UAlbany Supports Statewide Coalition for Homeless Youth

In November, the University at Albany’s School of Social Welfare co-hosted the New York Coalition for Homeless Youth’s (CHY) Annual Conference for the fourth year in a row. CHY is a statewide membership network of providers who serve runaway and homeless youth and young adults across New York. This partnership aligns with UAlbany’s goals for the National Homelessness Social Work Initiative and its role as part of the New York-New Jersey Regional Network.

Amanda Aykanian, doctoral candidate and Research and Project Lead for the National Center, works closely with CHY’s executive director, Jamie Powlovich, to plan the event. Cara Duffy, the school’s administrative assistant, supports this effort by managing space, food, and parking logistics.


This year’s conference took place over two days, with the first day at UAlbany and the second at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany. Along with the many CHY member attendees, there were several young people in attendance – most who are members of New York City’s homeless youth advisory council (pictured left, with Jamie Powlovich on the far right). Young people had active roles throughout the event. You can hear the powerful opening remarks from Ja’asriel Bishop here.

The conference theme was, “Resilience and Resistance: Empowering Youth and Improving the Systems that Serve Them”. Workshops and roundtables addressed a wide range of topics, including the following:

  • federal policy updates and strategic recommendations
  • meeting the legal needs of homeless youth
  • Housing First best practices
  • human trafficking
  • outreach strategies
  • working with transgender and non-binary youth
  • using administrative data to measure housing trajectories
  • rural services resources and challenges
  • statewide policy planning


Amanda presented findings from a study she recently conducted in the Capital Region on service and policy considerations when working with homeless youth. This study was  published in Children and Youth Services Review. She also led a roundtable on using youth leadership to end youth homelessness (pictured right).

The event closed with the presentations of the 2017 Margot Hirsch Moxie Award (pictured below), which was given to Michael Berg, executive director of Family of Woodstock.

55ae6fa5-d59e-4d6e-8f27-ad448575914bFor more information on CHY, check out their website and Facebook page.

For more information on youth homelessness, read our recent post about the Voices of Youth Count project.

Blog Post Author: Amanda Aykanian, MA, Research and Project Lead, National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services



Learning from Missed Opportunities

Voices of Youth Count (VoYC) is a national initiative led by Chapin Hall that aims to understand youth homelessness in terms of its scope, scale, and diversity of experiences. The project makes use of a robust set of data collection efforts, including a national phone survey of more than 26,000 households about occurrences of youth homelessness, 150 follow-up interviews with individuals indicating occurrences of youth homelessness, and 215 in-depth interviews with youth who had experienced homelessness. Additional details about the project and methods can be found here.

On November 15th, Chapin Hall released a set of initial findings in the report, Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in AmericaDetails about key initial findings have been published in a full-length brief, a one-page summary, and a peer reviewed article.

The big takeaways are that…

Youth Homelessness is Broad and Hidden: Approximately 1 in 30 youth (ages 13 to 17)  and 1 in 10 young adults (ages 18 to 25) experience homelessness in a year. And, many young people remain outside of traditional approaches to counts or estimates because they rely on couch surfing and other forms of doubling-up.

Youth Homelessness Experiences are Diverse: Some youth experience single episodes of homelessness while others have episodic experiences. Youth are likely to make use of a range of shelter strategies, including street, emergency shelter, and couch surfing options. And, like with adult homelessness, substance use and mental health challenges further complicate the homeless experience.

Capture2Prevention and Early Intervention are Essential: About half of the youth surveyed had experienced homelessness for the first time that year, often associated with chronic housing instability, family conflict or trauma, and upstream system involvement.

Homelessness Affects Rural and Urban Youth Similarly: The percent of youth reporting any homelessness in rural and urban counties was similar, 9.2% and 9.6%, respectively. However, the visibility and experience of youth homelessness in rural counties can differ due to being spread across larger areas and a lack of services.

Some Youth Experience a Greater Risk of Homelessness: Compared to their peers, the following groups had particularly elevated risks of homelessness – youth with less than a high school education (346% higher risk), unmarried parenting youth (200% higher risk), youth with an annual household income of less than $24,000 (162% higher risk), LGBTQ youth (120% higher risk), Black/African American youth (83% higher risk), and Hispanic youth (33% higher risk).

Implications for Social Work

The VoYC data provide homeless service providers, researchers, and policy advocates with a new and powerful tool for communicating prevalence rates and service needs. National estimates confirm what those of us in the field already knew and support the legitimacy of the work we do. These initial findings also have some important implications for social work as we continue our work towards meeting the Grand Challenge to End Homelessness.

First, in terms of preventing homelessness, we are likely missing a lot of opportunities to intervene through upstream systems that commonly employ social workers, such as schools, foster care and group homes, juvenile and adult criminal justice systems, family and child protective services, etc. While the initial VoYC findings do not illustrate causal relationships or pathways to homelessness, they do suggest opportunities for prevention and early intervention. One approach may be to further explore the use of Critical Time Intervention to prevent homelessness among youth transitioning out of foster care or institutional settings. Strengthening partnerships between schools and the homeless service system may also help prevent and end episodes of homelessness as well as increase retention and success in school.

Second, we need to take seriously the implications of multi-system involvement for youth. Improving outcomes across systems (e.g., high school graduation rates, arrest and recidivism rates) will likely have positive effects on homelessness risk. At the same time, there are always opportunities for systems to better collaborate. Social workers can play a key role in relationship building across systems and across sectors, such as through convening interagency councils and advocating for policy solutions that address root causes rather than symptoms. For example, social workers can help prevent the criminalization of homelessness.Capture3

Third, communities would benefit from institutionalizing comprehensive needs assessments and responses to youth homelessness that are flexible and adaptable to meet the diverse and developmental needs of youth. While it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, we also need a better understanding of what works and for whom. Social workers can help design, test, and evaluate strategies, such as robust outreach efforts, mobile services, cross-system collaboration, customized supportive and transitional housing options, and unique engagement approaches that make use of social networks and other technology to reach youth not accessing traditional services.

Fourth, targeted efforts are needed to effectively reduce the disparities in homelessness across groups of young people. Effective practices may include using screening and assessment procedures across systems and settings to increase service engagement. The VoYC findings confirm what we already knew about the high risk of homelessness for LGBT youth and youth of color. The even higher risk among under-educated youth and parenting youth presents broad cross-sector implications. Further, we know that extreme risk exists where these experiences intersect. Providers may want to examine program and service use data to assess opportunities to better engage high risk groups and improve service capacity through trainings that address topics such as racial justice, gender-responsive services, and eliminating service barriers for transgender youth.

Finally, the rural county findings challenge previous assumptions that youth homelessness in rural communities, while already understood to be more hidden, is less prevalent than in urban communities. While the risk of homelessness for youth in rural counties is comparable to that of youth in urban communities, the geographic and infrastructure differences between rural and urban communities warrants tailoring prevention and intervention strategies. Future work delving into rural homeless service provision is also warranted. We know less about the rural youth homelessness experience and therefore have some work to do in this area to develop and further refine responses. For example, the lack of robust services may produce more geographic mobility out of and through rural areas, which can challenge traditional engagement strategies and necessitate system-level change. However, services for homeless youth are limited and hard to navigate even in small cities, so it remains to be seen how best to strengthen systems across communities.

The Missed Opportunities report is the first in a series of reports to be generated by VoYC. In terms of deeper-dive questions, it will be interesting to see the following explored to support the design of effective prevention and intervention approaches:

  1. What is the rate of trauma and other adverse experiences among youth experiencing homelessness? And, how does trauma correlate with health outcomes and risk behaviors?
  2. What kinds of risk behaviors are prevalent among homeless youth (e.g., intravenous drug use, high risk sex practices, violence), and do these risks affect youth equally?
  3. What percent of youth are victims of drug, labor, or sex trafficking?
  4. How common is geographic mobility (e.g., intercity moves) while homeless, and how does this differ across communities?
  5. What are common pathways to homelessness for youth? Where would prevention efforts be best targeted?
  6. To what extent are homeless youth engaged in mainstream and homeless-specific services?
  7. What strengths, capabilities, and resiliencies can we draw on when working with youth and engaging them in peer support and leadership positions?
  8. How connected are youth to positive sources of social support and social networks?

For more on Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America, check out the following resources:

Blog Post Author: Amanda Aykanian, MA, Research and Project Lead, National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services

University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work Hosts “Evicted” Author, Matthew Desmond

This past May, the Graduate College of Social Work (GCSW) at the University of Houston (UH) chose the book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City as a summer reading experience for all members of the college to read and discuss together at the start of the semester. Meanwhile, GCSW Dean Alan Dettlaff was preparing to launch a new lecture series – Speaking of Social Justice, the Maconda Brown O’Connor Distinguished Lecture. It seemed a natural fit to invite the author of the summer read – Matthew Desmond, professor of sociology at Princeton University – to be the inaugural speaker. Subsequently, Evicted was named the 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winner in General Nonfiction. The Pulitzer Prize Board recognized Desmond’s work as “a deeply researched exposé that showed how mass evictions after the 2008 economic crash were less a consequence than a cause of poverty.”  The GCSW and the university were honored to host Desmond for a lecture, Q&A, and book signing.

A sociologist by training, Desmond shared about the research methodology that became the basis for the book. He and his team conducted the Milwaukee Area Renters Study (MARS) in Milwaukee’s low-income private housing sector. Surveying 1,000 households in person, they achieved an 84% response rate, no small feat considering their instrument consisted of 250 questions. Desmond stressed the importance of “shoe leather” in designing the research study, research questions, and sample recruitment. They learned asking “have you ever been evicted” was artificially suppressing their results – a person with an eviction on their record may answer “no” to that question, because they define eviction differently, such as having one’s things put on the curb.

As homelessness declines nationwide, housing insecurity is rising. Desmond reported one in four Americans spend 70% of their income on rent. Desmond found that, according to court documents, 40 people are evicted every day in Milwaukee. This is on average 1 in 29 households (1 in 14 black households). However, factoring other involuntary moves that go unreported to the courts, the number is closer to 1 in 8. This is an epidemic that pervasively impacts a person’s life. When a person is evicted, they not only lose their home but they may also lose their school, belongings, community, safety, job, and health.

Desmond argues that without access to stable housing, everything else falls apart. Similar to the way the U.S. government has committed to providing economic security for the elderly and food security for the poor, Desmond proposes that we should refocus resources to provide access to housing for all Americans.

Comment from student attendee:

“I felt fortunate to hear Desmond’s presentation. He won the Pulitzer Prize not only for his quality research but his ability to tell a story with statistics. He did an extensive amount of ethnographic research, living for months with people going through evictions and learning from the landlords in both white and black neighborhoods in Milwaukee. His book details heartbreaking and unfair (but also sometimes funny and joyful) moments in the lives of numerous families. Now, he travels the country sharing what he’s learned. And, after everything he’s witnessed, and in the midst of such a divided political climate, he remains optimistic that our nation can rise to the challenge to solve this crisis.”
~ Stephanie Coates (blog post author)

Desmond’s UH presentation was polished and tailored to those in attendance. He knew he was speaking to a room of social workers, and as he concluded his remarks, he issued a call. To bring about change, Desmond recognizes many people will have to be at the table. He said the crisis of eviction and housing insecurity (explore the data for your town) demands coalitions of people invested in our communities’ public and mental health, education, criminal justice, public safety, and spiritual lives must come together. Social workers can be instrumental in answering that call. One resource for information and connection is, which “features links to over 600 organizations working to preserve affordable housing, prevent eviction, and reduce family homelessness, and presents stories from Americans who have faced eviction.”

Comment from student attendee:

“During his UH presentation, when Desmond said the ‘rent eats first’ and ‘home is for ourselves, every other place is for everything else,’ I knew he was not saying these lines as mere words that might elicit interest in his talk. If I had heard him speak before reading Evicted, I honestly would have thought they were quotes to add theatrics. I did not understand what is truly happening in so many cases of eviction. I attributed the cause to the person making what I would call an unknowing decision, thinking of consequences of my own past actions, not a system that creates a cycle, and often a spiral, of despair. Desmond stating eviction may be ‘inevitability not irresponsibility’ is what sticks with me. As he said, people have written the scenario about the poor, but never the why. Through the research captured in Evicted, Desmond uncovered the why.”
~ Stephanie King (blog post author)

Blog Post Authors: University of Houston MSW Students Stephanie Coates and Stephanie King (pictured above with Matthew Desmond)

Framing Conversations about Affordable Housing


The FrameWorks Institute has published a series of studies investigating the most effective ways to communicate about seven social justice issues: criminal justice, human services, affordable housing, education, budgets and taxes, parenting, and aging. This blog post summarizes some of the key points from their Affordable Housing report, which summarizes why housing advocates’ efforts to gain support for affordable housing are backfiring and what to do about it. Interested readers are encouraged to check out the full document available here.

Housing advocates are relying on a growing public anxiety about the rising costs of housing, and some have been able to gain support from policymakers and city leaders for new housing proposals. There has been support on the federal level as well; the Supreme Court has issued rulings related to negative effects of current policies on housing costs.

However, a large base of public support is not present, which is essential in maintaining and sustaining these changes over the long term. Why is support lacking? In part, this is due to a large sense of individualism present in America and the resulting belief that housing is an individual’s responsibility to attain rather than a shared, public concern. Vivid stories about individual troubles that are widely used to foster support, even when presented with housing facts and data, tend to decrease public support and fail to elicit the intended sympathy for the individual’s story.

These message backfires can be understood as following within six common themes:

Image retrieved from
  1. The Mobility, Personal Responsibility, and Self-Makingness Backfire: This backfire occurs because the public tends to believe that people struggling for money and housing are lazy and unwilling to move to a place where housing is more affordable, are irresponsible and unwilling to accept responsibility for and solve their own problems, have made bad decisions, and are managing their money poorly.
  2. The Separate Fates and Zero-Sum Thinking Backfire: The public tends to fail to see how an issue relates to their own personal interests or circumstances and may see this issue as competing with their own interests. Public services for one person are generally viewed as taking away something from themselves.
  3. The Thin Understanding of Cause and Effect Backfire: This occurs because of a limited understanding of the causes and effects of housing problems. The solutions necessary to address these problems and improve outcomes are also thinly understood.
  4. The Crisis and Fatalism Backfire: When housing messages focus on urgency and crisis, people feel powerless against the severity and weight of the problem, which causes them to view the problem as too large and unsolvable. This may trigger blame for the government and skepticism of the government’s ability to address these issues, amplifying the sense that it is an individual’s responsibility to secure housing.
  5. The Not-in-My-Backyard and Natural Segregation Backfire: As issues of racial and economic segregation within the context of housing are raised, the public falls back on a “we solved that” narrative, seeing discrimination as a thing of the past, as well as believing that racial and economic segregation is natural.
  6. The Facts Don’t Fit the Frame Backfire: Facts and data that refute incorrect beliefs or assumptions, and point out benefits that new policies might bring, frequently lead people to hold onto their misperceptions about data and policies more strongly and only accept arguments that confirm their views. This phenomenon is known as confirmation bias.

The Frameworks Institute studied why these messages backfire and tested potential reframes to increase support. The most effective strategies to gain support for affordable housing and to avoid these backfires are summarized with 10 recommendations:

  1. Tell stories that balance the people, places, and systems perspectives.
  2. Don’t directly contest the public assumptions about mobility, consumer choice, and personal responsibility. Instead, explain the role of systems in shaping outcomes for people and the communities in which they live.
  3. Tell a “Story of Us” rather than a “Story of Them.”
  4. Bring the connection between housing and other issues into sharper focus.
  5. Help people connect the causes and effects of housing insecurity.
  6. Make it clear that where you live affects you.
  7. It’s okay to raise challenges of the past, but focus on the kinds of change that leads to better outcomes.
  8. Use robust examples that show how new housing policies work.
  9. Avoid leading or over-relying on the terms “housing” or “affordable housing.”
  10. Widen the public’s view of who is responsible for taking action and resolving outcomes.

By understanding how and why current methods of gaining public support for affordable housing are backfiring, as well as how to more effectively communicate these messages, progressive social change is achievable. Housing advocates are encouraged to use these recommendations to foster public support for initiatives and policies.


Blog Post Author: Kelsey Whittington, MSW, is a former graduate assistant for the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services. She now lives in California, where she is doing a fellowship with the VA.

Like this post?
Check out this one Kelsey wrote about the Frameworks Institute’s study about effectively communicating messages about Human Services.

Want more info?
Visit our website to learn more about us and our National Homelessness Social Work Initiative. And, join our mailing list to receive our newsletter.

On social media?
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Sacramento State Tackles Homelessness Locally

The team at California State University, Sacramento, comprised of Drs. Tyler Argüello and Arturo Baiocchi, has been busy over the past year conducting various activities and, now, celebrating some initial accomplishments.

Interprofessional Workshops

The overarching theme of the workshops this year was to “de-center” the conversation on homelessness.  That is to say, we tried to have the audience and the presenters step out of the role of ‘experts’ and re-center our focus and possible responses on the people affected by homelessness and co-occurring issues. The interactive workshops were open to faculty, staff, students, and community partners, and sought to cultivate an ongoing dialogue about issues related to housing insecurity. The workshops were partly interactive as well as included guest presentations on resources and issues related to regional homelessness. The first workshop included a set of activities facilitated by Dr. Argüello designed to encourage students to re-visit their own implicit biases they may have toward individuals experiencing housing insecurity. The activity was followed by a presentation from the CEO of Sacramento Steps Forward, the lead agency in Sacramento working on homelessness issues. Students were introduced to various initiatives being pursued by local non-profits, and the election of a new mayor who has made homelessness a key issue for the city to address.

The second workshop focused on student homelessness on campus. The workshop included activities that encouraged students to consider how the lived experiences of homeless students may differ from their own. The activity was followed by a presentation by Student Affairs that discussed new state legislation and CSUS policies being implemented to protect students experiencing housing insecurity. The new university Case Manager, Danielle Munoz, LMFT, and MSW Intern Virgil Rambeau gave a detailed presentation on how students can qualify and apply for food assistance, emergency housing, and other resources on and off campus.

Both workshops were well attended with a total of 45 participants from social work, nursing, speech  pathology, sociology, and psychology. Baiocchi and Argüello plan on continuing the workshop series with two addition sessions in Fall and Spring of next year.

Sacramento PointinTime Study

In December 2016, Dr. Baiocchi was approached by Sacramento Steps Forward (SSF) for assistance with the biennial Point-In-Time count of homeless individuals for Sacramento County. Drs. Argüello and Baiocchi recruited 75 CSUS students to assist in data collection and data entry.  To assist in the analysis of the data, Dr. Baiocchi invited Dr. Jennifer Price-Wolf (Assistant Professor in Social Work) and Keith Hodson from the Institute for Social Research to the project. The final analysis and report were completed in July 2017. The report was also referenced by the New York Times regarding housing problems in California.

Smart Policing Initiative: County Sheriff Homeless Outreach Team

In September 2016, CSUS won a research project with the Sacramento County Sherriff’s Department and Sacramento Steps Forward (SSF) regarding a new SMART Policing Initiative, an initiative sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance and U.S. Department of Justice. Sacramento is one of six sites in the country selected for two years of funding. The project will evaluate a new Homeless Street Outreach collaboration between Sherriff deputies and SSF Street Navigators, looking at access to services in the outskirts of the city, the impacts to the surrounding community, and the possible cultural changes that may occur due to increased collaboration between the Sherriff Deputies and social service providers.

Californians Speak on Social Welfare

In Spring 2016 Drs. Baiocchi, Argüello, and Price-Wolf (along with three other social work faculty at CSUS) secured funding for a multi-year, probability-based survey project called The Californians Speak on Social Welfare (CSSW) Survey. The CSSW project seeks to assess how Californians view various social issues and policies implicated in social work practice. The first and second surveys were developed and implemented in Fall 2016, the first of which concerned perceptions of social work and child welfare reporting and the second concerned stigma related to homelessness and mental health. The third will be conducted in Summer 2017. The data has already been used for MSW students’ thesis projects, and peer-reviewed articles are forthcoming. In an effort to make homelessness a more integral part of the curriculum at CSUS, Dr. Baiocchi offered his thesis students the opportunity to analyze the CSSW survey data as it pertains to homelessness. A total of five MSW students conducted projects that explored the scholarship on the social and cultural stigmas that homeless individuals experience and the effects that these perceptions may have on public policy.

Addressing Homelessness Through Social Innovation: The University of Denver’s First Homelessness Hackathon

This spring, the University of Denver explored uncharted waters, launching its first annual homelessness hackathon, which was dedicated to generating innovative solutions to homelessness through a rapid design process. The event, titled Somewhere to Go, was hosted by the University’s Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) and co-sponsored by other university groups, with generous financial support from the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services as well as public and private donors.

Participants, including students and community members, formed interdisciplinary workgroups representing the fields of social work, computer science, engineering, international development, business, psychology, and beyond. Together, they learned about the issue of homelessness from the perspectives of academia, local government, nonprofit and faith-based organizations, and directly from adult and youth service users. Cash prizes were promised to the groups with the winning ideas. However, as the sun went down on the seven-hour event, it became abundantly clear that participants were focused solely on developing genuine understanding and realistic solutions.

After several hours of learning about homelessness, the groups began to brainstorm through a rapid prototyping process. Borrowing from design thinking and human-centered design approaches, participants were encouraged to explore solutions through a lens of empathy, intense consumer engagement, and a willingness to take risks and fail forward. As teams bounced ideas off community experts, who were roaming the room ready to offer feedback, they discovered that homelessness, though seemingly straightforward, was a complex issue with various leverage points. The question of where to begin proved more difficult than perhaps initially anticipated.

“One hour left!” rang through the room as groups poured over their three-minute pitches, making sure to highlight key judging criteria as to how their idea achieved feasibility, sustainability, innovation, and impact. One by one, each of the six groups wowed the audience with thoughtful, creative pitches that included mobile apps, peer mentorship, university courses, and microloans offered through credit unions. A panel of judges selected a shelter mobile app to win the main prize, while hackathon participants honored the credit union idea with the people’s choice award. And just like that, the event was done, with hearts full of inspiration and more questions about what comes next. Group members swapped contact information and buzzed about launching their individual ideas, while loading up on leftover pizza and snacks – the door prize for everyone.

As for the University of Denver and the GSSW, it was clear that something dynamic had taken place that day. A collective enthusiasm and energy swirled around participants from different disciplines, students and professionals alike, all ready to put their ideas to the test. GSSW doctoral students, Jennifer Wilson and Jonah DeChants, along with professor Kimberly Bender, developed the event and conducted a small pilot study to determine the feasibility of changing attitudes and developing ideas through rapid innovation. Results of a pretest and posttest survey administered to all hackathon participants revealed a significant increase in perceived knowledge of homelessness as well as significant and positive shifts in attitudes and beliefs pertaining to individual, societal, and personal responsibility related to homelessness. Additional qualitative feedback revealed that participants, who had already dedicated an entire Friday to the event, wanted even more – more time to innovate, more time with community experts, and more time to pitch their ideas and solicit feedback from the group. So now the steering committee is tasked with its own design challenge – how to take the homelessness hackathon to the next level in year two.

Jennifer Wilson, headshot

About the Author: Jennifer H. Wilson, MSW, IMBA is a PhD student in the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW). Her research interests center on the promotion of poverty reduction through social business interventions and social innovation. She is currently working with the Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness at GSSW, exploring tiny homes and comprehensive community initiatives. 

Like this post?
Check out this one about a homelessness hackathon at the University of South Florida.

Want more info?
Visit our website to learn more about us and our National Homelessness Social Work Initiative. And, join our mailing list to receive our newsletter.

On social media?
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Framing Conversations about Human Services

frameThe FrameWorks Institute has published a series of studies investigating the most effective ways to communicate about seven social justice issues: criminal justice, human services, affordable housing, education, budgets and taxes, parenting, and aging. The issues of human services and affordable housing are particularly relevant to homeless providers and advocates. This blog post summarizes some of the key points from the institute’s Talking Human Services report, but interested readers are encouraged to check out the full document available here.

The Talking Human Services issue addresses where we are going wrong in talking about human services and how best to engage the public in supporting and understanding the field. The main barrier in the human services narrative is that it remains anchored in a charity model; in this model, we often get stuck in a differentiation between the “deserving and undeserving poor”, and much of the action is focused on proving the worthiness of those receiving services. In reality, human services do much more than address problems for those who are experiencing the worst possible conditions. Human services focus on prevention with a large focus on social determinants; promotion of well-being through ensuring supports, such as employment, transportation, and education; and direct supports for those exposed to multiple stressors so they can regain and maintain an improved quality of life.

Image retrieved from

Why are human services messages failing? The study first analyzed how Americans think about what well-being means, what threatens it, how we improve it, and what human services are and how they work. They found that the public tends to associate well-being with financial self-sufficiency and physical health, and that lack of willpower, bad parenting, and dangerous communities threaten well-being. In regards to improving well-being, the most common answers were that individuals are responsible for improving their own well-being, that the government should but cannot help due to greed on the parts of both politicians and recipients of services, and that informal networks need to step in to help. When asked what human services are, many did not know what the term “human services” meant and if they did, they defined them as purely direct services, charity, or a temporary provision of basic needs. In these answers, there is a prominent theme of individualism and a misperception of what human services are or how to help.

How do we change these messages? The study found that the use of a “building well-being” narrative provides the most effective answers to questions about human services:

  1. What is at stake?
    • Human Potential – Help people recognize that everyone needs support and human services benefit everyone.
  2. What kind of support do people need?
    • Construction – Use a construction metaphor to explain what well-being is and how it is shaped. Explain that well-being is built and strengthened by things such as social relationships, community resources, and opportunities. This metaphor communicates the importance of a strong foundation for growth and the need for ongoing support, and emphasizes that human services construct well-being and address faults in the way well-being was constructed rather than focusing on or blaming personal characteristics.
  3. What threatens well-being?
    • Construction – Use extensions and implications of the metaphor, such as bad construction or unpredictable weather, to explain how context affects outcomes. For example, discuss how “spotty construction” of a house, like inadequate support, can lead to later problems. The “unpredictable weather” metaphor emphasizes that there are things outside of an individual’s control, such as economic downturn, that affect well-being, much like how bad weather can affect the stability of a house. 
  4. How do we ensure well-being for all?
    • Construction – Use this metaphor to help people think about the different ways human services support well-being. Compare human service professionals to the professionals who construct buildings. Point out that there are several specialists who help in the construction of a building, such as planning, building, and ongoing maintenance specialists, much like how human services professionals are involved in many different areas of building and sustaining well-being.
    • Life Cycle – Use life cycle examples to help people understand that human services help people at all stages of the life cycle from infancy to older adulthood. Provide concrete examples of different programs that serve people in all stages of life and to a diverse array of recipients.

The public tends to fall into traps of thinking that make it harder to gain support for human services, such as misunderstanding what these services are and a large sense of individualism that can be difficult to break. This framework provides a tool for human service professionals and advocates to break through these traps and further human service efforts.

Keep an eye out for an upcoming post about the FrameWorks Institute’s issue on framing conversations about affordable housing.



Blog Post Author: Kelsey Whittington, MSW, graduate assistant for the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services.

Like this post?
Check out this one Kelsey wrote about employment supports for people experiencing homelessness.

Want more info?
Visit our website to learn more about us and our National Homelessness Social Work Initiative. And, join our mailing list to receive our newsletter.

On social media?
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.