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After two years of service working with the homeless population through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC), sociology major Laura Giannotti ’13 is earning her MSW at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice.
If anyone told Laura Giannotti '13 at her Emmanuel College Commencement that she would spend the next two years volunteering and working with those experiencing chronic homelessness, living with total strangers that have since become a part of her family and then going on to study at an Ivy League institution, she would not have believed it.
"After living [them], I still do not believe the experiences I have had since leaving the gates of Emmanuel," Giannotti said.
After graduating in May 2013, the sociology major (with a concentration in social inequality and social justice) committed to volunteering one year through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). That August, Giannotti packed one suitcase and moved to her new home in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she lived with four other women in an intentional community committed to the four pillars of JVC: community, spirituality, social justice and simple living. The group had dinners together on a daily basis, participated in and created weekly community nights and spirituality nights and worked at least 40 hours each week at local non-profits.
"We did this while living below the poverty line," Giannotti said. "I made less than an individual who receives SSI. We had enough money to cover our rent and utilities when pooled together as well as the ability to spend about $100 a week on food. Our food budget was supplemented with food we received from food pantries. Separate from this modest check, we received $100 a month for our own use. These four women and I became a little family. We laughed, cried, and most importantly, relied on each other."
While in Raleigh, Giannotti worked at Urban Ministries of Wake County and the Helen Wright Center for Women. At the crisis center, she interviewed individuals and families in need of food and prescription assistance and also became a case manager for about 15 women at the women's shelter.
"I fell in love with the work I was doing," she said. "I felt a sense of community with the women residing in the shelter. I learned from their resilience and strength. I saw a new face to homelessness. I saw proof that negative stereotypes are not always true. Many of the women I worked with did not abuse alcohol or drugs and did not have diagnosed mental health conditions. On the contrary, many were experiencing homelessness because of medical health problems, unemployment or minimum wage jobs that did not cover their rent, relocation, or family problems like domestic violence."
By November 2013, just three months after she started JVC, Giannotti knew that she would not be done giving back or living out the four values of JVC. Committing to another year of service, she made the difficult decision to leave what she had grown to love in Raleigh and moved across the country to experience a different city, state, community and work placement. For her second year, she was placed at St. Joseph Center in Venice, California, and lived in the Palms neighborhood of Los Angeles with four women and two men.
At St. Joseph Center, Giannotti worked as a case manager at the Homeless Service Center (HSC), which functioned as a drop-in day center for those experiencing homelessness.
"Although I spent an entire year working at a women's shelter, I felt unprepared for what I experienced at HSC," she said. "Well over 100 individuals would come through our doors each day to shower, sign up for a meal, and, if they were lucky, wash some laundry."
Giannotti and one other case manager met with anyone who was new to the center or interested in case management. She met with between 30 and 40 people each week to work on goals, mostly around identification and income. The vast majority of her clients, Giannotti said, were middle-aged men who were experiencing chronic homelessness due to mental health, substance abuse and/or physical health issues. If an individual suffered all three, they were deemed "tri-morbid." She also completed hundreds of housing surveys, called the VI-SPDAT (Vulnerability Index & Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool), which measured vulnerability and health concerns - the higher an individual scored, the more likely he or she was to pass away on the streets. These individuals were placed on housing teams through the center as spaces became available, but with a lack of Section 8 housing, many were waiting for upward of three years or more to receive housing, she noted.
"Although challenging, this was the most rewarding work I have ever done," Giannotti said. "I had experiences that many will likely never get the chance to witness. There is a lack of resources available for adults experiencing homelessness, not just in LA but across the country and worldwide. In order to battle the injustices I saw on a daily basis, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in social work, specifically focusing on adults with mental health and substance abuse issues."
She applied to a number of schools and, among a few others she was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice, where she began her studies this fall.
She has "hit the ground running" on her Master of Social Work, learning new interventions and techniques, participating in discussions held by experts in the field and working three days a week at the Salvation Army Red Shield Family Residence. At Red Shield, Giannotti is a youth coordinator, still working with those experiencing homelessness but exclusively with the children and teenagers who reside in the shelter.
"The amazing experiences I have had could not have been possible without learning what I did at Emmanuel College," she said. "Emmanuel, especially the Sociology Department and Campus Ministry, opened my eyes to social justice issues and taught me strategies that are useful in the work setting, and countless lessons and lectures [continue to] help me academically. So thank you, Emmanuel, for helping me get to where I am today."