Homelessness: More than Just Numbers
New Ways of Thinking about Homelessness
On a February day in 2009, a troop of trained volunteers surveyed homeless people in two counties of Northwest Arkansas. They stopped people at soup kitchens, homeless shelters and day programs. They walked into wooded camps and searched abandoned buildings. They collected data from school systems about students who had no stable home.
Although Washington and Benton Counties were doing better than much of the country during the economic downturn, when the numbers were tallied for the Northwest Arkansas Point-in-Time Homeless Census, sociologist Kevin Fitzpatrick reported that approximately 1,287 adults and youth in the region were homeless, an increase of 10 percent from the census of 2007.
The very nature of homelessness makes it difficult to arrive at an accurate count. People move in and out of homelessness as the economy and personal circumstances change. Homeless people may be visible and accessible at shelters or soup kitchens, or less easy to identify when they live on the street or bunk with family or friends.
The Northwest Arkansas census counted homeless people at one point in time in just two counties. Nationally, an estimated 1 million people are without a home on any given night, and about 2.5 million people are homeless at some time during each year. The recession could mean an additional 1.5 million individuals will experience homelessness at some time during 2009 and 2010.
In addition to providing an estimated number of homeless people at one point in time, Fitzpatrick and colleagues interviewed 269 adults to give service providers the information they need about the characteristics, living circumstances, service use and needs, and chronic conditions of homeless people in Northwest Arkansas.
From Anecdote to Data
Fitzpatrick brings the perspective of nearly two decades of studying homelessness and related problems of mental health and substance abuse. He first began studying homelessness at the University of Alabama-Birmingham at a time when it was commonly believed that homeless people were just isolated individuals. In the early 1990s, his publications on friendship networks and social ties were among the first to examine the isolation explanation for homelessness.
“What we found on the initial assessment in Birmingham totally surprised us,” he says. “These people were as connected as the general population, when we looked at the average number of friends and social ties and where they were getting their support and how they were getting it.”
Ten years later, Fitzpatrick was in Arkansas, the language had changed and the assumption was that homeless people had no social capital.
“We learned through engaging in this community and looking more carefully that they do, in fact, have social capital. It’s called bonding capital, the kind of social capital that oftentimes low-income, disadvantaged people have. You’re bonded to people who are like you, and you help each other,” Fitzpatrick explains.
Oftentimes low-income people may not have much bridging capital, the kind of social ties or network that can get you a new job. The challenge for service providers, Fitzpatrick says, is to help homeless people build these connections to develop job, educational and housing opportunities.
In the early 1990s, little research had been done to understand who homeless people were. Governments and agencies were operating on assumptions and anecdotes. Fitzpatrick’s local county in Alabama – like most counties at that time – didn’t even know how many people lived under its bridges or in its shelters.
After conducting a census of homeless people, he and his colleagues in Birmingham – Mark LaGory and Ferris Ritchey – developed a comprehensive needs assessment. Between the unique value of the data – it was “a gold mine” that no one else had tapped – and the compelling needs of the population, Fitzpatrick’s academic career path was launched.
“While we were busy writing up our results for the academic world, we also fielded questions from service providers. We found we had to learn how to translate it into language that was not only accessible to the community but useful,” Fitzpatrick said. “For me that changed my whole perspective on the problem and I soon became as much an advocate as I did a researcher.”
Originally, Fitzpatrick and his colleagues in Birmingham were simply trying to understand who the homeless people were. Later, they examined causes, because people wanted to know what they could do in response to the problem. Then they looked at consequences, particularly the mental health and physical health consequences, “and for ten years that’s all we wrote about.”
Partnerships and Policy
Since arriving at the University of Arkansas in 2005 to fill the Bernice Jones Chair in Community, Fitzpatrick has reached out and developed partnerships with service providers. He directs the Community and Family Institute, which coordinates projects with foundations and service providers.
“It’s really rewarding for me. I see this as a charge of my endowed chair to act as a resource,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’ll never stop writing – that’s always going to be a part of how I am wired. But I’m wanting to constantly do more than just grinding out products for the academy.”
Today he hears from service providers who want different information. They seek new ways to think about the problems and new strategies. This new generation, he says, “is asking bigger questions about policy and what can be done in the immediate period.”
Fitzpatrick has a particular interest in how mental health problems and substance abuse can destabilize lives and trap people in homelessness. Decades of research show that depression is one of the most debilitating mental health problems.
“Regardless of prior history, being on the street is a particularly depressing circumstance,” Fitzpatrick said. “In the Birmingham study, the homeless people we interviewed were showing symptoms of depression at three to five times the rate found in the general population.”
Because depression is often seen as “an under-the-radar kind of illness,” Fitzpatrick suggests that service providers, nurses and physicians, and people who see homeless people need to be more sensitive to signs of depression as they “unravel the service dilemma” for the people they serve.
Fitzpatrick notes being surprised – and shaken – by the people he has met whom he wouldn’t have expected to be on the street – college graduates, lawyers, nurses.
“You know I could fill a book with people I’ve met along the way who aren’t who we think they are,” Fitzpatrick said. “Oftentimes, it’s a precipitating event — a fight, an illness, a loss of job, a debt that can’t be paid – that one event that pushes people out of a secure environment into the insecurity of homelessness.”
The tight economy and loss of jobs have swamped many lives. The effect, Fitzpatrick believes, “will be off the charts.”
“I think that you’re going to see a dramatic uptick in demand for services, because there were a lot of near-homeless people before this precipitating event. This economic downturn was all that they needed to go under.”
Demand for services is up all around the country. In Fitzpatrick’s corner of Arkansas, community meal programs are swamped. Affordable, accessible health care continues to be a big issue – more than 90,000 people have no health insurance in Northwest Arkansas. Seven Hills, a homeless program in Northwest Arkansas, is seeing hundreds of visitors each month, dramatically up from the 70 to 80 individuals they saw in 2008.
The people Fitzpatrick meets on both sides of the front desk at the local shelter have moved him to investigate ways to mitigate health care gaps. One approach that has been successful in other parts of the country is mobile health care clinics.
“Are we going to solve homelessness in the next five years or ten years? Probably not,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think that homelessness is complicated, and trying to find one cause or focus on only one consequence has been futile.”
At the same time, until the country creates more affordable housing and social support for those pushed over the edge by a series of precipitating events, Fitzpatrick sees value in plugging gaps and changing minds.
“You know, I think that if you want to serve a meal or if you want to put quarters in a cup, you are filling a gap. Those are simple acts, they’re short term solutions, but still they fill a gap. Addressing social problems is about plugging the hole. And about trying to find ways to change peoples’ current way of thinking.”
Sociology professor Kevin Fitzpatrick holds the Bernice Jones Chair in Community.
Making the Invisible Visible
When Bethany Springer moved to downtown Fayetteville, Ark., in 2006 to teach sculpture at the university, she spent some time absorbing her new surroundings.
“Because my research focuses on the idea of place and displacement, I usually approach a new ‘home’ with the question: What is seen and what is not seen? Usually communities exhibit both prosperity and need, but Fayetteville was different,” she says.
Soon it struck her that she didn’t see any homeless people openly dwelling in downtown areas in Northwest Arkansas, and that was a point of departure for The Homeless Project. With help from sociologist Kevin Fitzpatrick, Springer interviewed 27 people living in local shelters, makeshift campsites and transitional housing. Each interview has been edited into a three-minute video portrait with accompanying audio testimony.
As a touring public art project, the testimonies and videos are designed to be exhibited in storefront windows. Passersby in two Northwest Arkansas downtowns saw the videos on 40-inch flat-panel television screens set up in storefront windows and heard the testimonies through speakers mounted outside.
As an artist, Springer feels like she is orchestrating the voices of the homeless people she interviewed: “They need to be heard, and so I am trying to help by respectfully presenting their private experiences in public space.”
The Homeless Project is, in a sense, a collaboration between the artist and those interviewed.
“When experiencing art, many viewers seek meaning that is often consciously intended by the artist. Yes, I am editing footage and arranging sound and video clips to create a certain atmosphere, but the meaning and power of The Homeless Project lies in the testimonies themselves. So, the participants created the meaning. If people see this and are moved by it or begin thinking about our community differently, then it’s because of the weight of what the interviewees have told me.
“As the landscape of Northwest Arkansas continues to develop, it is important to address the needs of all community members, especially those whose presence is less visible. I believe that these conversations, presented in public space, will encourage open dialogues to address the necessity for stable and affordable housing amid extensive growth in Northwest Arkansas.”