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:
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 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.