Thanks to Jodie Picciano-Swanson, many formerly homeless veterans have shelter and sustenance. Victims of relationship violence have relocated and started new lives. Cancer patients and their families have found some measure of peace.
The Ocean Springs resident strives to be a force for good as a licensed clinical social worker. Since 2015, she has served as homeless program manager for the Gulf Coast Veterans Healthcare System.
“No one who served our country and kept us safe should be without stable, permanent housing if they want it,” Picciano-Swanson says. “We help veterans achieve goals they set for themselves, such as recovery, budgeting, employment or reconnection with family.”
Service is in Picciano-Swanson’s blood. From a young age, the Queens, New York, native ventured to Harlem with her father, who worked for the New York City Housing Authority for over 30 years. By age 7, she knew helping others was her calling.
“Seeing children my age stand in line in the hot summer for a block of cheese or powdered milk made me painfully aware of poverty, social injustice and inequality, and at the same time, I witnessed resilience and generational family support,” she recalls. “As soon as I learned what a social worker was, there was no turning back.”
Her first job was as an oncology social worker, and she got to know the patients and their families. One woman, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer with only a few weeks to live, had a son in the Army. Picciano-Swanson pushed for him to be granted leave and tended to his mother in the meantime.
The patient died holding Picciano- Swanson’s hand, six days after diagnosis, and her son was grateful someone was at her side.
“From that experience, I learned that we may have other tasks that need to be accomplished,” she says, “but sometimes, we are needed so others know they are not alone — and our other responsibilities can wait.”
Like her father, she also worked for the Housing Authority — serving as the emergency transfer coordinator. Twenty-five years later, she hasn’t forgotten a woman who was in a violent relationship with her son’s father and transferred to another part of the city, where she secured a job and saved enough money to buy a home.
“I always reminded myself and my staff of the difference we made in her life,” Picciano-Swanson says. “The same is true for the program I oversee now; there are veterans who were literally homeless, living in the woods, who are now actively engaged in healthcare, working and reconnecting with family. They are the reason we love doing what we do.”
As she’s led others out of dark places, Picciano-Swanson has faced significant challenges of her own. In 2015, she lost her husband, Tim, after a brave fight with lung cancer and became a single mother to two children, Jessica and William, now 21 and 19. Her husband was a proud U.S. Army veteran, and Picciano-Swanson’s first job with GCVHCS was in the Community Living Center.
“I loved listening to memories shared by our nation’s heroes, who now required skilled care,” Picciano- Swanson says. “Both my children have volunteered in the CLC, and their lives were also enriched by stories told by WWll and Vietnam veterans.”
Under her leadership, the Mississippi Gulf Coast has sustained functional zero for homeless veterans for over four years. This status doesn’t mean no veteran is homeless, but that the number of homeless veterans is no greater than the monthly housing placement rate.
Contrary to popular belief, Picciano-Swanson says, not all homeless have major mental health or substance abuse issues, and not all homelessness is caused by poor decisions.
“Everyone makes mistakes, but a descent into homelessness is not necessarily the direct result of ‘choices,’” she explains. “All too often, it is the loss of a job, debt, loss of housing/eviction or an illness that takes a financial toll on a family.” The pandemic cost many veterans their jobs, she adds, and GCVHCS is working diligently to find them other opportunities.
In her advocacy for veterans and others, Picciano-Swanson has been called tenacious — a trait she sees as a strong suit. As she’s told her daughter, who is following her into the profession, a good social worker also must be empathetic, caring, patient, dependable, objective, a good listener and meet clients where they are — moving at their pace. Trust and integrity are vital.
Dubbed “Wonder Woman” by her friends, Picciano-Swanson has embraced the label as she faces life’s obstacles head on.
“Wonder Woman is not a fictional character to me; it is a state of mind,” she says. “I believe all women are Wonder Women.”