“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.” UT Tyler social work students reflect on homelessness

On a bitterly cold and wet February evening, volunteers took to Tyler streets, shelters and soup kitchens looking for people to count and interview.

That night — designated as the Point in Time — counted sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons on a single night.

Normally, the count happens in January but because of the COVID-19 Omicron surge, the count moved to Feb. 24. 

The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires an annual count of people experiencing homelessness – those unsheltered and those in emergency shelter and transitional housing. The count and surveys provide a snapshot of homelessness in cities across the nation. 

Similar to years past, volunteers counted hundreds of people experiencing homelessness in Tyler.

Social work students from the University of Texas at Tyler School of Social Work and their instructor Ericka Freeman, associate professor in practice, were among the volunteers.

Freeman said student participation in the survey was an opportunity for applying real-world social work skills with direct practice. 

They met at PATH with other volunteers for instructions before they divided into groups and went out. As student volunteers walked, they made audio recordings – a walking journal of their experience, impressions and takeaways.

These students recorded their thoughts as they searched Tyler streets, buildings, vacant lots and encampments.

Taylor: “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”

Emily: “I couldn’t look and tell if they were experiencing  homelessness.”

Alex: “It’s been really eye-opening to see people around me living like this.”

Taylor: “There are most likely people behind those.”

Emily: “They had no idea [those resources in Tyler] even existed.”

📷 courtesy KLTV and Tyler Street Team

Alex: “It’s crazy how you never know.”

📷 courtesy Visit Tyler

Freeman hopes her students’ training has developed new eyes for the city they live in. 

“They saw their community – Tyler – through a social worker’s lens and reflected on aspects of our profession’s core values, such as social justice and dignity and worth of all humans,” Freeman said.

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Jane Neal is the executive director of The Tyler Loop and storytelling director of Out of the Loop: True Stories about Tyler and East Texas. In addition to the Loop, she works at the Literacy Council of Tyler and attends Sam Houston State University remotely, where she studies sociology. Jane is a certified interfaith spiritual guide. She is a member of Leadership Tyler Class 33 and a former teacher of French at Robert E. Lee High School, where she ran a storytelling program called Senior Stories. Jane and her husband Don have four children.