Social Work for the Homeless | Lizzie Reaches Out

Lizzie Spier didn’t know it when she was an undergrad, but her heart was set on helping others and making a difference. Spier thought she’d use her art history and philosophy background to work in a museum or art house. But it wasn’t long after earning her undergraduate degree that she realized that working hands-on with the growing homeless population was where her passion—and her career path—was heading.


Spier earned her undergraduate degree from Macalester College in Minnesota and earned her graduate degree from New York University. But when the social work calling struck her, she earned her Masters of Social Work from CUNY Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work while already having and maintaining a job working in homeless outreach. As required for many social work career paths1, Spier obtained an LMSW (License Master of Social Work) licensure in order to work with in the homeless outreach program at the Goddard Riverside Community Center, the lead agency of the Manhattan Outreach Consortium. There, Spier is the Team Supervisor and works with the at-risk displaced population, specifically those suffering from mental illnesses.

Enjoy our full interview with Lizzie Spier, LMSW, as she discusses the most important elements of being a social worker who can reach those in need.

GradSchools: How did you get started in social work?

I joined Goddard in 2011 doing per diem work, specifically working during cold weather emergencies when outreach efforts are increased to offer targeted services to at-risk, homeless individuals.

Then in 2012, I joined outreach full-time as a Senior Housing Outreach Specialist on the Special Initiatives outreach team (SIT). SIT partners with community organizations to identify and engage specific populations of chronically homeless people who may not be regularly seen in the street (such as people who constantly utilize hospital emergency rooms). Housing Outreach Specialists work with individuals to connect them with permanent housing, and along the way offer medical, psychiatric and substance use services if relevant.

GradSchools: Which past positions that have played a significant role in where you are today?

Throughout college, I worked with young people as a mentor and tutor. During this time, I realized that I wanted to move into a social services field where I would be working with others and making an impact. However, my recent experiences and opportunities for growth at Goddard Riverside doing outreach have solidified my dedication to working with at-risk individuals, specifically homeless people and those with struggling with mental illness.

GradSchools: What services do you provide for your clients? Do you spend more of your time providing counseling services or referral services, other?

Outreach entails, first and foremost, engaging clients where they are (in our case, in the street) and offering housing services. We work hard to build trust with our clients, as these are people who are staying on the street rather than a shelter, often because of distrust of social services. We also operate from a housing-first model, which means that we immediately work to connect individuals with permanent housing with related supports. Outreach teams usually take the lead on these efforts, though we regularly partner with other agencies as well.

GradSchools: What stands out in your mind as the most unique challenge a client presented you with, and how did you help them overcome it?

There are new and unique challenges every day doing outreach! Some come up repeatedly, for example – I have worked with several clients who have quickly left placements because they found moving inside too stressful. One issue in particular was being assigned a bed to sleep in. Two of my clients had slept sitting up on park benches for so long—for decades!—that they were unable to fall asleep lying down in a bed. Things like this (sleeping laying down or sitting up) have presented challenges, because these are not issues that housed people think of right away. However, in the cases of my two clients, both were able to eventually acclimate to staying inside over the course of several months, and both are now connected with housing.

GradSchools: Which classes/educational experiences did you find to be most valuable in terms of helping you prepare for a career working with the homeless population?

One of the first classes a Master of Social Work (MSW) student takes at Hunter is called “Practice Lab.” It’s a small, two-semester course that investigates some of the most fundamental tenets of social work, one of which is developing empathy. The capacity for empathy is key when working with this population, as nearly all street homeless people feel disenfranchised in some way. Showing empathy is crucial during the engagement process and in forging a strong working relationship going forward.

GradSchools: What was the most notable lesson a professor taught you about social work? 

Several of my professors echoed these words of advice: always take time to get to know an individual and don’t jump to conclusions. Assessment requires a great deal of patience and close listening. Taking the time to hear one’s story and how past experiences have shaped his/her current situation is invaluable, and no two clients share the same perspective on their experiences.

GradSchools: What do you think is the most important quality a person should possess if they want to be a social worker that serves the homeless population?

As above, I think one of the most important qualities for someone going into this work is the capacity for empathy. Outreach is fundamentally about meeting a person where s/he is, and tailoring services to his/her immediate needs. Maintaining an empathic presence during this process is crucial. Also, patience and flexibility is needed because things can change on a whim – no two days are ever alike for outreach workers!

GradSchools: What is some advice you would give to aspiring social workers, especially those who are considering earning an MSW?

Take advantage of your field placement or internships during school – these are great opportunities to give you a chance to experience various types of social work.

Remember self-care and setting aside time for yourself! It’s easy to get run down when your job is working with others in crisis.

Lead by example. Social workers have a unique opportunity to role model for our clients. Rather than simply act as advocates for the folks we work with, we can also teach them how to advocate for themselves. This is one of the most rewarding aspects of social work.

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  • GRE scores are not required to apply.
  • Complete the online MSW program in as few as 18 months if you have a BSW; if you do not have a BSW, the program may be completed in as few as 27 months.
  • There are two online MSW program tracks: traditional and advanced standing.
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