"I think it’s important for everyone to take a step back and understand that there are many reasons why one can become homeless.”
Saint Martin’s psychology students Lauren Curtis, Dana Henry, and Kiernan Hawthrone have been working with Emily Coyle, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, to conduct a survey of adults in the Puyallup area who are experiencing homelessness.
Homelessness in Washington increased from 2016 to 2017, and some state government officials and advocates for the homeless believe that rising rents and a dearth of affordable housing have contributed to the increase in homelessness. This past summer, a few members of the Saint Martin’s community worked on a research project intended to explore some of the underlying causes of homelessness in the state.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, a national legal group that works to expand affordable housing options and prevent homelessness through advocacy, education and training, inquired with Emily Coyle, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, about whether she would be willing to gather information by surveying adults who are currently experiencing homelessness in the Puyallup area.
Psychology majors Lauren Curtis, a senior, and Dana Henry, a junior, worked with Coyle to create the survey, which, as Coyle explained, was designed to assess the experience of homeless adults in the Puyallup area. “The questions ask about a whole range of possible experiences,” Coyle said. “Such as why they became homeless and what prevents them from securing permanent housing; how they interact with their children’s schools (if they have kids); access to shelter and barriers to shelter; discrimination they may have encountered by police or others; positive interactions with police; challenges securing their belongings; and use of emergency medical facilities.”
Going out into the field to ask questions of strangers can be an intimidating prospect. However, both students remarked upon the fact that the experience was different from what they had expected. Henry explained that she was a little wary beforehand about conducting the surveys, but once she went out and started talking to people, she discovered that there were a number of complex factors that had contributed to the homelessness of each person. “So many of them had simply fallen on rough times,” she said. “Whether it was from domestic violence, divorce, losing a job, or unexpectedly losing their housing, all of them had a story.”
Curtis had a similar take on the experience. “Many people I interviewed were living paycheck to paycheck and when they lost their jobs, they were unable to pay their rent and soon lost their place to live,” she said.
The students were grateful that they were able to participate directly in the research. “I didn’t realize that I’d be involved in the entire process. It’s been amazing,” Curtis said. “The most enjoyable aspect was knowing that we were trying to make a difference in the Puyallup area.”
In the course of their research, the students said that they came to a startling realization about homelessness. “No one is immune to homelessness,” Curtis said. Henry offered a similar assessment. “I think it’s important for everyone to take a step back and understand that there are many reasons why one can become homeless,” she said. “It can happen to anyone at any point in their life.”
Henry added that she recognized a connection between the work that they’d done and the University’s Benedictine values. “I do see links—especially with the values of listening and respect for persons. While we were conducting the survey, we listened carefully and showed respect to those who participated.”
Kiernan Hawthrone, a psychology student, recently joined the project and assisted with a survey day in September. The students will also continue to conduct surveys in Puyallup during the Freezing Nights seasonal shelter program, which operates from November through March.
Curtis, Hawthrone and Henry will be collaborating with Coyle to write a paper on the research, and the students hope to make a presentation about their findings at a meeting of the Washington Psychological Association as well.