Though Brenda Wiewel may not have always called it complex care, she has spent her social work career providing integrated, team-based care tailored around the needs of the most vulnerable. Now, as director of the University of Southern California (USC)’s University Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness, she is taking her work to a larger scale and leveraging the university’s resources to accelerate community-based programming. She is also training the next generation to continue the journey toward better care “so that they can accomplish the end game, which is ending homelessness.”

“There are so many needs,” she said. “We want to make sure we prepare our students so they can hit the ground running and take the work that’s been started and move it forward”

Brenda calls the University Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness a “force-multiplier:” a coordinated way for the university to use its substantial resources, personnel, and brainpower to enhance the capacity of the Los Angeles region to address homelessness. The initiative is interprofessional by design, made up of a steering committee of 10 deans of schools: Architecture; Art and design; Arts, Letters and Sciences; Dentistry; Education; Libraries; Medicine; Public Policy; Religious Life; and Social Work.

The interprofessional nature of the steering committee means that students from various disciplines are able to not only apply their specialized knowledge to tackling complicated issues, but also become part of the Los Angeles community’s ecosystem of support. An April 2018 summit on ending homelessness in Los Angeles, for example, featured art and music from people with lived experience, organized by a curatorial student from the school of art and design. The economics department is working on a research project initiated by community partners to test the real time effects of affordable and supportive housing on neighborhood property values. A lab at the medical school with expertise in data and data sharing is building an app for first responders that will allow them to communicate and collaborate more effectively with homeless service programs.

The initiative is also supporting a new institute for street medicine, spearheaded by the director of the physician assistant program at USC’s medical school, which will be able to accommodate students in physician assistant, nurse practitioner, occupational therapy, dentistry, and medical programs.

“I have been incredibly impressed with the students I work with,” said Brenda. “They are motivated, they’re passionate, they’re smart, they bring a lot of good energy and willingness to jump in and get involved. They keep me on my toes—they’re on it, and they’re ahead of me sometimes.”

Though the initiative is just embarking on its second year, it’s already hosted two major summits and begun work on five key strategies:

  1. addressing housing and food insecurity on campus,
  2. supporting research that collaborates with the community,
  3. developing a workforce pipeline for students interested in tackling homelessness,
  4. advancing policy to increase housing supply, and
  5. shifting attitudes and knowledge around homelessness within the broader community.

With her social work background, Brenda has been able to apply her training in identifying how systems and environments affect individuals, as well as her experience building and supervising multidisciplinary teams, to her work at USC. “I’ve learned that sometimes people can be working in similar areas or in areas where they could help one another but don’t know about each others’ existence, and that one of the things I can do is be a really good matchmaker,” she said. “I bring teams together so that people who have common interests and intersecting capacities can work together.”

Brenda will be joining us at our national conference, Putting Care at the Center 2018, where she will participate in our plenary session,“The Next Generation of Movement-Builders: Paving the Way for Complex Care Leadership.” The session will focus on how current complex care leaders can provide a strong foundation for future leaders to sustain the movement for person-centered care.

At the National Center, we recognize that if the workforce of tomorrow is not trained to provide coordinated, person-centered, holistic care in their own communities, systems will continue to be fragmented, unsupportive, and siloed. Like our Interprofessional Student Hotspotting Learning Collaborative, which teaches complex care approaches to interdisciplinary teams of students across the country, USC’s University Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness is building a pipeline to create the kind of care and systems change that we need for the future.

“There are a lot of really good people who care about this and want to help,” said Brenda. “The more that we can create spaces and opportunities where they can channel that, the better off we’ll be.”


Putting Care at the Center 2018 will be December 5-7 in Chicago. Tickets are on sale now, with early bird pricing available until September 30. Students of any discipline can get tickets for half-price, and Student Hotspotting participants and alumni can get tickets for $250.

Register for Putting Care at the Center 2018