buildings and more than 1,000 units. Slightly more than half the tenants—52 percent—suffered from mental illness, 45 percent suffered from substance abuse, and 7 percent had HIV/AIDS. And as researchers discovered in a study of internal conflicts within the agency, the marriage between housing and support turned out to be a rocky one.

“When Professional Power Fails: A Power Relations Perspective,” published in the September 2016 Social Service Review, describes how social workers clashed with building managers over the fate of some of the most difficult tenants. These conflicts often revolved around how to respond when tenants violated rules or decisions to admit or evict them. They pitted the interests of building managers, property investors, and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) against the expertise of social workers. Almost always, the social workers lost.

The authors are Eve Garrow, a homeless policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, and Yeheskel Hasenfeld, a Professor of Social Welfare in the University of California Los Angeles’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. Invited by the housing agency to investigate problems within the agency’s staff, they spent two years looking into problems, conducting interviews, studying documents, and attending meetings.

The sharpest conflicts arose over tenants who had engaged in disruptive behavior or otherwise failed to comply with housing rules, such as paying rent on time. To property managers, many of whom were former homeless people themselves, these behaviors were evidence of willful disobedience and often were grounds for eviction. Social workers saw the behaviors differently—as symptoms of underlying problems that should be addressed through therapeutic means. While property managers didn’t interfere with the social workers’ clinical practice, which included individual and group sessions with tenants, they prevailed in decisions about who came and who stayed. Indeed, social workers were sometimes even forced to give socialpsychological justifications for evictions.

How did this happen? The authors say the answer lay in the structure of power inside and outside the agency. Ultimate power rested with HUD, which subsidized rents and social services, and with equity lenders whose investment in housing for the homeless allowed them to claim tax credits and depreciation allowances. Both wanted the buildings to be well maintained and the tenants not to be responsible. The director of housing services, a seasoned mental health professional, usually sided with the property managers. The tenants themselves had little power and often were frustrated.

But the situation also points to a larger dilemma for social workers: how powerful interests inside and outside human service agencies can disempower them and, by extension, the people they serve.

The power of social workers, like that of other professionals, rests on their claim to an exclusive body of knowledge. They’re also guided by a code of ethics that prevents them from abusing their power. In practice, however, social workers can find themselves enmeshed in organizational politics that undermine both their expertise and their ethics.

The solution, the authors suggest, is for social workers to seek alliances with stakeholders who share their values and can increase their influence over decision making. These include allies willing to stand up for the rights of the homeless. Powerful stakeholders, like HUD, could be mobilized to impose accountability standards that address tenants’ well-being more directly.

“When Professional Power Fails: A Power Relations Perspective” won the 2016 Frank R. Breul Memorial Prize for the best article in the Review.

Garrow, Eve E., and Hasenfeld, Yeheskel, “When Professional Power Fails: A Power Relations Perspective,” Social Service Review 90: (3) 371-402.