Strong Women, Strong Communities
March 7, 2016

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2016 we sat down with Julie Lorenzo, our Chief Program Officer, to learn more about her career as a social worker.

How did you start your career as a social worker?

I got into social work because I’m a feminist. I’m one of three girls and my parents were very interested in making sure that we understood the issues of the day.

When I was in college I decided to volunteer in a shelter for women experiencing domestic violence. At that time, domestic violence and rape crisis services tended to be run by feminist women and the shelter I volunteered at was very focused on understanding domestic violence in the context of male power.  The women who were in charge of the shelter were all feminists and the way they worked was very interesting to me. It was collaborative with an attention to minimizing hierarchy and power differentials; maximizing choice and women’s empowerment as an antidote to abuse. It turned out these women were social workers. I didn’t even know that was a profession.

Tell us about your first few placements as a social worker.

My first field placement was with victims of elder abuse. They were mostly women who were being abused by sons who had either mental illness or a substance use problem. I saw how family violence gets played out in a different direction, between mothers and sons. They were very vulnerable and they loved their sons. Imagining what would happen to their kids when they died was very much at the forefront of their minds. They were a difficult set of problems, but the interventions were very similar to what I learned at the domestic violence shelter for women.

My second year placement was at the Traveler’s Hotel in 1986, a permanent housing SRO for women with mental illness where CUCS provided services. Traveler’s was an inspiring place to work.  The women participated in running the site, helping each other, and working with staff on basic kinds of needs that they had. People often speak about of getting bitten by the bug of working with this population and that’s what happened for me.

Working at Traveler’s introduced me to mental health. The woman who was in charge of Traveler’s was a feminist and that mattered because feminist approaches were about equalizing power and dealing with specific problems in the context of the environment. Before I came to social work school, I had a pretty antipsychiatry perspective. In my world, psychiatry was a bad thing for women. But working with women who had very serious mental illnesses I came to understand the value of using psychiatry and other novel supports to get women better and put them in charge of their lives.

Of course there were competing values. Sometimes you have to hospitalize a woman against her will. Seeing somebody going off in handcuffs to get medicated doesn’t reconcile all that well with empowering women. But I learned at Traveler’s that there are ways to do that that help women get better. A woman is not empowered if she is so psychotic that she can’t make a decision. You have to manage mental health in order to take control of the rest of your life.

After Traveler’s I worked at another agency on the street outreach team for a year. My first responsibility was to help start a medical a mobile medical treatment team for homeless people. I also worked on what they called MPOPs, which was a mobile psychiatric treatment team. These programs, like the others I worked in, had dignity and respect at the core of the work.  Building trusting relationships was the way to help people move off the street.  And then I went to CUCS’ 350 Lafayette program.

Tell us about the beginning years at the 350 Lafayette Program.

It was 1988 and the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) had been running that shelter, as they ran every shelter in the city. 350 Lafayette had beds for 30 women with severe mental illness and 10 beds for women with physical disabilities. The services were pretty minimal with only DHS on-site case managers and nurses and a doctor that came once a week. None of the staff really knew abut how to work with mentally ill people.

CUCS had a contract to work with the 30 women with mental illnesses and to move 60 of them into permanent housing each year.  We started out as a team of three and quickly grew to a full staff, one with sufficient number of people to manage the complex task of helping women get permanent housing.

When we started, the women were very sick and the shelter was very poorly maintained; conditions for clients and staff were pretty miserable. The industrial kitchen at the site prepared all the meals for all the women’s shelters in the city.  Because of this, the building was infested with roaches and mice.

There wasn’t enough power in the building and there was no air conditioning for anybody, not even on the client floors. The city at the time had been litigated into providing shelter and their methodology was to make it as unpleasant as possible so people didn’t stay.

CUCS really advocated to change the policies and practices for working with people with mental illness. The need for air conditioning is a great example of that.  People who take psychiatric medications do not process heat efficiently; air conditioning is really important for their well-being.  Our Associate Executive Director, Joe DeGenova, worked hard to get the city to understand and provide it at 350 Lafayette.

There was a terrific group of people, Frank Lipton from Human Resources Administration, Jim Rice from Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, and, of course, our CEO Tony Hannigan, who really understood that it wasn’t good enough to just help people in shelters manage their lives in shelters. For them it was about helping people get better to move into housing. That was quite a different approach and those people were really important in thinking about that, funding it, and making it happen.

One of the really significant things we did was to show the importance of treating people with respect and dignity. We created a community where homeless women with mental illnesses worked well together and helped each other do well. That community at 350 is still thriving more than 30 years later.

It is interesting comparing our Delta Manor shelter for men with mental illness, which was a really troubled shelter when we took it over a year ago. We really believed you could take the methodology and services from what we created at 350 and apply them to a men’s shelter. We did just that and now Delta Manor is thriving.