Centre survey provides data on local homelessness
Published 11:20 am Tuesday, December 12, 2023
By Fiona Morgan
Centre College students conducted a survey on homelessness in Boyle County over the past semester, gathering local data that can be hard to track.
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The students are part of the Sociological Research Methods class taught by Dr. Kaelyn Wiles at Centre. They presented the results on Nov. 30 at the college, with local leaders, community members, and representatives from non-profits in attendance.
The class has done similar local surveys in past years on issues like substance abuse. Wiles partners with the Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Policy (ASAP) and the Health Department to pick areas of focus and distribute surveys.
ASAP Coordinator Kathy Miles said it can be hard to get local data on issues like homelessness and substance abuse, and organizations are usually left to use state data that may not paint the same picture locally.
ASAP helped with the project by speaking to students early in the class, identifying places they could give out the survey, and identifying the key community stakeholders working to address homelessness, who were then individually interviewed by the students.
Miles said that local organizations can use the data gathered by this class to help inform efforts to address homelessness in Boyle County.
“Local data is hard to get, and small communities like ours usually have a shortage of organizations who have funding to collect and analyze research data on local problems,” Miles said. “Although this study included a small sample size, it will, and should be, used by local folks as we move forward to respond to the complicated challenges of people being unhoused. There is no one easy solution to this problem.”
The class surveyed 25 people who are homeless. They distributed nine surveys at the Amen Corner, three at the New Hope Food Pantry, and 13 at the Health Department’s Syringe Exchange program.
“There is no one particular place to find people who are homeless; and in small towns and rural areas, homelessness is often more invisible, with more couch surfing, not being seen so much on Main Street, being ‘off and on’ homeless, finding abandoned buildings to sleep in out in the county,” Miles said.
Wiles said that 25 is a low count based on estimates of how many are actually homeless in Boyle County. She said that while it’s impossible to know how many are actually homeless in the county, and the number is fluid, some local estimates put it at three times that number.
“This is preliminary data collection; we’re just getting started with trying to get a sense of who is in this population, and what their needs are, and how we can meet those needs,” Wiles said.
The students gave their definition of homelessness, which is “those who live in Boyle County without a stable place to live. This includes those completely lacking housing, those living in transitional housing, and those living in temporary housing.”
Boyle County does not currently have a homeless shelter. Recent plans for a homeless shelter fell through, and no other organization has concrete plans to start one.
One Centre student said during the presentation that they believe that one reason people are hesitant to take action is because the problem is so complex that people don’t know where to start. However, there are local churches and organizations who provide food, clothing, and sometimes temporary shelter to the homeless.
Miles said she believes some of the most significant findings are as follows:
• The age range was vast, showing that homelessness in the county affects all ages relatively equally. Four age ranges between 20 and 65 years old were surveyed. The highest percentage is between 20-30 years old at 32%; the other age ranges were between 20% to 30%.
• More women than men were surveyed, with 52% being women and 48% men. They included options on the survey for transgendered or non-binary, but all respondents identified as cisgender.
• 44% of respondents had been in foster care as a minor. Miles said being in foster care is a less-seen risk factor for homelessness. Wiles said that in a future survey, people could ask more about adverse childhood experiences, such as if kids are exposed to eviction.
• Reported mental health conditions were lower than national studies indicate, Miles said. 36% of those surveyed have a psychiatric or mental health condition(s).
• Housing assistance was the number one need expressed, even over food. 82.6% of respondents said they could use rental assistance / affordable housing, and 69.6% said food. Miles said many people just can’t find housing in Boyle County.
Students said that their data supports the idea that homelessness is mainly a housing problem, rather than a drug, mental health, or other problem.
One student talked about the book “Homelessness is a Housing Problem” by Gregg Colburn and Clayton Page Aldern. Housing prices and rent have skyrocketed across the country, especially since Covid-19. Both national data, and data from the local survey, show that a lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest, or the biggest, cause of homelessness.
Students pointed out that a common misconception of homeless people is that many are actively addicted to drugs or alcohol; however, national data doesn’t support that.
Of the local survey, 36% of respondents don’t drink or use drugs. 36% are in active addiction; 12% are casual users; 12% are in recovery; and 4% are multiple of the above. However, students said these results are likely skewed because over half the surveys were given at the syringe exchange program.
Employment statistics include:
• 75% surveyed are unemployed; 16.7% are employed full time; 4.2% are employed part time and 4.2% are retired.
• 76.2% surveyed are looking for work; 9.5% are not looking for work; and 14.3% are unable to work.
• 66.7% have a total household monthly income of between $0-99.
Wiles said the ethnic demographics are likely skewed and not representing everyone who might be homeless in the area. She said they did not distribute the survey in Spanish, and there are a large number of white respondents.
79.2% are White; 12.5% are Black; and 4.2% are Hispanic / Latino. There were no Asian, Native American, or other respondents.
Wiles said another demographic gap was the LGBTQ community, as they did not ask whether respondents identified as LGBTQ, nor did they ask if that possibly contributed to homelessness.
Some standout results from the basic information questions where people answered yes or no are as follows:
• 60% have children between the ages of 0-18.
• 80% have had problems in the last 30 days with getting enough food and clothes.
• 48% have a chronic health problem or medical condition.
• 36% have psychiatric or mental health condition(s).
• 75% have been arrested at some point.
• 44% have been in foster care.
• 54.2% have been in Boyle County more than two years.
Students pointed out that some of the above statistics, like physical and mental health conditions, being in foster care, and being arrested, are risk factors for homelessness, not necessarily causes of homelessness.
Before experiencing homelessness, 50% of respondents lived in a home they owned or rented. 8.3% lived in a home owned or rented by relatives. Each of the following came in at 4.2%: lived in subsidized housing; hospital or treatment facility; foster care; jail or prison; and in a hotel.
The survey asked what people thought led to their homelessness. The largest events or conditions that respondents checked off are drug use at 41.7%; eviction at 33.3%; and lost job at 25%. Other events came in at smaller percentages, including increase in expenses, mental health issues, family violence, divorce, medical problem, alcohol use, and other things.
Students reinforced that the drug use number on that question could be skewed. 69.2% of respondents at the Syringe Exchange program said they thought drug use led to their homelessness, whereas 9.1% of respondents from the other two locations said drug use led to their homelessness. Students said that eviction and lost jobs were the most common responses at the food pantry and Amen Corner.
Respondents could check off the types of places they’ve been staying while homeless. 25% have been couch hopping with friends or family; 20.8% have lived in tents; 20.8% in vans or cars; 16.7% in abandoned buildings; 12.5% in a camper or RV; and smaller percentages in other places, including only 4.2% staying in an emergency shelter and 4.2% in transitional housing.
When asked what would be most helpful to them right now, 82.6% said they could use rental assistance / affordable housing. 69.6% said food; 60.9% said hotel vouchers; 60.9% said hygiene kits; 43.5% said employment support; 39.1% said a tent; 34.8% said showers; 30.4% said substance use treatment. Many other needs came in as lower percentages.
The above does not include all results. If people want a copy of the survey and results, they can email Wiles at Kaelyn.email@example.com.
One student said that public perceptions of homelessness can play a key role in making new policies to address homelessness.
Common perceptions about the causes of homelessness are that the main causes are mental health, substance use disorder, poverty, unemployment, and luck. But the data shows that homelessness is a housing problem, where housing needs to be secure, available, and affordable.
During their interviews with community partners, some people talked about the stigma surrounding homelessness.
One quote from a community partner interview is: “…[the belief] that people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they’re homeless because they screwed up themselves, is still pretty common.”
Another quote is: “So those individuals can’t get a job if there’s still a stigma, and if our employers have that stigma, then what other options do they have?”
Students created hypotheses based on their data. One hypothesis is that some homeless people can’t find work because they have a criminal record.
“An important issue to confront when discussing homelessness are stereotypes such as laziness or unwillingness to work,” one student said during the presentation. “When it comes to employment status among the homeless population, we must examine the various possible barriers that could make it more difficult for those experiencing homelessness to work, even if they are willing and able.”
According to their survey, 17 out of 18 respondents who have a history of arrest are also unemployed. Only one of those respondents who is unemployed with a history of arrest was not actively looking for work. 14 are actively looking for work, and two are unable to work.
Boyle County has many people already working on the issue of homelessness; however, those groups largely work separately and there’s not one official coordinated partnership between all the agencies.
One church in the area feeds people one day a week and gives out clothing, and food pantries address the needs of the homeless. However, there are currently limits on what days and how often people can get food assistance, which isn’t meeting the needs of the population.
Students said those helpful approaches need to be expanded and scaled for a crisis magnitude. They said while a homeless shelter is needed, it would be a bandaid to the overall housing shortage in the county.
One community partner quote is: “If you put a shelter in Boyle County, it will become a magnet and it will fill up very fast. No matter how big you make it, it will become the problem.”
Students said that community partners highlighted the need for a central person or organization to help coordinate efforts.
“There needs to be a central point, there needs to be a person or organization who coordinates and talks about and regularly does needs assessments. Who says, so you’re doing this meal on Friday, and you’re doing this meal on Monday? What’s happening to them in between? You know, who’s communicating with them to know when the weather gets cold, where are they going to go?” One community partner quote states.
Other efforts by local governments could include changing zoning laws to allow developers to have an easier time building more small but affordable housing.
Conclusion: A Systems Problem
Students identified three challenges and opportunities for growth in the local community: public perception, funding, and establishing structural solutions.
1. Public perception: The city’s ability to establish a homeless shelter is dependent on local attitudes. People can raise awareness to dispel stigma around homelessness and some of the misconceptions about what causes homelessness.
2. Funding: Locals have been writing grants, but could use more help writing grants. Some current grants in Boyle County temporarily alleviate housing insecurity, such as voucher programs. Students said they could expand those types of programs.
3: Establishing Structural Solutions to address Inflow, Response, and Outflow: “To effectively serve the community, we need a carefully designed policy structure implemented by the local government,” one student said.
Inflow refers to immediate prevention like short term rental assistance, landlord mediation, emergency support, funding, etc. Response could mean having a single point of contact for families as they seek support from the homelessness response system, and promoting structural understandings of homelessness. Outflow means getting families in permanent housing as soon as possible.
Several students said they appreciated the opportunity to have conversations with people who are homeless, as they may not normally interact with them otherwise. They said that opportunity made them more compassionate toward the homeless, and made them more thankful for their own lives.
Students thanked community partners that helped with the survey or were interviewed, including ASAP, the Family Services Association, Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, the City of Danville, New Hope Food Pantry, and others.