New social work class questions students’ opinions of homeless people

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    One of the first studies to come out of a new social work program at TCU concerns student’s views toward the homeless.

    To get a closer look at views that university students hold, four first-year graduate students recently conducted a social work project surveying students regarding their attitudes and perceptions about the homeless.

    Department of Social Work and Women’s Studies Program Assistant Professor Nada Elias-Lambert said the program is currently in its first year and the study is a class project, whose small sample of 54 students surveyed does not represent the university as a whole. A larger number would be needed to represent 10,000.

    Brooke Williamson, a social work graduate student, said seeing the number of children who are homeless spurred them into action. Using candy as an incentive, Williamson, Debra Flores, Shira Feinberg and Laura Hardin surveyed university students near the library, the Campus Commons and the BLUU. 

    “We had an overall willingness of students to participate,” Williamson said. 

    “Seventy percent estimated a lower percentage of the problem than there actually is.”

    The group shared their findings on Dec. 3 and hope their efforts will raise awareness on the issue.

    “Negative attitudes impact social policy,” Flores said. “That can reduce the amount of services provided.”

    According to the Department of Education, about 4 million children were homeless during the 2011-2012 school years, the group said. According to the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, more than 2,000 people are homeless in Tarrant County at any given point.

    According to their responses, a majority of the students held negative to neutral views when rating homeless people on scales such as those ranging from criminal to law-abiding, Feinberg said.

    “While they may believe society may have a responsibility to care for the homeless, they hold negative views on individuals who are homeless,” she said.

    On the other hand, the group said most students answered that they did not see homeless people as lazy or destructive in public.

    Department of Social Work Assistant Professor James Petrovich, who attended the presentation, said a fourth of the homeless are under the age of 18 and the fastest growing group is single mothers with children. The homeless population is diverse, Petrovich said, and while drugs and alcohol can contribute to homelessness, other factors include domestic violence, health care and housing costs, unemployment and disasters.

    A recent study revealed arrest rates dropped about 40 percent for Tarrant County homeless after they obtained housing, Petrovich said. Many of the arrests, he said, were for small, quality of life offenses.

    “The homeless are increasingly targeted by legal statutes and policing strategies that in effect criminalize most every aspect of living without a home–lingering at a train or bus station, sleeping in a park, asking for money on the street, cutting across a vacant lot, dumpster diving for food, and much more,” said Jeff Ferrell, sociology professor and visiting professor of criminology. “Housing tends to reduce arrest rates simply because it removes people from this sort of targeted criminalization.”

    Since conducting the social work project, the group has a better understanding of their own bias, they said. Their survey revealed 91 percent of the students questioned reported having had a conversation with a homeless person. The group did not expect the number of interactions to be that high.

    “Ultimately,” Petrovich said, “everyone should be involved in solving the problem.”