Although social work has its roots in community development, and being “with” people, with the strengthening of ethics and the discouragement of “dual relationships” many people find it much easier to work in social work outside their own neighborhood, where there is less likelihood of running into their clients in the choir, at the park, at church, at the grocery store, as their children’s teachers, etc.
This is especially true when a person works in a place of authority (child protection, mental health worker who has to certify people against there will) or of confidence (therapist, counsellor). In these positions you know a lot about people that other neighbors do not that can make interactions awkward and both client and worker may find it difficult to draw clear boundaries between work and home life.
I was recently interviewed for a position working in mental health kitty corner from my house- visual distance. I am fairly involved in my neighborhood, helping out at a local dinner at a community house and have folks over regularly to my dinner from church who are clients of that team. If I took that position I would more than likely see clients at the same dinner table often; this could be difficult in mental health if someone already has paranoia that someone is following them. I loved the idea of working in the neighborhood but in the end I decided not to and chose to stay working just a 15 minute drive away at the organization I currently at, but in a different department. In the end I chose to keep my role as that of a friend and neighbor only; I want to be able to invite people for coffee without worrying that I am somehow breaking a rule by inadvertently inviting in someone who is already on the mental health team and I may work with in filling in for a colleague. I want to be able to fully participate in the community without drawing my curtains in or relaxing in other parts of the city for fear that if I leave my home I will be actually working at not working.
In some ways I want to break this tendency to want to completely separate work and play as it seems kind of artificial. It perpetuates differentiation in the class and status of worker and client. For example, if I was in the neighborhood my clients would see my two year-old having a tantrum on the sidewalk; I would feel a little embarrassed, similarly I might see them in the soup line across the street from my house or working as a prostitute at a nearby street corner. Perhaps this would make all of us a little more real and humble. Hard to say.