Guest Blog: Can We Stop Implying that Homeless People Don’t Contribute to Society?

Elizabeth_Bowen_Small (1)Recently I was reading a magazine article about an agency that provides services to people experiencing homelessness. These services were centered on helping people develop job skills and find employment, and the program was described as assisting homeless people in “becoming contributing members of society.”

I support programs like this. There is a considerable demand and need for these services. The idea of becoming a “contributing member of society” is often described as the goal of such programs. But for some reason, when I read it this time, this phrase stopped me cold.

Because people who are homeless are already contributing to society.

The notion that homeless people aren’t contributing to society seems to be rooted in a lot of stereotypes about homelessness. One is the idea that there is one “face” of homelessness, and it’s a bedraggled single man sleeping on a sidewalk. Homelessness is multifaceted. It includes people who work and pay taxes, but who are paid far less than a living wage and struggle with escalating housing costs. It includes people of all ages and genders fleeing abusive situations. It includes parents who do their best to raise their children under extremely difficult conditions, and children who do their best to learn and pursue an education under these same conditions. To say that homeless people aren’t contributing to society dismisses these achievements.

But even among the population that researchers and policymakers refer to as the chronically homeless—those who are literally and visibly homeless, often for long periods of time, and who often have significant mental and physical health problems—I believe it is inaccurate to conclude that they don’t contribute.

I have spent a lot of time talking with homeless people. As a social worker I worked with homeless people in a permanent supportive housing program in Chicago and, as a student and a professor, I have done many research interviews with people experiencing homelessness in Chicago and Buffalo. And like many who have spent time with chronically homeless individuals, I am awed by what many of these people have endured. The depth of trauma that I have heard about from my former clients and research participants is astounding.

For example, I remember one man who I interviewed in Chicago as part of my dissertation research. His early life had gone well, but within the past few years he had lost both of his parents, faced a major health crisis, lost his job (partly due to the health crisis and the time he devoted to caring for his parents before they passed away) and subsequently lost his housing. He found himself homeless at middle age and contending with a long-term disability. And yet the morning we met, this man (who had recently found very basic housing in a single room occupancy building) still woke up, got dressed, found food, got to his interview appointment, answered all of my questions and carried on a conversation with me in which, despite the serious subject matter, he cracked several jokes, resulting in many shared moments of laughter.

I have so much respect for this man.

So how do homeless people contribute to society? They survive. They take care of themselves. They find food, water, places to sleep, places to bath, and places to feel safe in circumstances that most of us would not wish to endure, even for a day. They manage complex chronic health conditions as best they can in these same situations. They take care of each other. They retain their senses of humor when life has given them every reason not to.

In short, people who are homeless contribute to society by maintaining their humanity in a world that is constantly telling them they are something less than human. I wish that was not the reality in which we live, but it is. And as we work to change that reality, we should recognize homeless people’s resilience as a profound contribution.

Blog Post Author: Elizabeth Bowen, PhD

Elizabeth Bowen, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at the University at Buffalo-State University of New York. Her research focuses on the relationship between housing and health. She is also the UB faculty liaison for the National Homelessness Social Work Initiative.

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University of Houston, YouthCount 2.0!: Counting and Surveying Homeless Youth in Harris County

Members of the YouthCount 2.0! Data Collection Team

Young people are often missed in traditional point in time counts that rely on visual identification, because they don’t want to appear homeless and are less visible on the streets. In addition, they often double-up with friends, rather than seeking services at shelters where they would be easy to identify and count. Sarah Narendorf, Assistant Professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, led a project team that included Diane Santa Maria at the University of Texas School of Nursing and Yoonsook Ha from Boston University to find, count, and survey homeless youth, ages 13-24, in Harris County, Texas in November 2014. YouthCount 2.0! was a response to calls from the Houston community to pilot new methods for finding homeless youth and to learn more about their service needs.  The project was funded by the Greater Houston Community Foundation, Fund to End Homelessness.

YouthCount 2.0! used several new strategies to find and count homeless youth:

  1. An extended count period of 4 weeks.
  2. Respondent-driven sampling, asking youth to recruit others they knew in similar situations.
  3. Surveying at shelters, through street outreach, and at magnet events – at events designed for homeless youth and those that were not specific to homeless youth but where youth in unstable housing might be identified.
  4. Use of social work and nursing students to assist in surveying.
  5. Involvement of homeless and formerly homeless youth to help with locating and identifying youth.
  6. Expanded eligibility criteria beyond that used for adults by HUD – youth were counted if they were staying with friends or family, but not sure where they would stay in 30 days.
  7. Use of homeless management information system (HMIS) data to identify service locations we should visit to conduct the survey.
  8. Partnerships with service providers and collaboration with a community advisory board to guide the data collection and interpretation of results.

During the 4-week count period, the study team visited 47 different locations including shelters, magnet events, and street outreach locations. A total of 74 volunteers assisted with the count, 60 were social work students who received extra-credit in their research class. The project surveyed 420 youth directly and added another 212 youth to the count number through reviewing HMIS data.  Detailed data about the youth was obtained through a self-administered survey with over 100 questions that took 15-20 minutes to complete.

Through the two counts, there were successes and challenges that can help others looking to better count homeless youth.

Successes included:

  • Use of social work students. The students learned a lot about the situations of homeless youth and were exposed to service agencies and communities of which they hadn’t been aware.
  • The extended count period and expanded eligibility that enabled us to find out about youth that would not have been included in previous counts.
  • One Voice Texas, an advocacy organization, was part of the community advisory board, which enabled a smooth connection for results to be used in legislative session. YouthCount 2.0! data on homeless youth were noticed by legislators in relation to two different bills that passed into law.

Challenges included:

  • Respondent-driven sampling did not yield many new participants. It appears that the logistics were prohibitive. Asking youth that are focused on survival to remember to recruit friends to a study just didn’t work well unless it could be very immediate.
  • Some youth populations were clearly missed. The survey was available in Spanish, but none of the youth identified preferred to take the survey in Spanish. It was also difficult to connect with youth that were identified by schools. Events immediately after school nearby failed to attract many of those identified within the schools in spite of close collaborations with homeless liaisons to encourage participation.

For more information on YouthCount 2.o! visit the project website, which also includes a full report of the findings. The study team is currently writing-up the study and results for submission to a peer-reviewed journal and talking about next steps for YouthCount 3.0!

Blog Post Author: Sarah Narendorf, Assistant Professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work

Like this post?
Check out this one on how the University of Houston is addressing LGBTQ youth homelessness.

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Visit our website to learn more about us and our National Homelessness Social Work Initiative.

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