I am fortunate to be a co-Investigator on the Homeless Risk and Resiliency Survey, which is a multi-city assessment of the behaviors and experiences of homeless and unstably housed youth. This past summer myself and my team collected qualitative interviews with a subset of the youth participants in Los Angeles. One of the questions we asked seemed overtly simple for a research question. We asked everyone: “If you woke up tomorrow and your life was exactly the way you wanted it to be, what would it look like?” The answers we got were endearing, funny, honest, and inspiring. Some really pulled on the heartstrings, but as a whole, the answers provided an honest picture of the hopes and dreams of youth experiencing homelessness or housing instability.
In writing this piece, I asked myself the same question. If I woke up tomorrow and my life was exactly the way I wanted it, I would be living on the West Coast in my own home, I would be surrounded, supported, challenged and inspired by family and friends, I would be working towards a career that makes me happy and gives me purpose, and myself and the one’s I love would be healthy. Over the course of my life, I’ve been asked and have answered this question many times. Each time, my answer changes. The more times I articulate my answer to this question, the closer my answer gets to my reality. With each contemplation, I get a new opportunity to reflect on my core values and identify what are the most important things I want in my life. Homeless and unstably housed youth deserve these opportunities as well. I feel that sometimes as service providers and researchers we can get caught up in the minutia. So keep asking the simple questions and ask them over and over again.
Below is my favorite quote from the interviews:
“I would be in a queen size bed firm but soft, my bills would be paid off, my storage unit that I have would be paid off for like five years, I would have my associates degree and would be working on my masters no bachelors in law or criminal justice anything crime wise, um yeah that’s pretty much it. And I would still be advocating for the underdogs somehow. But all that if I just woke up tomorrow and all that happened it would feel great but it would be hollow. ‘Cause no effort was put into filling it up and making it solid. I wished it but the outer shell is there. The process is that makes it sweeter. I want to fill it up that shell with the blood sweat and tears of me getting there. It would be lovely if that just happened and kind of I wished it did. I would get over the hollow feeling but pretty much yes. I have to work for it because I feel like it will be snatched away if I don’t.”
Scroll down to see more quotes from the youth interviewed, and you can download a pdf of them here.
Note: The Homeless Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey (HYRRS) investigators include Anamika Barman Adhikari, Kimberly Bender, Hsun-ta Hsu, Kristen Ferguson, Sarah Narendorf, Diane Santa Maria and Jama Shelton.
About the Author: Robin P. Petering, MSW is a PhD candidate in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Her research interests center on understanding the social determinants of risk behaviors among vulnerable youth. She is a co-Primary Investigator on a multi-city study assessing the health risks and resiliency of homeless and unstable housed young people. She also recently received an NIH fellowship to support her research on gang-involved homeless youth.
The Future of Innovation Lies in Collaboration – USF Social Work and Engineering Students Pave the Way
The 2016 Hackathon Codapalooza, sponsored by the Tampa Innovation Alliance, took place over the weekend of June 3-5, 2016, where diverse groups of individuals came together for 72 hours to respond to the challenge to design an app to help the region’s homeless population. The University of South Florida’s team (Team USF), composed of students from the College of Engineering and the School of Social Work, represented a unique and wide range of skills sharing one common goal—a desire to use their education and passion to help ease a problem faced daily by those on the streets.
The team (pictured left) began their collaboration with a discussion on the epidemic of homelessness overall. For some engineering students, this was their first time hearing about the realities that the community faces. For these students, hearing the answers only prodded more questions—about topics like federal funding, shelters, and housing vouchers. As the social work students presented case examples of the difficulties accessing resources and the impact of the lack of funding dedicated to help this vulnerable population, it was clear that the engineering students were feeling a variety of emotions. Ultimately, this made them eager to learn more and above all determined to find a worthwhile solution at this event. The social work students were eager to provide information on the current status of the homeless, not only from the factual laws and regulations perspective but also from their view of raw, first hand experience gained from working directly with Tampa’s homeless population. They knew the reality of what was most needed and practical in the community.
The social work students told many stories of homeless people being unable to find an open shelter bed. And, if they did, being tired of waiting in lines all day trying to secure a bed only to find they did not qualify, because shelters often have admission criteria for special subpopulations of homeless people. For example, perhaps he or she is not a veteran, not disabled, not a woman with children, or doesn’t meet any of the other possible prerequisites for a shelter. This is what ultimately led to the app that Team USF created.
This is how the general idea of the app would work. Users would be prompted to answer a series of questions (e.g. gender; age; if accompanied by children, how many and how old; veteran status; disability status, etc.). Once the information was processed, a series of shelters they qualified for would pop up, based on their GPS location, along with the addresses and phone numbers.
The engineering students, as they were developing the app, went step-by-step through the coding process with the social work students. While they possessed so much technical skill, the social work students would remind them about nuances within the homeless community that made designing this app different from any other. For example, the coders assumed after the user downloaded the app that they would create a login, as one would do with most apps and websites. However, the social work students made the engineering students aware that the homeless population is already wary of authority.
The realization of the need to protect personal information infused the conversation as engineers realized the sensitivity of the state of homelessness. The login idea was nixed. After that, the coding students began speaking in highly technical jargon about html, and the social work students eagerly inquired about what specific terms meant—respect and admiration in their voices, an exact replication of the excitement the engineering students had when learning about the needs of the homeless. Both the engineering and social work students wanted, with such fervor, to ensure the app went beyond just the Hackathon, and that it could actually be implemented as a helpful tool for a community desperately in need.
Team USF presented their app at the conclusion of the event. As they showcased their prototype, it was clear that each decision made for the app was a deliberate one and one that was discussed and explained in great detail within the group. From the minute they started, there was a practical and thoughtful reason for every decision made. The decision to make the app for Android phones, for example, was because it was mentioned that a vast majority of the homeless do not have iPhones, and thus it would be less important to make the app Apple-friendly. Every choice being a conscious one was a huge aspect of what made the process so invigorating. The app was clearly tailored to the user and provided access to an important service.
Overall, the Hack for Homelessness event is part of a bigger picture of “Hack For” events that are changing the world. Every team participating created something useful that did not already—but absolutely needs to—exist. This event facilitated integral dialogues between social workers and coders and, most importantly, collaboration in the face of determination. It showed how eager people are to learn about other fields. Social workers and engineers both work to solve big social problems. More opportunities to collaborate like this are needed to do just that.
About the Author: Erin Fowler (pictured right) is a third-year senior at the University of South Florida studying mass communications and interning at Moffitt Cancer Center. In her spare time, she enjoys doing yoga and building her book collection.
Like this post?
Check out this one written by Kelsey Whittington, UAlbany MSW student and graduate assistant for the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services.