McNair Fellow who Suffered Homelessness as Child to Begin Work with Homeless Vets

By David Miller

April 29, 2020

Rebekah Koen has accepted a position in the veterans services department at Friendship Place in Washington, D.C.

Eviction notices. Homeless shelters. Conditional living arrangements.

For a brief period during sixth grade and during two years of high school, Rebekah Koen and her family navigated the challenges of homelessness in Central Alabama. Housing services were an option, but meeting qualifications wasn’t always guaranteed, though an indefinite wait, usually was.

Homelessness was stressful, but also revealing of a social work system that Koen had only thought of through a narrowed scope, particularly when the Koen family finally found relief. Koen’s mother, Crystal, was a military veteran and was eligible for housing assistance through the Rapid Rehousing Program, a federal program aimed expediting the lengthy process of moving families into permanent housing. Rebekah said a social worker in Birmingham helped connect the Koen family to this program.

But Rebekah learned that her stretches of homelessness could have been avoided if they’d known sooner from previous social workers of their eligibility for the Rapid Rehousing Program.

“That’s when I started to learn social work was more than DHR, and just how pivotal of a role social workers have in helping people,” Rebekah said. “And to know there were preventive measures like [the Rapid Relief Program] got me into the field.”

Rebekah will earn her MSW this weekend and has accepted a job with the veterans services department at Friendship Place in Washington, D.C., a federally funded housing service provider. It isn’t ironic, nor is it “full circle” that Rebekah will now work with homeless populations and military veterans, but it is “really interesting” since she’d previously planned to delay working with homeless populations.

“I always thought about it being 10 years off, maybe after I get my PhD, when I’m more mature and not putting too much personal stake into the job,” Rebekah said. “I really wanted to make sure I’m coming from a place of logic and education, and not trying to help that little girl inside of me.”

Rebekah said Friendship Place was looking for candidates with “a lot of experience,” so her expectations when applying there was for interview experience and to leave an impression for future job consideration. But after several rounds of interviews, she thought, “wait, I might actually be a candidate.”

She said she was offered the job, in part, because of the same personal stake she thought would cloud her judgement when working with homeless populations.

“My future supervisor said that self-awareness can actually help me,” Rebekah said. “Because of [a personal stake], I think they knew I wanted to work there long-term.”

Rebekah said she’s grateful for her internship at the National Institutes of Health, a micro placement that she initially wasn’t interested in due to her macro-focus. She said she was “crushed” after a poor interview for a macro-level placement, but her placement at the NIH helped her see policy in action.

“Not only was I in D.C. at this prestigious institution,” Rebekah said, “but I’m interacting with clients who have rare diseases that have run its course, people who are dying and are there to help the researchers as much as possible. Speaking with them and getting to know those clients, I realized I was capable of doing the work that I through was so far off for me.”

Rebekah conducted undergraduate research at the University of Montevallo through the MaNair Scholars program and was mentored by Dr. Jason Newell, Montevallo researcher and two-time UA School of Social Work alumnus. Rebekah was also a McNair Fellow at UA.