Q&A with Lauren May (MSW ’15)

Lauren MayLauren May is the Housing Advocate at the Coalition for the Homeless in Manhattan, where she assists homeless adults living with psychiatric diagnoses in accessing supportive housing and services. A longtime volunteer for people experiencing homelessness even before she enrolled at NYU Silver, Lauren was awarded the Silver Citizenship Award in her final year of the MSW program in recognition of her ongoing work with New York’s homeless community.

What does your work as a housing advocate for people experiencing homelessness entail?

I help single homeless adults with serious mental illness diagnoses apply for supportive housing and other services. I work with clients to complete applications, which are required to access supportive housing, help clients prepare for housing interviews, make referrals to other programs, and accompany clients to various appointments.

What drives you to do this work?

I've been working and volunteering with homelessness issues for almost 12 years now, and it all started with a conversation when I was seventeen. I remember walking past a panhandler with my pastor and asking him, “How do people become homeless?” His response: “Sometimes, they just fall through the cracks…”

I was plagued with questions — What cracks? Why aren’t people helping them? Why aren’t we fixing the gaps in the system? Whether it was due to a lack of medical or psychiatric care, familial breakdown, or a failed connection with educational or vocational training, I was baffled by the myriad of ways one could become homeless. I found that those who were experiencing homelessness had been failed by every possible safety net and preventative measure.

This drew me to meet people where they were and inspired a personal commitment to finding ways to support and empower homeless individuals. I wanted to help people to reach their personal goals, with housing, or with the simple things like obtaining new clothes or a meal.

In what ways did Silver inform your first year out as an MSW?

I am so thankful for my clinical training at Silver. Truly listening and engaging a client are the most essential skills I learned at Silver and I utilize what I learned every day in my work to build strong bonds with clients. Many clients experienced unfathomable traumas before coming to my office, so being able to hold the space with them has made my clinical work stronger.

What's the biggest challenge you face in your work?

Burnout is real. I have had to be very mindful of not letting the issues and experiences of my clients weigh so heavily on me. I realized that I cannot do the work I need to do to empower my clients if I do not set boundaries and leave my caseload at my office. Having a good support system and exercise also help.  I struggle with it still, but I know that finding a balance and fending off burnout will benefit me and my clients.

What advice would you give to graduating MSW students?

Don’t feel locked into certain jobs or areas simply because of previous training, work or volunteer experience. I almost didn’t apply to my current job because I had never worked in housing issues before. My background was in emergency shelter settings and case management. I went for it any way, and I can honestly say I have never been more excited to go to work than I am now.

Anything you would like to add or anyone from the Silver community you would like to thank?

I have to thank my first year practice class. I could not have asked for a more compassionate cohort with whom to begin my NYU tenure. I also owe Dr. Deborah Padgett a huge thanks, as she taught an outstanding seminar on homelessness issues which I took at the end of my time at NYU and built my confidence before heading out into the field. She is an amazing resource.