Binghamton University Hosts Film Screening and Panel Discussion to Raise Awareness about Homelessness
This past November 18th, in recognition of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, faculty and students from Binghamton University’s Department of Social Work collaborated with the Southern Tier Homeless Coalition to host a screening of the film Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell. A panel presentation and community conversation followed to raise awareness of homelessness, its potential ramifications, and to identify next steps. Binghamton’s mayor, Rich David, opened the event with a brief speech about his ongoing efforts to address homelessness.
The film follows the continuing life story of Erin Blackwell, who was first introduced to audiences 20 years ago in director Martin Bell’s Streetwise, a documentary about youth homelessness. Bell’s follow-up documentary profoundly chronicles the resilience and ongoing traumas encountered by the protagonist over the course of two decades.
The panel included:
- Cassandra Bransford, Associate Professor of social work at Binghamton University and faculty contact for the National Center, who served as moderator;
- Shari Weiss, President of the Executive Board and Chair of the Southern Tier Homeless Coalition, who spoke about developing community partnerships to end homelessness;
- David Wallace, Clinical Director at the LaSalle School (Albany, NY), who spoke about trauma, homelessness, and youth;
- Jessica Peruse, Homeless Team Leader at the VA Medical Center (Syracuse, NY), who spoke about the Housing First model; and
- Jed Metzger, Associate Professor of social work at Nazareth College and the school’s faculty contact for the National Center, who spoke about what we can do to end homelessness and poverty.
The panelists presented their perspective following the screening, answered audience questions, and encouraged audience members to get involved. Continuing education credits were offered to social workers for attending. The event was otherwise free and open to the public.
Donations were solicited for the ongoing Freeze Fund initiative. Both prior to and during the event, students collected non-perishable food items, toothbrushes, socks and foot warmers to hand out in care packages to community members over the frigid winter months.
Ending Homelessness in Binghamton
The city of Binghamton has long been on the forefront of the struggle to eradicate homelessness. In late 2014, Mayor David announced a landmark accomplishment in this effort as part of the national Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. On a single night across the city, not a single veteran experienced unsheltered homelessness, earning Binghamton the distinction of being the first city in the country to meet the Mayors Challenge.
These efforts continue to this day, led in large part by the Southern Tier Homeless Coalition, which coordinates services and conducts the yearly point-in-time count. The Coalitions’ work helps provide critical support to the community and gathers crucial data to secure funding for services both in urban Binghamton and in the surrounding rural counties.
Advancing Social Justice Together
This event supports the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare’s Grand Challenge to End Homelessness and aligns with CSWE’s fifth core competency – advancing human rights and social and economic justice. Homeless or otherwise, our most vulnerable community members deserve better, and it is our responsibility as social workers to help build a social safety net to protect them. This event to raise community awareness is only one step in the broader struggle to end homelessness.
Ultimately, ongoing collaboration among stakeholders is key. Rebecca Rathmell, the Southern Tier Homeless Coalition’s coordinator, said it best:
“It has to be a collaborative effort and everything from street outreach and making sure we’re identifying the youth and the families experiencing homelessness all the way to permanent support of housing.”
We were grateful to be able to collaborate to make this event happen and we at Binghamton University are looking forward to future opportunities moving forward.
About the Author: Michael Cole is a second-year master’s student and Graduate Assistant at the Binghamton University Department of Social Work. He is currently interning at the UHS Wilson Medical Center. In his spare time, he enjoys baking and blogging about social justice.
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Check out this one written by Robin Petering, doctoral candidate at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
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.
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Check out this one written by Kelsey Whittington, UAlbany MSW student and graduate assistant for the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services.
We have made meaningful progress over the past decade in addressing chronic homelessness in the United States, as evidenced by a 35% reduction between 2007 and 2016 in the number of persons experiencing chronic homelessness on a single night. The significant expansion of permanent supportive housing (PSH) over this time period is rightly credited as driving this progress and helps illustrate what is possible if resources are directed towards evidence-based, housing-focused solutions.
Yet, PSH should not be understood as a one-size fits all solution to homelessness. With annual costs that can exceed $15,000, it is a resource-intensive intervention, and it may not be feasible or necessary to provide such an intensive intervention to all persons experiencing homelessness. Alternative solutions that are less resource intensive, but equally effective as PSH, are therefore sorely needed for the bulk of the homeless population who experience short-term or “crisis” homelessness. For these individuals (who make up about 85% of the overall sheltered homeless population), an episode of homelessness is often triggered by an event such as an eviction, dissolution of a relationship, or transition out of an institutional living arrangement, such as foster care, prison, inpatient hospitalization, or substance abuse treatment. Unfortunately, progress in addressing crisis homelessness has not kept pace with that made on chronic homelessness: after subtracting out reductions in chronic homelessness, between 2007 and 2015, there was only a 6% decline in homelessness among single adults.
Fortunately, the emergence of a new paradigm in the homelessness assistance sector focused on housing stabilization, coupled with recent Medicaid policy developments, provides a unique opening for substantial progress to be made in reducing crisis homelessness. Recognizing this opportunity, my colleague Dennis Culhane and I recently presented a proposal to leverage the evidence-based intervention Critical Time Intervention (CTI) as a means to expand the availability of rapid re-housing—a promising new strategy that focuses on providing short-term, highly flexible assistance to help homeless households quickly achieve housing stabilization—for persons experiencing crisis homelessness.
Adapting CTI into a large-scale rapid re-housing intervention would make for a sound and feasible policy response to crisis homelessness for several reasons. First, the CTI and rapid re-housing conceptual and program models align nearly perfectly, meaning that a CTI-based rapid re-housing program model would be fairly straightforward to implement. Second, CTI has a strong evidence base as an effective intervention for reducing homelessness, and an integration of rapid re-housing and CTI could therefore amplify the impact of existing rapid re-housing programs. Third, recent guidance issued by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) suggests that most of the services at the core of a CTI-based rapid re-housing program could be reimbursed by state Medicaid programs, thereby providing the necessary funding to scale-up the approach with federal resources.
Implementing a CTI-based rapid re-housing at a large scale would have benefits at multiple levels. First, at the individual level, the housing stability and connections to community-based treatment and supports afforded by CTI would lead to improved health, economic, and social outcomes. Second, from the perspective of health care systems, and Medicaid in particular, the expansion of CTI-based rapid re-housing services could lead to more efficient and effective use of health care dollars. Third, the implementation of our proposal would have a number of potential benefits to society, the most notable of which would be a substantial reduction in overall homelessness. Society would also benefit from reduced utilization of criminal justice system resources, public assistance, and other public services, as CTI has been linked with reductions in such services.
To be sure, there are challenges that would need to be addressed in implementing this idea. These include the need to appropriately tailor CTI for those experiencing crisis homelessness; having a trained workforce in place to deliver CTI-based rapid re-housing at scale; determining the best mechanism for states to include CTI in their Medicaid benefit package; and resolving how to pay for the temporary financial assistance component of rapid re-housing.
Fortunately, there is important work already being done to address these challenges and figure out how best to integrate CTI and rapid re-housing. Most notably, in a project supported by the Melville Charitable Trust, the Center for the Advancement of Critical Time Intervention is partnering with the National Alliance to End Homelessness to develop and test an integration of CTI into rapid re-housing programs in Connecticut. Such work is crucially important and holds great promise. To make real progress in addressing crisis homelessness similar work should be actively encouraged.
About the Author: Tom Byrne is an Assistant Professor of Social Welfare Policy at the Boston University School of Social Work. He is also an Investigator at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans.
When I talk about what I do, I am never sure if I should describe myself as someone who researches homelessness or someone who researches health issues, including HIV/AIDS. In reality, I do both. Before going the research route, I worked as a social worker in Chicago managing supportive housing programs for people who were homeless and HIV positive. The intersection of HIV and homelessness is still a personal passion, as well as the focus of much of my research.
This July I had the opportunity to attend and present at the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. This conference, held every two years, is a huge gathering of more than 15,000 researchers, health care professionals, activists, policymakers, and government leaders who come together to discuss all aspects of the AIDS epidemic. Presentation topics run the gamut from the development of vaccines and new drugs to the social issues that drive the epidemic, such as the criminalization of sex work, poverty, and social inequalities. It was humbling and exciting to be among this group of people from around the world, with such vast and varied knowledge and experiences.
Initially, I was a little disappointed at what felt like a lack of attention to housing issues in the conference program. My online search of the hundreds of conference presentations yielded only a handful with “homelessness” or “housing” in the title. I soon found, though, that homelessness was in fact addressed in a number of ways. For example, in one session I attended, none of the presenters had made housing and homelessness a focal point of their research—and yet it came up several times. One presenter discussed the HIV risk context of women who were displaced in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and no longer had permanent housing; another described how young injection drug users in Vancouver were more likely to share needles when they didn’t have a stable home base from which to access syringe exchange and other harm reduction services; and a third presenter discussed homelessness as increasing the risk of sexual assault for HIV positive immigrants in France. Hearing all of these examples solidified my belief that “housing is health”—without stable housing, it is infinitely more difficult to feed one’s self, to seek treatment for various conditions, to take medication, to practice harm reduction with regard to sex or substance use, and to protect one’s body.
One of the highlights of the conference was having the chance to visit the Denis Hurley Centre, a nonprofit agency that works with homeless and low-income people in Durban. Like many of the homeless-serving agencies that I am familiar with in the U.S., the Denis Hurley Centre strives to serve people with dignity, to care for their basic human needs, and to give people opportunities for growth and empowerment. It was interesting to me to learn what this looks like in a South African, and specifically a Durban, context. Durban is a large and diverse city that is home to people of many different racial, ethnic, religious, and national backgrounds. The director of the center, Raymond Perrier, mentioned that he wondered if this was the only social service agency in the world that is named for a Catholic bishop but that maintains a halal kitchen, as the agency has a large Muslim clientele. To me, this is a great example of the social work credo of “meeting where the client is at.”
Disturbingly, I also learned from Mr. Perrier that in advance of the conference, the police had “swept” the central business district and forced many of the homeless people staying there to relocate elsewhere. I have heard of such sweeps occurring before major events in U.S. cities and elsewhere, but to do this before an HIV conference with a theme of “access, equity, rights now” seems particularly cruel and ironic. South Africa has one of the world’s largest HIV epidemics, with approximately one in five adults living with HIV, and even higher rates among poor and marginalized groups. Being homeless is hazardous to one’s health, and it’s particularly detrimental to HIV health. When people don’t have a safe, stable place to stay—and when they are forced by police to move from their places on the street—it is very difficult to adhere to lifesaving HIV medications. I knew this to be the case with the clients I worked with in Chicago, and Mr. Perrier described how it is the same in Durban. The idea that the conference would cause even one HIV-positive homeless person in Durban to disrupt their medication adherence is deeply troubling to me.
I left South Africa with the sense that while it is important to acknowledge our geographic, national, and sociopolitical differences, problems like the criminalization of homelessness and the lack of safe and affordable housing for many HIV-positive and at-risk people are truly global in scope. Visiting the Denis Hurley Centre showed me that the solutions to addressing these problems are both local and global. It is one thing to talk about access, equity, and human rights, but it is a far more difficult thing to live out this mantra in a world that constantly denies the rights and the value of so many lives in so many locations.
And yet, there is always hope and work to be done still.
Blog Post Author: Elizabeth Bowen, PhD
Elizabeth Bowen, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at the University at Buffalo (UB)-State University of New York. Her research focuses on the relationship between housing and health. She is the UB faculty contact for the National Homelessness Social Work Initiative and co-leads the New York/New Jersey regional network of social work programs.
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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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Check out this one on Robin Petering’s experiences teaching yoga to homeless youth.
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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:
- An extended count period of 4 weeks.
- Respondent-driven sampling, asking youth to recruit others they knew in similar situations.
- 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.
- Use of social work and nursing students to assist in surveying.
- Involvement of homeless and formerly homeless youth to help with locating and identifying youth.
- 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.
- Use of homeless management information system (HMIS) data to identify service locations we should visit to conduct the survey.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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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.