Homeless Services and the “i” Word

This post was guest-authored by Elizabeth Bowen, Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York.

When we talk about the field of services for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness—where the field has been, where it is, where it’s going—one word I’m increasingly hearing is innovation.

But, what does this word really mean?

Is it just a buzzword, or does it indicate a meaningful shift in thinking and design for the homelessness services sector?

The actual definition of innovation is fairly straightforward. Per an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, an innovation is a process or outcome that’s both novel and an improvement on the status quo. I will admit that there’s a part of me, though, that instantly interprets the word innovation as someone telling me, “What you and your peers and collaborators have been doing is not good enough.

Many people and organizations do excellent work in homelessness services, day in and day out (and overnight, as homeless services are definitely not a 9-to-5 thing). Providers work with homeless and housing insecure families to make sure children’s education is not disrupted, they do their best to keep shelters clean and safe, they go out in all kinds of crazy weather to do outreach, build relationships, and connect people with services. And these are just a few examples. All in all, I think most homeless service providers do a fine job with very limited resources, and sometimes their work is downright heroic. So, I get a little defensive when I hear the i-word heaved in their direction.

These were some of the questions and reservations on my mind when I had the opportunity to co-teach a class last summer for Social Impact Fellows, a collaboration between the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, School of Management, and Blackstone LaunchPad. In its inaugural year in 2017, eight MSW and eight MBA students worked in cross-disciplinary pairs to complete an innovation project at a local socially-minded business or nonprofit. Kelly Patterson, from the School of Social Work, Tom Ulbrich, from the School of Management, and I co-taught the classroom portion of the fellowship, which included many discussions around the meaning of terms like social enterprise, social entrepreneurship, social impact…and, of course, the i-word.

The experience of co-teaching the class led me to a deeper reflection on innovation and what it means for homeless services. My fear is that when people think about innovation and homelessness, they will think that they have the answer, or even that there is a single answer to ending homelessness, just waiting to be discovered by the next innovator bright and creative enough to see it. As a researcher, it is apparent to me that homelessness is a complex social problem. It has no single cause, and I do not think it has a single solution. It will not be conclusively solved in a hackathon or in an afternoon’s design thinking lab.

In teaching the Social Impact Fellowship class, though, I realized there were ways I could talk and teach about innovation and homelessness without oversimplifying either. One of the topics we covered in class was systems change, the idea that any innovation should be considered within the context of larger systems and ultimately that creating social impact means working with an eye toward comprehensive systems change, rather than focusing only on particular programs or institutions. There were numerous examples from homeless services that I could draw from to illustrate systems change, such as coordinated entry—the redesigning of homelessness services for an entire city or geographic area around a centralized, person-centered intake and assessment process. I also pointed to Housing First as an example of a system-wide and research-driven paradigm shift in homeless services, as insightfully described in Deborah Padgett, Benjamin Henwood, and Sam Tsemberis’ book Housing First: Ending Homelessness, Transforming Systems, and Changing Lives. This book and the Housing First story it tells contain another key lesson about innovation: The best, and arguably the only truly viable, solutions emerge from listening to and raising up the voices of the people directly affected by the social problems we seek to address.

As it happened, three of the 2017 Social Impact Fellowship student teams’ projects were related to housing and homelessness. One team assisted social service agency and supportive housing provider Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center in developing a screen-printing business as a social enterprise to generate revenue while helping clients build employment skills. Another team worked with bicycle and active transportation advocates Go Bike Buffalo to pilot a program to provide bikes, helmets, and basic cycling training for homeless and low-income people to use as transportation to work and appointments. And, a third group researched and created policies and structures for a new housing program at Belmont Housing Resources for Western New York for young people aging out of foster care.

None of these projects solved homelessness, of course. But they did augment and shift current services and program models in exciting, needed, and—dare I say—innovative ways. When the class concluded, I was left feeling proud of what the homeless services sector has already accomplished, hopeful about the system-level changes currently underway, and optimistic about the potential for future advances.

The Grand Challenge to End Homelessness continues. Innovators welcome.

Elizabeth_Bowen_Small (1)Blog Post Author: 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 university’s faculty liaison for the National Center’s National Homelessness Social Work Initiative. In this role, she co-facilitates the New York-New Jersey Regional Network. Read her previous blog post here.


College at Brockport Students Use Class Project to Reduce Stigma towards People Experiencing Homelessness

Nicole Garcia and Sydney Hull, undergraduate students in social work at the College at Brockport, had an interest in the issue of homelessness in Rochester, NY. As part of a course on social work methods, they developed a simulation project called Racing for Housing to reduce college students’ stigma towards and stereotypes about the homeless population. In this post, Nicole and Sydney write about their Racing for Housing pilot project and its effect on students.

While doing an internship at a local homeless service agency, we saw firsthand the significant number of barriers that prevent homeless individuals from obtaining permanent housing. Negative perceptions about homeless people and the causes of homelessness factor into these barriers.

At our own college, we encounter individuals who stereotype the homeless population. These negative perceptions of homeless individuals aren’t unique to our college. In a 2014 survey of undergraduate students’ perceptions of poverty and homelessness, 57% of participants reported believing that homelessness is due to individual laziness, and 60% said it was likely due to not working hard enough to earn income.

The findings of this survey motivated us to do something to help educate students on campus. Our solution was to create a poverty simulation called Racing for Housing, which we developed and piloted for the project requirement for our Social Work Methods III course. The primary goal of Racing for Housing is to diminish stereotypes of individuals who are homeless through education, engagement, and advocacy.

Racing for Housing is designed to give students firsthand experience of the everyday challenges an individual searching for housing faces. We brought this simulation into two junior social work classes. The entire activity comprised the Racing for Housing simulation, two guest speakers, and a pre- and post-survey to evaluate the effectiveness of the activity. Forty-five students participated.

Before the activity, we administered a pre-survey to gauge students’ understanding of the contributing factors to being homeless and their general perceptions of the homeless population. After completing the survey, each student received a notecard with a scenario that reflected a common barrier that individuals experiencing homelessness encounter. Example barriers included mental illness, a substance abuse disorder, and a criminal record.

Each scenario had directions regarding which room the student needed to travel to in the building. In this activity, there were four rooms with two types of agencies in each room. The agencies included were as follows: the Department of Human Services, the Rochester Psychiatric Center, the House of Mercy Homeless Shelter, a realtor, the Center for Youth, Vital Records, a hospital, and the Unemployment Office. When students arrived to their assigned agency, there was a volunteer who gave them instructions.

Each participant had to make three stops in an attempt to access housing, and they were only given 10 minutes to complete the task. Below is an example of a scenario.

Example Scenario: Experiencing a Shelter Sanction Barrier

Role: You are a 30-year-old African American woman fleeing domestic violence. You are also a single mother with two children and are in search of a two-bedroom apartment.

Process: The student (or “mother”) is instructed to go to the shelter stop where the volunteer (or “shelter worker”) tells the student that they were sanctioned and have to go to the Department of Human Services (DHS) to find out why. When the student goes to DHS, they find out that they are under a 30-day sanction for not handing in paperwork in time. They are then told to go to the House of Mercy shelter, because they do not enforce the sanction in their shelter. This is the student’s (or “mother’s”) last stop.

The 10 minutes allowed for each scenario represent what a newly homeless individual might go through in 24 hours. Some students never reached the third stop, and when some students did, they were surprised by the type of housing they received. While they may have found shelter for the night, they did not find permanent or stable housing. This realization reflected the harsh realities that homeless individuals endure each day.

Following the simulation, students listened to two guest speakers – a formerly homeless woman who shared her journey and the barriers she faced and the co-founder of a non-profit who spoke of their program’s utilization of the housing first model and its successes.

A post-survey was administered at the end, which included an open-ended question that asked participants about their learning experience. Dr. Carmen Aponte, assistant professor, helped interpret the survey data. The survey results showed that participants came into the activity well-informed about the causes of homelessness. However, after engaging in the simulation and hearing from the guest speakers, there was a change in the participants’ perceptions and prejudices. Sample comments from the open-ended question are below:

“It can be easy to forget the soul underneath the homeless or difficulties a person faces. [I] will work hard to not pre-judge those facing homelessness.”

“Some disabilities are invisible, and we should never assume.”

“[The] activity and guest speakers changed my perception on the stereotype of all homeless individuals and that they aren’t all in that predicament because of limited education or low income.”

“I never knew just how many barriers there were in order to get into quality housing.”

“It changed my perception on those that are mentally, physically disabled. I especially didn’t think [about] the disabilities you can’t see and are unnoticeable.”

The object of the activity was to receive housing. But in reality, none of the students received housing. Instead, they received some form of shelter, if they made it to their third stop. It is crucial that the students not think that a shelter, psychiatric center, or other institutional setting is a form of permanent housing. When students enter the field of social work, we don’t want them to be satisfied with placing a client in a shelter. If students work with the homeless population, we want them to strive to get their clients in an apartment or other form of housing that they can call home.

Blog Post Authors:

picture nicole garcia
Nicole Garcia

Nicole Garcia received her Bachelor’s degree in Social Work from the College at Brockport in 2017 and will earn her MSW from the University at Buffalo this May. She is currently completing her graduate internship at Genesee Mental Health Center, working with individuals experiencing mental health and substance use disorders, and she also works as a Complex Care Manager at MC Collaborative.

Sydney Hull



Sydney Hull earned her BSW degree in Social Work in May 2018. After her year-long internship at Person Centered Housing Options, she is now looking for employment with youth and/or persons with developmental/intellectual disabilities.




University of Alaska Collaborates with City Library to Serve Homeless Patrons

Anchorage, Alaska is a midsize community similar to other urban areas in many ways and is home to the state’s largest public library, Z.J. Loussac Library. The library is a safe, warm, and welcoming place, but also is often a place that reflects community needs. Like other urban libraries, Loussac was seeing an increase in patrons who needed assistance that often fell outside the scope of what public libraries are traditionally equipped to provide. Sarah Preskitt, who came to the Library in 2013 as the Adult Services Librarian at Loussac, immediately recognized that many of the patrons utilizing the library needed more help than librarians and staff could give. At the same time, other members of the community were beginning to declare their resentment at having to share public space with people who were homeless or displaying challenging behaviors.

Indeed, the needs noted by Preskitt are real and compelling. A recent in-person survey of 739 library patrons conducted by the Anchorage Public Library found that 27% of respondents reported experiencing challenges, such as mental illness, alcoholism, dementia, developmental disabilities, and/or traumatic brain injury. Further, 24.8% of the patrons completing the in-person survey, and an additional 81 patrons who responded to an online version, were currently experiencing homelessness.

Not to be stopped, Preskitt began searching for real solutions. In 2015, she met Dr. Pam Bowers, a then University of Alaska social work faculty member, and the two developed a collaboration between the library and students enrolled in a social work practice with organizations and communities course. From that collaboration, the idea of developing a practicum site at the library developed. In August 2016, Preskitt began supervising Rebecca Barker, the first MSW social work intern at the library, which marked the beginning of a wonderful partnership to end homelessness among library patrons.

From her experience, Barker strongly believes that information sharing via a respectful therapeutic relationship can be a positive facilitator for empowerment and encouraging patrons to connect with needed services. Along with regularly assisting patrons, Barker developed a community resource guide for the librarians and staff, attended city homeless coalition meetings, and was trained as a coordinated entry site for the city.

“That positive relationship you build with an individual allows you to create confidence in that person to reach out to access needed services, which is scary, and overwhelming. But when they have the support and experience of a positive human interface, you create confidence in the person to take the challenge and reach out to access services.”
~ Rebecca Barker

Lib Photo 2 (1)This year, MSW students Katelyn Sonido and Tamara Boeckman (pictured right) are interning in two city libraries where they work with librarians to address a variety of unmet informational and social service needs for patrons, many of whom are experiencing homelessness. Each Sunday, Boeckman and Sonido staff a resource table (pictured below) in the welcoming entrance of the Loussac Library. 

Lib Photo 1 (1)In addition to working with patrons and assisting with referrals, Sonido developed a very popular weekly job lab that assists patrons with job searching, applications, and interview skills at the Mountain View Library. Boekman also provides advocacy work and assists library leadership with developing procedures for patrons who have violated library rules to assure due process. In addition, the two have presented to librarians and staff about trauma-informed homeless services and barriers to care.

“The library has become an integral place in the community to reach homeless individuals that other Continuum of Care agencies haven’t reached.”
~ Tamara Boeckman, MSW

City librarians and staff appreciate the students and feel they provide increased access and empowerment through information and resources within the library. This partnership has been so successful that the library is currently seeking funding for a full time social worker.

“The MSW students are better at asking hard questions and their training prepares them to understand what people need and where to start uniquely with each patron. They can help patrons prioritize their needs in a really skillful way.”
~ Sarah Preskitt

Blog Post Authors: Kathi Trawver, PhD (Associate Professor, University of Alaska Anchorage), Sarah Preskitt (Adult Services Librarian at Z.J. Loussac Library), Rebecca Barker, Katelyn Sonido, and Tamara Boeckman (all MSW students)

Catholic University Students Explore Youth Homelessness in D.C.

According to the 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, 9% of the U.S. homeless population (or ~50,000 individuals) is between the ages of 18 and 24. Most of these young people, nearly 32,000, were counted as ‘unaccompanied youth.’ This term encompasses young adults living on the streets or in unstable housing without the presence of a family. A recent homeless count in Washington, D.C. identified 211 unaccompanied youth between the ages of 18 and 24.

To understand the experiences of young adults experiencing homelessness in Washington, D.C., Pathways to Housing teamed up with the Catholic University of America’s National Catholic School of Social Service (NCSSS) to conduct a qualitative research study. Under the guidance of Dr. Linda Plitt Donaldson, graduate social work students within the NCSSS hit the streets to interview these young adults as part of a fall semester class on homelessness in the U.S.  Semi-structured interviews were conducted to understand the precipitating factors and current experiences of the youths’ homelessness, as well as to learn about the specific services that might support young adults in getting into stable housing.

Pathways outreach workers trained students in identifying and approaching young adults in locations around the city.  The team interviewed 57 young adults between the ages of 18 and 30, with a mean age of 22.  Of these 57 young adults, 27 reported that this was their first time experiencing homelessness.  Most reported that they stay and sleep on the streets overnight while others sleep at shelters, in the homes of family and friends, or in abandoned houses.  At the time of the interviews, the young adults reported having been homeless between four days and 15 years, with an average length of time in homelessness of approximately three years.

During the interviews, the young adults detailed situations that precipitated their current experiences of homelessness.  Many of these accounts included significant trauma and victimization, such as ongoing physical or sexual abuse. Others found themselves on the streets due to poor re-entry planning as they transitioned from foster care or jail.  Still, others reported having left their last housing situation of their own will – feeling as though they were a burden to family or due to overcrowding in the home.  Overwhelmingly, most reported that their most recent experience of homelessness resulted from being “kicked out” of their home by a family member.  For some of the youth, this resulted from “not getting along with” another member of the household.  For others, this followed rape or other forms of abuse perpetuated by a family member or a family member’s significant other.

CUABlogPostPic1The young adults shared the range of coping strategies they use to survive on the streets of D.C.  Many reported relying on friends and family for resources, such as occasional meals, showers, or a place to stay.  Others were honest about activities they engage in to “just to get by”, such as stealing or selling drugs.  However, amid their challenges and uncertain circumstances, many spoke of their strides to set goals for themselves and a drive to maintain hope for the future.

When asked about the single most important thing that would help them overcome homelessness, the young adults overwhelmingly advocated for the availability of more affordable housing.  This aligns with a recent statement made by Michael Ferrell, the executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, in an article by the New York Times detailing challenges associated with housing D.C.’s homeless population.  Ferrell stated that the difficulty is not the increase of homeless individuals as much as it is a lack of affordable housing in D.C.

In advocating for the self-professed needs of D.C.’s unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness, the NCSSS team offers the following recommendations:

  • increase the availability of affordable housing and supports to access housing;
  • increase opportunities for employment and education;
  • increase the availability of trauma-informed mental health and social supports;
  • increase service assistance to obtain vital documentation, such as birth certificates and identification cards;
  • increase the number of drop-in centers; and
  • increase implementation of Critical Time Intervention (CTI) to prevent homelessness for young adults exiting foster care, incarceration, or other institutions.

A final recommendation includes increasing efforts to support families to prevent youth homelessness.  Forty out of 57 (70%) of the young adults participating in this study talked specifically about challenging family environments that precipitated their most recent experience of homelessness. Respondents were often kicked out of their homes or left on their own due to crowded or toxic family environments. For other respondents, homelessness resulted after the death of a family member, causing the loss of their home. Still others aged out of foster care. Families need help to address root
causes of homelessness, such as the lack of
affordable housing, the lack of living wage
jobs with benefits, relationship conflict, and substance abuse.  Programs are needed to foster community engagement and support for these families within the neighborhoods in which they live.

When the young adults were asked what the city could do to assist in getting people off the streets, they requested that service providers step up their game in helping to navigate the housing process and be willing to “take a chance” on them. The participants offered their own words of advice with regard to ending homelessness among young adults in Washington, D.C.:

“Don’t give up…sometimes I give up on myself.”

“Focus on hands up, not hands out. Help people develop skills.”

“Take a chance on people. I just want someone to take a chance on me. Not everybody is trying to get one over on the system.”

11952697_855986404905_5378313742419667396_oBlog Post Author: Bonnie L. McIntyre, PhD student within the Catholic University of America National Catholic School of Social Services (pictured right) 

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.

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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.

More than 60 community members and students attended the event.


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.

Panelists answered audience questions following the film.

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. 

Like this post?
Check out this one written by Robin Petering, doctoral candidate at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

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.

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What Does Your “Perfect Life” Look Like?

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.

robinAbout 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.