Making a Class Count: Incorporating the PIT Count into an MSW Research Course

Most of us who work in the field of homelessness are familiar with the point-in-time (PIT) count, which entails using volunteers to attempt a census of people experiencing homelessness within a community. These homeless counts are a federal funding requirement from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but they also provide valuable information and insight about the prevalence, incidence, and scope of homelessness in a community.

Beyond these explicit and pragmatic purposes, however, homeless counts are also a community engagement event. A broad spectrum of community members concerned about homelessness comes together to engage with the lived reality of homelessness in their community. While some volunteers, like service providers or advocates, may already be familiar with these realities, for many other volunteers, participating in the count is one of the few experiences they will have conversing and engaging with individuals experiencing homelessness. Indeed, some research suggests that participating in a homeless count, and the resulting direct contact volunteers have with individuals on the street, can dispel and mitigate some of the common misconceptions and stigma toward people experiencing homelessness or housing instability. And so, as educators and researchers concerned about the growing distrust and lack of empathy toward people experiencing homelessness, we feel there is great potential to leverage the homeless count as an opportunity for the broader community, including students, to learn about and engage with homelessness.

Balancing Our Roles as Researchers and Educators

During the last couple of years, we have become increasingly involved in the homeless count in our community of Sacramento, California. In 2017, we worked with our community partners to improve the methodology of how the count is conducted— for example, helping design a more rigorous sampling and survey method to increase the reliability of the count. And in 2018, we continued this work to introduce various innovations to improve the accuracy of the 2019 count, from using mobile apps to conduct surveys to improving sampling strategies.

One of the innovations we are most proud of this year has been incorporating our Sacramento State students in the implementation of the homeless count. This past January, over 200 of the 900 volunteers deployed were students. To give a little context, in 2017, only 230 volunteers participated in the Sacramento homeless count, which had been typical for Sacramento since PIT counts began in the region. As such, this year was by far the largest homeless count that Sacramento has ever had—reflecting the sad reality of growing homelessness in our community (and California more broadly), as well as greater engagement from the community, stakeholders, and our university. From our lens that the PIT count is also a community engagement event, the larger turn-out of volunteers and increased community engagement this year represents in some respects a point of success and progress.

Recruiting More Volunteers and Our Students

One of the key points we advocated for this year was the need to seek a broad spectrum of volunteers to participate in the count and to do strategic outreach targeting volunteers who have social service backgrounds (e.g., direct-service providers, social workers, nurses, etc.). We emphasized the importance of having specific volunteers designated as team leads who could leverage their social services experience and expertise to ensure the count was conducted with respect, cultural humility, and professionalism. We encouraged the organizers to recruit and establish teams of volunteers with a variety of experiences and perspectives, with team leads who would use their expertise to help guide the team during the night of the count. We also argued that the team lead should be the key point person to initiate conversations with individuals on the street and to conduct the formal in-person surveys, which are used to estimate the demographic composition of the homeless population in Sacramento. We believed having experienced team leads, and providing them additional training on engagement and interviewing techniques, would increase the response rate of the survey and ensure that conversations were initiated appropriately. We also encouraged organizers to recruit volunteers from our social work program, as well as the broader university.

Incorporating the PIT Count into a Research Course

In our department, students can engage in research through a capstone course. To encourage student involvement in the count, we created a year-long capstone course centered on homelessness and the homeless count. In the spring of 2018, we announced this new capstone course. Traditionally, the capstone course resembles a structured thesis, where students work closely with faculty to develop and implement empirical research throughout their last year of the MSW program. For the 2018-2019 academic year, we pitched two capstone course opportunities—one on quantitative research and one on qualitative research. Students would spend the first semester doing literature reviews about an aspect of homelessness and learning about survey techniques and engagement strategies used in the homeless count. The second semester would entail participating in the count itself, as well as analyzing previously collected data to inform students’ respective empirical projects. The goal was to engage students in a capstone research project that directly reflects and impacts the community.

Approximately 60 graduate students expressed interest in the first semester capstone course. Due to class size constraints, we enrolled 40 students in two course sections. In collaboration with our Community Engagement Center, we also set up the homeless count as a service-learning activity open to all students and used funding from the National Homelessness Social Work Initiative to hold informational sessions to spark student and faculty interest in the count. One of these was a panel on myths about homelessness.

Student Perspectives Regarding the Experience

As the video above highlights, our students played an integral role on the night of the homeless count. Many of them expressed that they gained a deeper understanding of community-based research and a greater understanding of homelessness through this experience. We asked students what participating in the count meant for them. Below are some of their responses.

Student #1

I had never heard of the PIT project until my capstone. Initially, the thought of being sent out at night to the streets of Sacramento County to count homeless scared me. I was concerned about safety. Coming to volunteer, I was also fearful about conducting interviews just because I did not know how people were going to respond and because of my own bias. I was also a little nervous about going out with people I did not know to a place I was unfamiliar with. While we only counted five individuals in our route, and in the end were unable to do a single interview, I still enjoyed participating in the PIT. The experience gave me a new perspective and awareness of the homelessness issue here in Sacramento and how there are many people without a shelter suffering different adversities and in need of help. I can see that there is a need for services and support to help decrease homelessness. Finally, it was surprising to me seeing all these different people coming out to volunteer and give their time to go out to count and interview homeless people. It was nice to see how the community supported this event. I am looking forward to knowing the results of the count and seeing what services will be created or provided (if any) to support the homeless population.

Student #2

My understanding of community-based research was expanded through participation in training, volunteer registration, the count itself, and independent processing time with fellow MSW student volunteers. From the experience, I gained a critical, yet small, understanding of what is needed to implement such a project in a region like Sacramento. Key factors include organization, adaptable leaders, and volunteers who demonstrate respect for the integrity of the project and the value of the findings. Additionally, access to reliable and user-friendly technology appeared to contribute to the ease of data collection.

Student #3

To read about homelessness is one thing, but to hear the stories of those experiencing homelessness is quite another. With all my training as a graduate student of social work, my own lived experience with homelessness as a child, and a son of a mother suffering from severe and persistent mental illness, I should be free from all judgement and bias. But even burgeoning professionals in the field, and seasoned experts alike, are not free from the cultural context that surrounds them. We’re inundated by messages from the media and national discourses that attribute the causes of homelessness to a lack of morality or a desire to avail oneself to the resources that we, as the domiciled population, believe exist in plenty. But my interaction while interviewing individuals and families during the count challenged these internal biases. Maybe it is true that contact reduces stigma.

Given student feedback about how volunteering for the PIT count impacted their understanding of the realities of research and the experience of homelessness, we hope to consider additional opportunities for students to engage in practical, action-based homelessness research in our community. Further, as we consider the successes and lessons learned from our experience of building student community research experiences into our curriculum, we invite others who have engaged students in PIT counts to share their experience with us.

Blog Post Authors: Arturo Baiocchi, PhD and Susanna Curry, PhD – both Assistant Professors of Social Work at Sacramento State 

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Syracuse University SSW Hosts Legislative Policy Symposium on Homelessness

Addressing “The Many Faces of Homelessness in New York State” was the focus of the Syracuse University School of Social Work’s 20th Annual James L. Stone Legislative Policy Symposium held Friday, October 26, 2018, at the Onondaga County Legislative Chambers in Syracuse, New York.

As a central feature of our Bachelor of Science in Social Work (BSSW) and Master of Social Work (MSW) curricula, this event is designed to reinforce the importance of, and commitment to, policy practice as a professional responsibility. Each year students and faculty take a day to explore the roles that social workers, advocates, legislators, community leaders, and service providers play as issues affecting vulnerable populations emerge onto the public agenda, move through legislative processes, and as policy and programmatic interventions are implemented. The goal is to further strengthen the commitment of social work students to participate, as professionals and citizens, in advancing the ideas and values of the profession through policy practice. These symposia have been made possible by the generosity of James L. Stone, a distinguished alumnus (MSW ’64) and former Commissioner of the New York State Office of Mental Health. IMG_7131

Dr. Robert L. Okin (pictured right)  recipient of the American Psychiatric Association’s Human Rights Award and author of Silent Voices: People with Mental Disorders on the Streetkeynoted the conference, noting that “when you see homelessness up close and personal, it’s clear that it represents a severe moral problem for society as well as an absolute humanitarian crisis.”

Notwithstanding that “19,000 more people became homeless than stopped being homeless last year,” Andrew Hevesi, New York State Assembly Member and Chair of its Social Services Committee (pictured below with Amanda Aykanian, Research and Project Lead at NCEHS), warned that “the state has been walking away from its responsibility.” Relative to the expenses incurred by counties, New York State is paying a smaller portion of the cost of housing and related services for people who are homeless than it had in the past. Other presenters highlighted how they harness their own homelessness advocacy skills, with and on behalf of persons who are homeless, to educate the public and expand services. Still others, while also discussing how much remains to be done, shared their knowledge of innovative efforts to address homelessness in central New York, including providing “street corner” health interventions, constructing tiny home communities, forming coalitions, and implementing social services.

We invite you to take a look at the following videos of the presentations made over the course of the day. They are available for classroom and other professional usage.

Conference participants learned about the problems facing New Yorkers who are homeless  89,500, according to a point-in-time survey, including 526 in Onondaga County. When “doubling-up” with relatives or friends is counted, frighteningly, the Syracuse School district reported that one-in-ten students, 2,464, were homeless in 2016 a number only exceeded by the New York City school district. We were reminded that the experience of being homeless falls disproportionately on persons with physical and behavioral disabilities, communities of color, LGBTQ youth, people who are impoverished, and children and women, including families experiencing domestic violence. And, many of our presenters discussed the harsh reality of how homeless populations are often marginalized and unseen. They are sometimes criminalized, often experience a loss of personhood, and subject to routine violations of “civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, …especially the rights to housing and freedom from non-discrimination and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty).

IMG_7183This year’s symposium was well-timed to the Council on Social Work Education’s growing interest in integrating homelessness into social work curricula. We were fortunate to have the advice and presence of Amanda Aykanian (pictured left, with Assembly Member Hevesi), a Ph.D. candidate at the University at Albany (SUNY) School of Social Welfare and Research and Project Lead at the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services. She and her colleagues are working to strengthen social work education to better address homelessness and to expand field placements for students in homeless settings. According to Ms. Aykanian, it is important that social workers continue to advocate for change at all levels.IMG_7283

The importance of this work to the social work profession, and more importantly to people who are homeless, was driven home by Al-amin Muhammad (pictured right), founder of We Rise Above the Streets Recovery Outreach, a Syracuse organization recognized for its “Sandwich Saturdays.” He regularly engages large numbers of volunteers on Saturdays in directly engaging and providing food to people who are homeless. Here’s what one interaction with a social worker meant to him when he experienced homelessness:

“I was about to commit suicide until a social worker walked up to me. He remembered me when I signed up for the detox center and told me my name was at the top of the list. He’d been looking for me. This social worker saved my life.”

Later in his journey, he says, “I finally told myself I was somebody. All my life people told me I would never amount to anything, and I believed that, until the social worker told me that I was somebody.”

We are a profession that respects the resiliency and strength described above. Our profession’s work embraces the tradition of respecting the worth of humankind.

Syracuse University School of Social Work is pleased to be a part of the National Center’s New York/New Jersey Regional Network. We have many excellent field placements that connect to homeless services. We are currently infusing more content on homelessness into our course offerings. We will continue to maintain a focus on empowerment and ethical adherence associated with homeless populations.

The slide show below features additional pictures of presenters, students, and other attendees.

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Blog Post Authors:

Eric R. Kingson, Ph.D., Professor, Syracuse University School of Social Work, Falk College

Keith A. Alford, Ph.D., M.S.W., Director and Associate Professor, Syracuse University School of Social Work, Falk College

Alexandra Leigh Kerr, M.S.W. Student, Graduate Assistant, and Coordinator of 2018 Legislative Policy Day Symposium, Syracuse University School of Social Work, Falk College

REALSYT Collaborative Works to End Youth Homelessness

“The best work happens in collaboration, not  in a vacuum.” The origin of this quote is unknown, but it’s more than likely somewhere outside of academia. Researchers and academics, for better or worse, can often feel isolated, covertly competitive, and disconnected. This has contributed to disconnected community-based researchers that are reliant on small samples collected in single localities, limiting the ability to draw connections to a broader experience. In 2016, in spite of these traditional approaches, seven researchers came together in collaboration to overcome inherent challenges in the world of research. All with the shared goal of ending youth homelessness.

The Research, Education, and Advocacy Co-Lab for Youth Stability and Thriving, or REALYST, is a national collaborative of academic and community partners that uses research to inform innovative policies, programs, and services aimed at ending homelessness and housing instability among young people. REALYST members are interdisciplinary, representing a variety of fields and research areas. Some members focus on sexual health, while others examine social media use and opportunities for innovative service outreach. The co-lab holds monthly meetings where members can seek consultation from colleagues and use feedback to build their programs of research. REALYST researchers co-author peer-reviewed papers, using data from the Homeless Youth Risk and Resilience Survey (HYRRS), which to date has surveyed 1,426 young persons experiencing homelessness and housing instability across seven cities. Initial publications include an exploration of sexual health knowledge and access to HIV-prevention medication, service experiences of LGBTQ individuals, and prescription drug misuse. Learn more about the HYRRS here.

REALYST is committed to overcoming another common research challenge – making findings accessible to support service providers and policy makers invested in making evidence-informed decisions. Relationships between researchers and practitioners are integral to REALYST’s approach to advocacy and change. Community agencies assist with the collection of data, and researchers are committed to sharing findings with their community partners. A team of REALYST graduate students works to disseminate findings from recent publications via briefs, blog posts, and social media in order to inform policy makers and service providers, change public perception, and educate young people facing housing instability. In doing so, REALYST contributes to the Grand Challenge of Ending Homelessness by intentionally bridging the gap between research and practice to prevent and eliminate youth and young adult homelessness.

Together, researchers, practitioners, and advocacy groups discuss the data and its implications, brainstorming new approaches to service delivery and new research questions.

Interested in learning more or partnering with REALYST? Contact them here.

The REALYST team includes researchers and graduate students from multiple partners of the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services. This post was written by Jonah DeChants and Robin Petering.

JonahJonah DeChants is a doctoral candidate at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW). He uses community-based research methods to study the experiences of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness, particularly those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ).

 

robinRobin Petering, PhD is interested in improving the lives of young people who experience homelessness through community-inclusive research, policy advocacy, and program implementation. Her research agenda includes reducing violence through innovative intervention approaches.

Nazareth College Supports Local Project Homeless Connect

This post was written by Leanne Charlesworth and Jed Metzger, faculty in the Nazareth College Department of Social Work.

Project Homeless Connect Rochester (PHCR) began in 2009 as a volunteer-driven annual event dedicated to connecting homeless individuals and families to housing and other critical resources. Modeled after San Francisco’s Project Homeless Connect (https://www.projecthomelessconnect.org/), the explicit mission of PCHR is to “rally the city to support and create lasting solutions for homeless Rochesterians” (see http://www.homelessconnectrochester.org/about.php).


Homelessness Nationally
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, many low-income households face risk of homelessness due to the lack of affordable housing in their communities. Doubling-up with family and friends is one of the most common living situations just prior to experiencing homelessness.

According to nation-wide Point in Time Count data:

Most people experiencing homelessness are living in some form of transitional housing or shelter; approximately one-third are living in a place not meant for human habitation (e.g., outdoors).

Veterans comprise less than 10% of the homeless population. According to the Center for Evidence-Based Solutions to Homelessness, the homeless veteran population in the U.S. has steadily declined over the last few decades.

Chronically homeless adults, homeless families with children, and homeless youth are groups in need of particular attention in terms of meeting housing and service needs.


PHC 2016PHCR entrance interviews conducted by Nazareth College social work student volunteers (pictured right) indicate the one-stop venue serves approximately 700 individuals and families annually. Each year, about half of PHCR guests report they did not sleep in their own home on the night prior to the event; some slept with friends and family members, some slept in shelters, and some slept on the street. And, approximately half of those who slept in their own homes face the threat of eviction within three weeks.

PHCR guests roughly reflect nationwide homelessness figures. The racial and ethnic backgrounds of guests vary widely, and women and men are almost equally represented.

Following is information about the guests served by PHCR in 2017 according to completed entrance interviews:

  • Most were men (57.1%, n=349)
  • More than half were African American (54.7%, n=341)
  • Approximately 1 in 10 identified as Hispanic or Latino (11.4%, n=71)
  • Approximately 1 in 10 identified as a veteran (9.9%, n=58)
  • The average age was 44 (with ages ranging from 15 to 85)
  • Primary reasons for attending PCHR were to obtain identification, winter clothing, and linkages to services, such as housing and employment resources

As guests left PCHR, they reported high levels of satisfaction with the volunteers and the spirit of the event. Approximately 439 individuals completed a voluntary exit survey in 2017. The majority (85%, n=375) found participating in PHCR very helpful and 88% (n=389) stated that the event helped connect them to the services they needed.

As we approach its 10th anniversary, PHCR continues to be organized and implemented by a community-wide team of agency representatives and volunteers. The Nazareth College Department of Social Work plays a critical role within this team. Faculty members Jed Metzger and Leanne Charlesworth attend the PHCR Planning Committee’s monthly meetings, reviewing annual event data, and work collaboratively toward continuous improvement. Current efforts are focused on refining service provider and volunteer training prior to the event and during orientation on the day of the event.

Nazareth College BSW and MSW students comprise the majority of PHCR volunteers, serving as either entrance interviewers or guest escorts. Student roles are tied to diverse service learning assignments specific to distinct social work courses across the curriculum. Observing that many social work students repeatedly volunteer at PCHR during their years in the undergraduate and graduate social work programs, Metzger and Charlesworth have seized this opportunity to initiate scaffolding of student volunteers. During the upcoming fall 2018 event, seasoned social work students will mentor students new to the event, providing shadowing experiences and serving as a mobile help desk during the event.

Although all Nazareth College social work faculty members have supported PCHR since its inception, the role of additional social work faculty in orienting and directing student volunteers has become more integral to successful PCHR implementation in recent years. The scope of Nazareth College student and faculty volunteers has also expanded significantly to address the need for (ASL and Spanish) interpretation services, a stream-lined resource (e.g., coat, toiletry) distribution system, and transportation.

As PCHR grows in scope and presence within the Rochester community, the PHCR Planning Committee is working to ensure all service providers understand the goals of the event. New strategies have been identified to communicate with participating agencies including the design of an online training tool for service providers. The goal is strengthened connections with critical partners, such as county departments, shelter directors, and other academic departments within a range of institutions of higher education.

PHCR offers a few suggestions to other communities considering their own Project Homeless Connect:

  • Collaborate with local government officials
  • A host site at a large central venue is essential
  • Enlist leaders from critical sectors across the local academic, government, and service communities
  • Emphasize same-day service and resource provision rather than referrals

The next PHCR event will be held on September 13, 2018. Stay tuned for Rochester updates via homelessconnectrochester.org. Below are pictures that capture the venue and check-in process.

PHC.3PHC.2 2016

Nazareth College Supports 10th Annual Project Homeless Connect in Rochester, NY

Project Homeless Connect Rochester
Project Homeless Connect Rochester (PHCR) began in 2009 as a volunteer-driven annual event dedicated to connecting homeless individuals and families to housing and other critical resources. Modeled after San Francisco’s Project Homeless Connect, the explicit mission of PCHR is to “rally the city to support and create lasting solutions for homeless Rochesterians”.

PHCR entrance interviews conducted by Nazareth College social work students indicate the “one stop” venue serves approximately 700 individuals and families annually. Each year, about half of PHCR guests report that they did not sleep in their own home on the night prior to the event – some slept with friends and family members, some slept in shelters, and some slept on the street. Approximately half of those who slept in their own homes face the threat of eviction within three weeks.


Homelessness Nationally

  • Many low-income households face risk of homelessness due to the lack of affordable housing in their communities.
  • “Doubling-up” with family and friends is one of the most common living situations just prior to experiencing homelessness.
  • The majority of the population experiencing homelessness is living in some form of transitional housing or shelter; approximately one-third are living in a place not meant for human habitation.
  • Veterans comprise less than 10% of the  homeless population. The homeless veteran population in the U.S. has steadily declined over the last few decades.
  • Chronically homeless individuals and families often have particularly complex needs.

In 2017, PHCR guests roughly reflected nationwide homelessness figures:

  • More men (57%) than women completed entrance interviews.
  • More African-American individuals (55%) than other racial groups completed entrance interviews.
  • Approximately one in ten was Hispanic or Latino.
  • Approximately one in 10 guests was a veteran.
  • Age varied from teens to elderly individuals, with middle-aged adults most heavily represented. The average age of those completing entrance interviews was 44, with self-reported ages ranging from 15 to 85.

PHC FloorPictured right is guests being checked-in to the PHCR event. Guests report their primary reasons for attending PHCR are concrete: to obtain identification, winter clothing, and linkages to services, such as housing and employment resources.

As guests leave PHCR, they report high levels of satisfaction with the volunteers and the spirit of the PHCR event as a whole. Approximately 439 individuals completed a voluntary exit survey in 2017. The vast majority (85%) found participating in PHCR very helpful and 88% stated that the event helped connect them to the services they needed.

Planning for the 10th Annual PHCR
As it approaches its 10th anniversary, PHCR continues to be organized and implemented by a community-wide team of agency representatives and volunteers. The Nazareth College Department of Social Work plays a critical role within this team. Faculty members Jed Metzger and Leanne Charlesworth attend the PHCR Planning Committee’s monthly meetings, reviewing annual event data and working collaboratively toward continuous improvement. Current efforts are focused on refining service provider and volunteer training prior to the event and orientation on the day of the event.

Student conducting entrance interviewPictured left is a PHCR student volunteer. Nazareth College BSW and MSW students comprise the majority of PHCR volunteers, serving as either entrance/exit interviewers or guest escorts. Student roles are tied to diverse service learning assignments specific to distinct social work courses across the curriculum. Observing that many social work students repeatedly volunteer at PCHR during their years in the undergraduate and graduate social work programs, Metzger and Charlesworth have seized this opportunity to initiate scaffolding of student volunteers. During the upcoming fall 2018 event, seasoned social work students will mentor students new to the event, providing shadowing experiences and serving as a mobile “help desk” during the event.

Although all Nazareth College social work faculty members have supported PHCR since its inception, the role of additional social work faculty in orienting and directing student volunteers has become more integral to successful PHCR implementation in recent years. The scope of Nazareth College student and faculty volunteers has also expanded significantly to address the need for (ASL and Spanish) interpretation services, a stream-lined resource (e.g., coats, toiletries) distribution system, and transportation.

As PCHR grows in scope and presence within the Rochester community, the PHCR Planning Committee is working to ensure all service providers understand the goals of the event. New strategies have been identified to communicate with participating agencies including the design of an online training tool for service providers. The goal is strengthened connections to critical partners, such as county departments, shelter directors, and academic departments within other institutions of higher education.

Suggestions for Communities Interested in Hosting a PHC
PHCR offers a few suggestions to others considering development of their own Project Homeless Connect:

  • Collaborate with local government officials.
  • Secure a host site. A large, central venue is essential.
  • Enlist leaders from critical sectors across the local academic, government, and service communities.
  • Emphasize same-day service and resource provision rather than referrals.

The next PHCR event will be held on September 13, 2018. Stay tuned for Rochester updates via homelessconnectrochester.org.

Blog Post Authors: Leanne Charlesworth and Jed Metzger, Professors of Social Work at Nazareth College.

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.

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)