Understanding homelessness

Students in the College of Health and Human Development serve the homeless

Blair Weikel, who is double-majoring in biobehavioral health and community, environment, and development, found a deep connection to Hearts for Homeless through instructor JoAnn Foley-DeFiore's environmental health class. Credit: Kevin Sliman / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Homelessness often conjures up images of lonely individuals living on the streets of major metropolitan areas. However, the reality is that the look of homelessness can be as varied as its causes. It is present in large cities as well as small communities.

Nearly 40 percent of those who are homeless are families with children, according to The National Center on Family Homelessness. Some are employed.

The causes of homelessness are extensive, including the loss of a loved one, unemployment, domestic violence, and divorce. Other causes include mental health issues, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as physical disabilities, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. In short, homelessness can affect a large population, either directly or indirectly.

Students in the College of Health and Human Development often find careers in fields that serve the homeless. Whether they are administrators of health care facilities, managers of social services, physicians, counselors, or any number of other service-related careers, students will likely, at some point in their career, work with people wrestling with homelessness.

For this reason, the college is committed to helping students prepare to serve those who are homeless with care and compassion. Through both classroom instruction and real-world experience, students in the college are learning about this population, the challenges they face, and the needs they have.

In a new human development and family studies class, Associate Professor H. Harrington “Bo” Cleveland is introducing the issue of homelessness to his students. His class has two goals: exposing students to the literature in the area of homelessness, specifically adolescent homelessness, and allowing them to apply what they have learned in other classes about human development to the challenging situation that a person who is homeless faces.

“We learn a lot of things in other classes about standard development and the standard developmental tasks that should be accomplished during adolescence,” said Cleveland. “But what happens when people are in stressful and unpredictable environments? What happens to their ability to address these fundamental tasks?”

Cleveland said he wants students to take what they have learned in other classes and apply that to a much more stressful situation.

“I want to have students think about what they were doing when they were the age of the homeless youth we study in class, and have students consider the instability that homeless youth experience, whether that is living on the streets, multiple foster care placements, or living in a shelter,” said Cleveland. “Think about THON, think about when you were beginning to date; then think about what happens if you are homeless.”

Cleveland added that it is important for students to learn about what they can do concerning homelessness.

“It just seems so insurmountable,” Cleveland said. “To give them the chance to get involved, to understand what is happening in the community, and have them get to know people who are working in the area, so then they know they can do this themselves.”

The course also prepares students to conduct community needs assessments on homelessness. They learn what data have to be gathered, including how many people are homeless in the area; the demographics of those individuals, such as families with children, single people, and adolescents, and the resources that these populations need; and compare those resource needs to the resources available in different communities.

In the Department of Health Policy and Administration, Research Associate Professor Caprice Knapp examines a facet of homelessness in her health care safety net course. In the class, students explore the health issues surrounding those who cannot afford or do not qualify for health insurance and the medical care that is available to them.

In the Department of Health Policy and Administration, Research Associate Professor Caprice Knapp examines a facet of homelessness in her health care safety net course.  Credit: Kevin Sliman / Penn StateCreative Commons

Knapp said it is very likely that students who work in health care will come into contact with safety net programs and those they serve.

“There is a growing number of homeless who are single mothers, children, and working adults, and this adds to the wide variety of health concerns that must be addressed,” said Knapp. “It would be very hard for students to avoid this population, so it is better that they learn about their needs.”

Knapp said it is important to understand the health care safety net because it is in their own backyard, adding that students do not have to travel internationally to experience providing health care with limited resources. They have the opportunity to experience this in the United States, said Knapp.

“The safety net system is quite complex and comprehensive, and I think students would be surprised how much is available for the safety net population, but also how much more is needed,” said Knapp. “Learning about, and ultimately embracing, this population is the goal.”

JoAnn Foley-DeFiore is an instructor in the Department of Biobehavioral Health who teaches a class in environmental health. As a part of the course, she requires students to conduct a service-learning project in the community. About 10 students from the spring 2015 semester chose to work with homeless support groups in State College.

Foley-DeFiore said that environmental health is more than pollution and toxins. It includes things such as housing and jobs, or the lack thereof, in a community.

“We are all part of a community, and the health of the community affects all of us,” said Foley-DeFiore.

The service-learning project was aimed at having students think about issues that they had not considered health issues before.

“Students are familiar with looking at alcohol, drugs, and obesity as health issues,” she said. “The issues that the homeless face or some of the causes that create homelessness are also health issues.”

The students were required to complete a literature review and research before spending about 20 hours in the field. This is where students had their eyes opened, said Foley-DeFiore.

“They could not believe the humanity of what they saw,” she said. “Some of them were married, some of them had degrees, some were giving students advice. I think that was the thing that most struck students — they thought they were going to help a helpless part of the community, but they discovered that each person had value.”

In their projects, many students explored the reality of homelessness, some of the causes, and the human aspect of homelessness.

“As a society, we are missing what a homeless person could bring to a community by devaluing them, by having them be so invisible,” she said.

A key reason that Foley-DeFiore offered working with homeless support groups as an option was the large number of her students who will work in the health care system and treat people who are homeless.

A student in Foley-DeFiore’s class who worked with homeless support organizations was Jenny Oh, a 2015 Penn State graduate who studied biobehavioral health. She worked with a State College group called Hearts for Homeless.

Oh said that it was important for her to understand the homeless population because it is a serious problem that, if better understood and supported, could help improve the quality of life for a large number of people.

“They are our neighbors, and I’d be concerned if my friends or close neighbors got sick,” said Oh. “It’s the same thing for them.”

Oh said she wanted to learn about what it was like to be homeless so that she could become part of the solution.

Ginny Poorman, director of Hearts for Homeless, said the homeless crisis in America is a huge problem.

“It absolutely delights us when students who volunteered with us will go on to get jobs elsewhere and may volunteer or work at homeless shelters in their areas,” said Poorman. “Having student volunteers who genuinely care not only benefits us and our clients, but it benefits the students because they get a lot of hands-on experience.”

Poorman said students assist with many administrative tasks, but more importantly, they build relationships with the organization’s homeless clients.

“Students connect with clients through support services, such as helping balance a checkbook, as well as having conversations about some really hard stuff that our clients face, such as alcoholism, abuse, drug use, and affordable housing,” said Poorman. “The clients are really eye-opening for the students, and we often hear, ‘These people aren’t what I expected. They’re just like my dad or uncle or friend.’”

Blair Weikel, who is double-majoring in biobehavioral health and community, environment, and development, found a deep connection to Hearts for Homeless through Foley-DeFiore’s class. She said working there was one of the greatest experiences of her college years. In fact, she continued to volunteer on a regular basis after her project was complete.

“I could never have expected this to be what I would get out of a class project,” said Weikel, who added that before she started, she was afraid of what she was going to find at the homeless shelter. “I can say that what I encountered was not at all what I expected.”

Weikel is pursuing a career in community and public health, and she said that any population that is represented in a community is important to her health care goals.

“I believe all people are important, and people in the homeless population that experience health issues are often the ones that need health care professionals and assistance the most,” said Weikel. “I want to work toward establishing healthy communities that work together, and the homeless in all communities need to be a part of that.”

Weikel said that the experience opened her eyes to the huge range of factors that can affect a person’s mental, emotional, physical, and social health, and it allowed her to become aware of all types of community health issues.

“I encountered so many people that have simply fallen on hard times with no support,” said Weikel. “Most of these people have so much knowledge and experience. They just ended up where any of us would if we lacked support systems.”

Last Updated May 19, 2016