Julie Turner: how a passion for the arts turned into a calling to help the homeless

Julie Turner’s name may not be as familiar as her now famous client, Wanda Witter, the 80-year-old homeless woman whom Turner helped claim $100,000 in back Social Security benefits owed to her. Here’s a deeper look into Turner’s inspiring calling to help the vulnerable and voiceless.

Wanda Witter, who was homeless for twenty years until last week, smiles after receiving back payments from Social Security money owed her to the tune of nearly $100,000 today on August 2016.

Like many people who devote themselves to others, Julie Turner isn’t comfortable in the spotlight. She’d prefer the focus be on one of the people she helps through her work at The Homeless Services Unit, a program of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations (DCC) in Washington, DC.

“Talking about myself is rather daunting for me,” Turner wrote in an email in response to a request for an interview. “I keep a low profile and tend to reserve my enthusiasm for my clients.”

If Turner’s name sounds familiar, it may be due to recent press coverage of her tireless and ultimately victorious work for her client, Wanda Witter, an 80-year-old homeless woman who recently won her nearly 20-year battle with Social Security over $100,000 the agency owed her.

A $100,000 gesture of love

Turner took the case as a professional courtesy to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, which asked Turner to meet with Witter for an interview.

“I’ve worked with the Clinic for years, and have great respect for their work,” Turner said. “When they call, I do what I can.”

When the two women met, Witter told Turner that she was being kicked out of shelters because she had too many bags, but the bags contained Witter’s Social Security records and she wouldn’t throw them away.

“I said, ‘will you show them to me?’ and we went to the conference room,” Turner explained. “She had it very organized and filed correctly. I spent several hours reading through the files, and it was clear that there was an issue there. Social Security owed her a lot of money,”

Everyone deserves to be believed, and everyone has their own truth.

Turner explained that there are 1 million backlogged claims within the Social Security Administration. There are legislative mandates to relieve the backlogs, there are programs and services that have been in place for more than 20 years, but there is no political will to enforce the mandates or relieve the backlogs.

Sasha Williams

Sasha Williams, a homeless lady helped by Julie Turner. Photo Courtesy of Street Sens

“Until the government bureaucrats have egg on their face, and even then it’s a sound bite. There are a lot of Ms. Witters nationwide,” Turner said.

The fact that she took the time to listen to Witter is part of Turner’s credo as a social worker. When asked about her focus, she said to treat everyone with kindness and respect, and to work hard—that everyone deserves to be believed, and everyone has their own truth.

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Her clients include men, women and children who are living on the streets in the nation’s capital. The Homeless Services Unit (HSU) provides emergency referrals and case management assistance, with the goal of helping to break the cycle of homelessness for individuals and families. The program provides over 1,000 people with food, clothing, shelter and healthcare referrals every year.

The HSU grew out of numerous requests to area churches from people who are homeless for food, clothing, and shelter. The congregations wanted to do more than offer a band-aid to those people who lived outdoors and in shelters. The first social worker was hired in 1986; Turner came on board the following year.

A calling she couldn’t ignore

In a way Turner was born to be a social worker, but she took a circuitous route to get there. A fourth-generation Washingtonian, Tuner, 56, grew up accompanying her grandmother to her work with the newly established Head Start program. Dividing her time between D.C. and Palm Springs, California from the time she was six, Turner developed a social conscience early—but her first love was art.

“I always wanted to be an artist, but I was always involved in some aspect of community service. When I was in my early 20s I worked with the Campaign for Economic Democracy,” Turner said, referring to the movement initiated by social activist and California legislator Tom Hayden and his then-wife, Jane Fonda.

In California, Turner also worked with shelters for abused women, and eventually her social activism turned into a career.

Julie Turner

Julie Turner. Photo Courtesy of Julie Turner

“It seemed like the natural thing to do based on my life experience. I wanted to work on systemic change; and to work from the foundational viewpoint of an individual’s right to self-determination. It just evolved; it was probably evolving since I was a little girl.”

Though she chose social work as a career, Turner didn’t turn away from her art, and she plans to get her masters of fine art when she retires. Her current medium is painting on canvas, but she also paints designs on furniture. She gives the finished products to family or clients when they obtain housing.

A voice for the vulnerable

In 2013 Turner became involved with Street Sense, a street newspaper and media center for people experiencing homelessness. The program was launched in 2003, and has numerous initiatives, including a bi-weekly street newspaper that features news, editorials, poems and art about homelessness, poverty and other social issues. Homeless or former homeless individuals write about fifty percent of the paper. Street Sense vendors (members of the homeless community) pay 50 cents for each paper and then distribute the paper throughout the area for a suggested donation of $2.

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In addition to the newspaper, Street Sense has a number of media channels to engage the street vendors in other art forms, including film, poetry, illustration, photography, and podcasts.

One of the artists who found her voice through Street Sense is Sasha, who became homeless in 2003, the year she graduated high school—the year she was assaulted at gunpoint. In 2014 Taylor met Sasha, who was still homeless and had a 14-month-old daughter. The two were sleeping outdoors in below freezing temperatures, and battling bureaucracy with the Virginia Williams Center (the point of entry for the family shelter system) to get into Family Shelter. In the midst of her nightmare, Sasha connected with Street Sense to sell papers and attend writing and theater workshops.

Sasha William and her daughter

Sasha Williams and her daughter. Photo Courtesy of Street Sens

As the temperature dropped, Sasha headed back to the Center to negotiate shelter, and while she waited to be seen, Turner called and spoke to a case manager. They were both told that there was absolutely no room at the shelter, and Sasha and her baby were turned away. Turner sprang into action and called DC Councilman Jim Graham’s office, who called the Center and demanded that Sasha and her daughter be picked up by the hypothermia van and taken to Family Shelter.

“Social work chose me,” Turner said. “I guess someone or something had other plans for me. One never really knows exactly how life will turn out. Sometimes, you just have to roll with it and see what happens.”

During the seven to eight months that Sasha and her daughter were in Family Shelter, she secretly chronicled her journey via video on an iPhone provided by Street Sense through Filmmaker’s Cooperative. With the help of Bryan Bello, Street Sense’s filmmaker-in-residence, Sasha turned her video into a short film, Raise to Rise. Shortly before she and her daughter moved into housing, the film was included in the Women in Film series at E Street Cinema last August.

“Working at Street Sense is the highlight of my career,” Turner said. “When anyone is able to express themselves through art: writing, theater, illustration, and film they inspire themselves and others. They restore their self-esteem and are able to focus on improving their social situation.”

It seems fitting that the girl who wanted to be an artist found her way to an organization that empowers individuals through artistic expression. Then again, maybe it was meant to be.

“Social work chose me,” Turner said. “I guess someone or something had other plans for me. One never really knows exactly how life will turn out. Sometimes, you just have to roll with it and see what happens.”

Jaimie Seaton
Jaimie Seaton
Jaimie Seaton is the mother of two teenagers, and has been a journalist for over twenty years. She has lived and worked in South Africa, the Netherlands, Singapore and Thailand, and has written for and edited numerous publications worldwide; including the Sunday Times of London and Newsweek. Now back home in New Hampshire, she contributes to various publications, including Purple Clover.com, ESME.com and the Washington Post. She is currently revising her first novel.

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