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Grad students use anthropological training to benefit homeless

February 21, 2013

In the early morning hours of Jan. 30, a small group of ASU graduate students put their anthropology background and surveying skills to work on behalf of the Valley’s homeless.

Bioarchaeologist William Schaffer recruited four of his School of Human Evolution and Social Change peers to participate in the 2013 Point-in-Time Homeless Street Count. His team included environmental social scientist Anita Hagy Ferguson; global health majors Nahid Hiermandi and Amanda VanSteelandt; and bioarchaeologist Michael Moramarco, as well as Moramarco’s wife, Mandy Watkins, who works for Central Arizona Shelter Services in downtown Phoenix.

The annual, nationwide count sends volunteers into their communities to tally the number of homeless encountered and, when possible, interview them about their personal histories.

The findings help provide a clearer picture of who today’s homeless are, how they became homeless and how they can best be served. The information is fed to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which apportions funding for homeless individuals. The data is also shared with local agencies that work with the homeless, as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Schaffer, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran, learned about the street count via an email from the Arizona StandDown listserve. The StandDown is a three-day event designed to offer respite and resources such as food, showers and clothing, to homeless veterans, along with information on ongoing services to help them transition out of homelessness.

Schaffer feels a particular need to reach out to homeless veterans, who, in addition to facing the usual culprits, like financial setbacks and lack of available, affordable housing, may also deal with difficulties transitioning back into civilian life after their service.

“There is a large population of veterans on the streets, and many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues or traumatic brain injury, all of which can lead to a lot of other problems and cause a downward spiral,” he adds.

One of the five individuals Schaffer interviewed was a former U.S. Marine.

Others included a man who presently holds a part-time job and another who had recently lost access to food stamps because he didn’t have a permanent residence.

All of the interviewers believed that their anthropological foundation of approaching and engaging people on their own terms helped, as did the cultural sensitivity and social awareness provided by their academic training.

“I think that as anthropologists we strive to be accepting and tolerant of individuals from all walks of life,” said Moramarco, who had his eyes opened to the reality of the homeless during the event.

“At the trainings, everyone kept saying that the homeless, for the most part, even those mentally ill, are just like any other person. I wanted to believe that, truly. However, the years of stigma built up around them in my mind prevented me from accepting that,” he admitted. “Then, after speaking with a couple of individuals on the street, I realized how right the trainers had been, and how wrong I was. They were just like any other person you’ll meet, with their own personality, their own story, simply one of hard luck.”

VanSteelandt, who has extensive experience conducting surveys internationally, believed that offering her skills to the Homeless Street Count was a good way to give back to the community.

“I think Bill deserves a lot of credit for organizing the volunteers from the school and leading our group,” she said. “It was a great experience, and I would encourage more members of the ASU community to get involved in the next Homeless Street Count. ... Since I participated, I’ve been much more aware of people and things I wouldn’t have noticed before.”

Hagy Ferguson echoes that sentiment: “Being on the cold, wet, ghostly early morning streets of Phoenix and experiencing the environment that homeless people live in nightly contrasted by the kindness, politeness and accommodating nature of the people we interviewed gave me a greater sense of respect for homeless people and solidified my feelings about the positive nature of the research project,” she said.

Hiermandi, the only master’s-level student in the group, saw the count as an opportunity to reach out to others while improving her own skills.

“I was interested to learn more about how social science methods such as surveys and interviews can be used to study the needs of the homeless and how that data can be used to improve advocacy and allocate services,” she said.

She credits her global health training with helping her recognize that insufficient resources and social inequality sometimes lead to institutional efforts failing members of vulnerable populations. Hiermandi noted, “Institutions cast these nets for social welfare, but they let so many people just fall through. I definitely saw this with homeless individuals who should be eligible for disability or veterans’ services yet were sleeping on the streets.”

The survey results include only those on the street at the time of the canvassing and don’t take into account those temporarily housed at shelters.

Shelters are often at capacity, especially in extreme heat or cold, such as in the early hours of Jan. 30. But for some homeless, shelters are not a viable option.

“We spoke with one gentleman who said he would rather live on the street with his wife than go to a shelter, where they would be separated,” Schaffer explained. “Some have had bad experiences and actually feel safer outdoors than in overcrowded shelters.”

Schaffer is optimistic, though, realizing that overall, the homeless numbers are coming down. And he’s grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to the data that will help shape what resources are meted out and where.

“We were told to anticipate locating only two or three individuals in our grid, which was at the far eastern boundary of Phoenix, in the desert area near Phoenix Municipal Stadium," Schaffer said. "Instead, we found six. Hopefully, that will result in double or triple the resources being distributed to that sector.”

While he is launching a career in the field of bioarchaeology and completing his doctoral program in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Schaffer concedes he is making other, meaningful contributions. “I always figured that I would make a difference in a body of thinking, but I also want to make a difference in my community,” he said.