Broadening the Definition of Social Work

  • Alumni
  • Practice
Chelsea Bowers
Chelsea Bowers with the executive director of OC United, Jay Williams, one of City Net's partners in emergency response housing. Bowers and Williams prepare to outfit a trailer to provide COVID-19 protection for persons experiencing homelessness.

Spend any time talking to Chelsea Bowers, MSW ’17, and her passion for helping others is crystal clear.

The graduate of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work is the director of public affairs for City Net, a nonprofit in Orange County focused on ending street-level homelessness.

As the COVID-19 health emergency threatens the wellbeing of the community’s most vulnerable, Bowers and City Net are busier than ever.

“I’m running on adrenalin,” Bowers said.

City Net operates within a network of nonprofits aiming to fill service gaps in community services. It provides transition support, bridge housing, and permanent housing to individuals, youth, and families experiencing homelessness.

With the goal of preventing a widespread coronavirus outbreak among those living on the streets or in shelters, City Net has been asked by multiple cities in Southern California to help operate programs for those who are experiencing homelessness (and are vulnerable to COVID-19) to self-isolate. The undertaking is a combination of local city investment and part of California’s Project Roomkey, which aims to secure up to 15,000 rooms to provide safe isolation for unhoused individuals statewide.

City Net operates some of these new motel projects 24 hours a day, seven days a week, offering on-site staff, three meals a day, and connecting those who need it to medical services. Additionally, they serve as one of the primary referral agencies to help those on the streets, who meet the vulnerability assessment criteria, gain access to these programs.

The new shelters increased the team’s workload, which was already stretched thin. Volunteers who can help with serving meals and other duties are scarce because of shelter-at-home orders. The 90-plus City Net staff members have been told they can take time off if they need to stay home, but Bowers said most have continued to show up every day.

“Our staff are so committed the cause,” Bowers said.

Still, the new realities wrought by coronavirus demand much more from those trying to help. Bowers describes a recent day, beginning at 7 a.m. with a volunteer orientation, followed by a webinar learning how to apply for COVID-19 related grants.

Her lunch break is spent serving food to clients at one of City Net’s shelters. Usually eight to ten volunteers help serve meals to approximately 400 people at their largest shelter. Some days, they have to make do with only one or two staff members or volunteers.

Bowers manages external communications for the nonprofit, creating marketing materials to disseminate information to supporters and using social media to mobilize volunteers and solicit much-needed donations.

Her role makes good use of both her undergraduate degree in communications and her MSW degree from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

“I originally thought I wanted to be a counselor,” Bowers said. But she soon found her strength was in teaching people about societal issues such as homelessness by telling the stories of the organizations and staff serving on the front lines.

Her social work training has given her a deep understanding of what is needed to solve complex issues such as homelessness, which enables her to communicate it clearly to all types of people.

“It is a broadened definition of what social work can be,” Bowers said.

The social work profession also meshes with the Christian values instilled in her from a young age. She joined her family on mission trips, volunteering locally and internationally. There, she saw how tightknit communities thrived despite impoverished conditions. The experience inspired her to pursue a life spent giving back to others.

For Bowers, a bright spot in this crisis has been seeing the broader faith community coming out in full force to help the community’s most vulnerable.

“I get calls from congregations of just about every religion asking how they can help,” Bowers said. To her, it is proof that compassion lies at the base of every faith and that members of the community want to support and help one another.

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on people’s daily lives, there is reason for optimism and hope.

“I see the pandemic bringing out the best in people,” Bowers said.

Mariners Cafe Partners with City Net

Watch how City Net, in partnership with Mariners Cafe, serves hot breakfasts during COVID-19 to residents self-isolating at the Orange County Courtyard Transitional Shelter.⁣

To reference the work of our faculty online, we ask that you directly quote their work where possible and attribute it to "FACULTY NAME, a professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work” (LINK: https://dworakpeck.usc.edu)