Alum finds satisfaction in helping the homeless and mentally ill

A woman sits with her dog near the ocean.

One of the people Kaila Binger worked with had six children and had been chronically homeless for a year – living on the streets, in derelict housing or couch surfing.

When the woman finally called Binger’s office for help, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee alum was able to connect her to resources that helped the woman change her life.

“It’s been about a year ago now since she called, but she was able to find housing with enough bedrooms to house herself and her children,” Binger said.

Binger is a program coordinator for Foundational Community Supports, a Seattle Medicaid program that helps mentally ill and homeless people find and maintain housing and employment. The program is under the umbrella of Blue Cross Blue Shield and Anthem of Seattle.

“It’s an extremely rewarding job,” she said.

Crediting UWM

Binger, who graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s in psychology, credits what she learned at UWM for preparing her for the work she is now doing.

“I am thankful for my experiences, good and difficult, at UWM and for how it prepared me for the world at large.”

Foundational Community Supports is a pilot program to illustrate that housing and employment for homeless people with mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders helps improve long-term health outcomes. Assisting those with the greatest need not only benefits the individuals and their families, but the health of their communities and the state as a whole, Binger said.

“The Medicaid clients that we serve tend to be the most costly,” she said. “However, their health tends to improve exponentially with an appropriate job and a roof over their head. That’s the point of the program. For me, my motivation is to help people in my community in a direct way, and I get to do that.”

Research course helps

As part of her job, she has to provide data to the state of Washington to support the value of the program.

A research course she took as part of her psychology program at UWM has provided great guidance in that effort, Binger said.

“I had some professors that really changed my life.” One of them was Pamela Schaefer, a faculty member who taught the statistics course and has guided Binger’s thinking as she does research.

“Part of my job is taking data from the project and showing the state of Washington that having adequate employment and housing directly improves health outcomes for individuals with Medicaid. Pamela Schaefer got me into empirical data and being really critical of it, being a good researcher and knowing what is good information and what isn’t always good information.”

Binger became interested in studying psychology while working in community outreach at Meta House in Milwaukee, a nonprofit that helps women overcome drug and alcohol addiction and rebuild their families. “I really got interested in helping people with particular things like mental health or substance abuse issues because I found with the right resources, they can be successful with their life.”

Jobs ‘very rewarding’

While some students may see a bachelor’s degree in psychology as of limited value on its own without a master’s or doctorate, Binger said that was not the case for her. When she moved to Seattle, she found her degree an asset in finding a job in the health care field, and that eventually led to her current job, where she is making good money without a master’s degree.

“I would say to other students there are absolutely jobs out there that are very rewarding. They are not necessarily the ones you expect. Even if you’re not coming out of college getting ready to be a therapist, there are a lot of options out there.”

She likes, she said, that she is able to provide help to people directly.

“This is my dream job. I’m now in a role where I can actually effect change, which is a really great place to be. I get to talk to a lot of people who are going through the worst days of their life, and I’m able to help them find a job and housing.”

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