WASHINGTON — Raquel Williams-Jones has organized tent cities, volunteered on civic boards and founded a resident-driven housing organization. Soon, she’ll take on a new job — as a “service coordinator” for public housing residents under a new round of grants issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
On Feb. 20, HUD announced $34.9 million in grants for the Resident Opportunities and Self Sufficiency – Service Coordinators Program to help low-income residents in public housing become self-sufficient by providing them with the expertise and advocacy of service coordinators.
“Can I Live?” – an Alexandria, Virginia group that Williams-Jones leads — was among 117 groups across the country that received funds to hire or retain service coordinators. Williams-Jones said her group will hire new service coordinators, including her, for their public housing partners in Washington, from a $738,000 grant.
Williams-Jones said the resources allocated across public housing can be difficult to navigate for low-income residents. She said those seeking help can be discouraged when “bombarded by the bureaucracy of the system.” Service coordinators could walk these folks through confusing HUD opportunities, she said.
“[HUD services] are not working at maximum efficiency. They’re running poor people back and forth back and forth, from system to system, inundated with paperwork,” Williams-Jones said. “We need to innovate the way we do service, making it more simple, more user-friendly.”
Janice Monks, president of the American Association of Service Coordinators (http://www.servicecoordinator.org/), service coordinators usually attend to between 80 and 150 residents, but in some public housing projects, one coordinator could be responsible for as many as 1,000.
Common tasks include arranging services for residents who have received medical treatment and creating post-natal programs, after-school groups, education programs and wellness courses for seniors. But they also have to deal with hoarders, residents with poor hygiene, or residents suffering mental illness or abuse, Monks said.
Monks said it boils down to “asset management.” Service coordinators take stock of their residents’ needs, the funds and services that their housing authority has to work with, then find a way to make as many ends meet as possible. They aren’t usually providing the ervices directly.
To best understand and remedy the needs of a community, service coordinators should be hired from within the housing authority and trained in HUD practices, Williams-Jones said. “The strategy is for people to act on behalf of themselves.”
Williams-Jones envisions a system where residents are the ones to help propel other residents out of the public housing system. Poor people are taking personal accountability, “coming up with their own solutions to reduce their own dependency on government programs,” she said.
But Monks said most service coordinators usually have a background in social work or health care. She said it’s unusual, but not unheard of, for service coordinators to be residents of public housing.
Williams-Jones knows service coordination requires work beyond just telling residents about resources. “Coordinators are there to do an assessment of what a community needs… and create an individualized plan for each person and family,” she said.