By Amanda Aykanian, PhD
Homelessness is a topic that gains little attention in social work curriculum. Yet, it is a social problem that intersects with many of the topics (e.g., mental health, substance use, child welfare) and populations (e.g., youth and young adults, families, survivors of domestic violence) addressed consistently in coursework.
In thinking about why homelessness is not more prominent in social work education, some immediate barriers come to mind. Programs may not have faculty with expertise in homelessness, developing curriculum integration ideas can be time consuming, and some departments have strict rules that limit the degree to which course content can be modified. One could also highlight turning points in social work’s history that have contributed to an ideological shift towards problems, topics, and populations that lend themselves more readily to direct clinical practice and traditional therapies. This shift has made homelessness (and poverty more broadly) less appealing because it requires a macro lens to address the complex policy, system, and community dynamics that contribute to individual experiences. Because of these factors, and perhaps others, homelessness has not been given consistent attention across social work curriculum and degree programs.
The good news is that the profession has made an effort to reinvigorate its commitment to homelessness—most notably is its inclusion in the Grand Challenges for Social Work initiative. The collaborative work of the Grand Challenge to End Homelessness and the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services has also produced important resources for teaching about homelessness, such as CSWE’s Curricular Guide for Addressing Homelessness and the first social work textbook on homelessness.
In an upcoming article in the Journal of Social Work Education, Tara Ryan-DeDominicis and I present a model of low, medium, and high effort strategies for integrating homelessness into coursework. Below are some ideas and resources we discuss in that article.
- Start Small: You do not need to be a homelessness expert to start integrating the topic into your courses. Start with something simple, like a reading swap (see #3), and use it as an opportunity to learn alongside your students.
- Look for “Easy Ins”: Look for topics in your syllabus that provide an easy connection to homelessness and target changes in those areas by making reading swaps (see #3) or modifying assignments.
- Swap Readings: Pick one or two areas to add or swap-in a reading that connects the course topic to homelessness. Teaching about trauma? Read about how young women with histories of victimization and homelessness perceived the value of a trauma-informed group intervention. Teaching about suicide? Read about factors that contribute to whether young adults experiencing homelessness tell friends about their suicidal thoughts. Teaching about the strengths-based perspective? Read about how that approach has been used with homeless mothers.
- Use Existing Resources for Inspiration: Need ideas? Check out the National Center’s journal article and non-fiction book reading lists. CSWE’s Curricular Guide for Addressing Homelessness also has reading suggestions and activity ideas for using homelessness to teach across the nine social work competencies.
- Use Publicly Available Videos/Webinars: The National Alliance to End Homelessness, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the National Homelessness Law Center, the National Council on Health Care for the Homeless, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition all have publicly available webinars on topics related to service needs, service systems, and policy issues.
- Don’t Forget About Policy: Ending homelessness will require significant political will and large-scale changes to federal and state-level policy, including policy areas outside of housing (e.g., criminal justice reform). This makes it a topic ripe for classes on policy analysis and advocacy. Some resources to use for talking about homelessness and policy include these Policy Recommendations for Meeting the Grand Challenge to End Homelessness, these homelessness-related Policy Proposals for the 2020 Presidential Election, and NASW’s 2021 Blueprint of Federal Social Policy Priorities.
- Think Outside the Classroom: Service learning, research projects, and other forms of experiential learning are also great ways to connect social work topics to homelessness. A recent special issue of the Journal of Social Work Education highlights several examples.
The ideas above are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg for ways social work educators can teach students about homelessness. I imagine faculty across the National Center’s partner schools and beyond are already using creative curriculum integration strategies. Perhaps as the National Center and the Grand Challenge to End Homelessness evolve, more attention will be paid to sharing educational ideas and evaluating curricular innovations.
Amanda Aykanian, PhD is an assistant professor of social work at the University of Texas at Arlington. Her work centers on program, system, and policy implementation and community-based evaluation research. Her recent research has focused on homeless service access and understanding how communities implement federal mandates while navigating complex local, state, and federal policy arenas.