A New Stage; a Louder Voice
Carmela DeCandia, PsyD ’99, has covered a lot of ground in her short career. Now, as director of the National Center on Family Homelessness (which recently merged with the American Institutes for Research), in Waltham, Massachusetts, she is stepping onto the national stage after many years of clinical practice.
Along the way, her education from Antioch University New England (AUNE) has been a bedrock. “AUNE prepared me very well for thinking about complex issues and models that you can apply. I learned how to identify a problem, how to think about all the aspects that contributed to it, and how to build solutions,” she said.
Carmela started out working in foster care and adoption in New York City after earning an undergraduate degree in psychology and traveling the world for a year and a half. She then moved to Boston, where she earned a master’s in psychology from Boston University while working as a residential counselor at the Italian Home for Children, a residential treatment center for very traumatized children. There, she got her start as a clinician, along with a broad perspective on the field of psychology.
“I learned to really appreciate the power of the milieu,” she said. “The environment is as important as the one-on-one therapy. So much happens outside of the therapy hour. I got ideas about how places and systems are designed, what staff need to do the work, and how clinical and nonclinical staff can work together, and I found that those places are really rich in possibility.”
Looking into graduate schools, Carmela discovered AUNE. “The thing that drew me was the integration of psychology and social justice as a philosophy, it was really part of Antioch’s mission, she said. That psychologists would do that resonated strongly with me.”
While studying at AUNE, she also worked full time at the Italian Home for Children. “It was just school and work for four years, but I got tons of experience,” she said. She took many practica, as well as an internship at the Children’s Hospital of Harvard Medical School, to see what would fit. “It was a fantastic experience! I liked being able to help a teacher or a parent understand their child better.”
Then came graduation and the cold reality of student debt. She took a job as assistant clinical director at St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children, in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
“There was something about that place that really drew me, because there was so much potential to build,” Carmela said. “I could have had a great career at Harvard. But it was very established, and I felt like I wouldn’t have as much voice. St. Mary’s was only five years old, and there was a lot I could do. I thought I could really make a difference there.”
She also learned that there was a lot she could do about her struggling finances. Deep in debt, she worked with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s National Health Service Corps, which repays loans for students who work in underserved areas, to institute St. Mary’s as a clinical practice site. In three years, she had paid off her student loans, as did the clinicians working with her. It changed my life.
Carmela spent almost twelve years as clinical director and then vice president at St. Mary’s, a community-based organization that operates six programs, including a homeless shelter and a group home for homeless teen parents. It was, she said,” in-the-trenches kind of work in management, supervision, and direct clinical work.”
It also became clear to her that homelessness is about much more than housing. “I didn’t go into psychology thinking I would work with people who were homeless, but while at St. Mary’s I did fall in love with the work. Homelessness is a problem that can be solved. It’s very complex, but it’s solvable. Psychologists have a lot to offer to craft those solutions.”
“There’s a lot of trauma, mental health issues, and poor treatment for families experiencing homelessness,” she said. “At St. Mary’s, I developed a model for the agency, and we found a way to create an environment that fosters wellness and empowerment, even though it’s technically not a mental-health program. Building that kind of environment included developing programs, such as a wellness class for homeless women. The women loved it and it eventually expanded, with the help of a grant, into a free gym on campus that was extended to the community. St. Mary’s also integrated job training, GED classes, parenting classes, and an after-school program: Grlzradio.org, a radio station run by at-risk teenage girls. Grlzradio was one of my favorite programs,” Carmela said. “It was a fun and creative way to work with young girls and build their voice and sense of self despite the violence and risk in their lives.”
Meanwhile, she worked part-time as a school psychologist for a charter school, had a practice in psychological assessment, and taught a class on trauma at Lesley University. “After graduating, I found it was important to develop my skills on a lot of tracks simultaneously, and it was important to me then to stay connected to other psychologists. There are not really any psychologists working with homeless families, so it can be isolating.”
When a job at the National Center on Family Homelessness opened up two years ago, Carmela was ready to go beyond the clinical world into a larger sphere. “I had taken St. Mary’s through a huge stage of development, she said, and I was also frustrated. There was a larger system behind it all federal policy and rules and that system needed to change if the programs and families were going to be successful. That’s why I wanted to go work in a more national arena.”
She’s now involved in research and guiding the center, work aimed at transforming the national conversation. “To see how research guides federal policy for years to come was really eye-opening; psychologists have a lot to contribute to the national dialogue through research.”
She’s written a chapter, Needs of Special Populations of Families without Homes, for a book released by Springer Publishing, Supporting Families Experiencing Homelessness.
The transition into a national arena has taught Carmela about speaking up. “The National Center on Family Homelessness is a 25-year-old research institution that seeks solutions and informs policymakers to end family homelessness. Last year, it merged with the American Institutes for Research, one of the largest research institutions for the social and behavioral sciences. Lately, being on a national stage and working for a very large company has made me think about women in leadership, women in power, and the dynamics and the barriers, both internal and external, she said. If you want to make a difference, you have to be at the table and speak up; don’t wait to be invited.”