Councilmember Robert White Secures Budget Funding to Tackle Crime and Homelessness with Free Master’s in Social Work Program

For Immediate Release

WASHINGTON, DC (May 3, 2023) – Last week, the Committee on Housing approved a proposed budget for FY2024 that funds the Pathways to Behavioral Health Degrees Act. Councilmember Robert White introduced this legislation to expand the local pipeline of behavioral health professionals in response to the extensively reported shortage in case workers needed to process housing vouchers, address the increase in violence and trauma around the District, and to fill the hundreds of vacant behavioral health jobs in DC Public Schools.

With a cost of $6 million over four years, the bill creates a Master’s in Social Work degree program at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and makes it free for District residents and people working in DC who have bachelor’s degrees. The bill also makes Master’s in Counseling degree programs at UDC free for residents and people who work in the District. In addition to covering tuition, White’s bill covers the cost of books, licensing exam fees, and a monthly stipend for living expenses and transportation.

“When I spoke with unhoused residents who were getting cleared out of the McPherson Square encampment, many told me they’d been approved for a housing voucher but have waited for months, even years, to get moved through the final steps in DC’s voucher process,” said Councilmember Robert White. “Service providers like Pathways to Housing and DC government agencies told me that a shortage of case workers is a big part of why that backlog exists. District residents want to help their communities on issues from housing to gun violence prevention.  Funding the new MSW program and these scholarships will enable community members to step into these roles. Residents are ready to be the heroes their communities need. I’m trying to clear the path for them to do that.”

The Pathways to Behavioral Health Degrees Act-funded scholarship would serve 20 students in the first year and 40 in each subsequent year. And the bill will build the workforce pipeline DC needs by requiring scholarship recipients to work for a District school, government agency, or health care provider organization for a minimum of two years after earning their degree and their license.

Another benefit of this bill is the potential to lower the financial barrier for people of color to get into a field that needs more clinicians with cultural competency. Nationally, a 2020 report found that 22% of new social workers were Black/African American, and 14% were Hispanic/Latino. A 2016 community needs assessment conducted by the District of Columbia Healthy Communities Collaborative found that members of the DC community believe that cultural competency is a priority need–from perinatal mental health care access in the District, particularly in Wards 7 and 8, to behavioral health specialists working with children.

Ryane Nickens, native Washingtonian and founder and president of the TraRon Center, said, “As the founder of The TraRon Center, whose mission is to provide mental health and trauma support for those impacted by gun violence, I have seen firsthand the overwhelming need in our city for more mental health and trauma specialists. The Pathways to Behavioral Health Degrees bill would help fill that void in our schools and communities at a time when so many children and families are looking for mental health or trauma support to address the issues they face.”

Jean Harris, President of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) DC said, “We are so pleased that funds have been made available in the 2024 budget to begin expanding the behavioral health workforce. NAMI DC families tell us their loved ones experiencing mental illness are unable to get the social work and counseling support that is critical to recovery and independence. Of course, many, many individuals in the District who struggle with mental illness or substance use do not even have families to advocate for them. Their parents may be elderly or estranged or live elsewhere. For these people, social work and counseling support is absolutely essential to connect them with available services and benefits.”

The Pathways to Behavioral Health Degrees Act was referred to the Committee of the Whole on February 7, where its next step will be a hearing. 

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