Connections

LEARNING BY DOING

Research Counters Stereotypes

Homelessness discoveries inform the social work of Lindsay Fink and Sarha Smith-Moyo.

by Robin L. Flanigan

Sarha Smith-Moyo and Lindsay Fink

Sarha Smith-Moyo '22 (left) and Lindsay Fink '22 (right) completed their collaborative research project on homelessness in the Rochester area remotely.

Because of the stereotype, when Lindsay Fink ’22 heard the word “homeless,” the image that once came to mind was typically of older adults on the street suffering from mental health or substance use disorders.

But a research project this summer with fellow social work major Sarha Smith-Moyo ’22 changed her perspective about a population with some surprising characteristics — one of which is that approximately 43 percent of local shelter stays are by millennials.

“People blame the homeless for their situation,” says Fink. “They think it's easy to get a job, but they don't think about all the requirements — a residence, transportation, a physical exam — needed to get a job.”

Fink and Smith-Moyo combined their strengths to work collaboratively despite living roughly 230 miles apart, with Fink in the town of Greece and Smith-Moyo in Albany.

They examined Monroe County data on individuals who’d experienced homelessness in the Rochester area in 2019, and discovered that those who are more often chronically homeless tend to be in their 50s and 60s.

Even though student/faculty research opportunities were scaled back this year because of the pandemic, the pair completed their project remotely. Using Zoom and email, they interviewed experts, including local government officials, nonprofit organization directors, and advocates, and learned how systemic failures make it difficult to end homelessness.

Smith-Moyo’s takeaway: “Money runs the world. There are so many programs out there, and none of them get as much funding as they really need. It’s just an ongoing battle.”

Because of federal funding limitations, Monroe County shelters typically encourage brief stays, sometimes as short as five days.

“Five days is not enough time for anyone to get their life together,” says Fink. “The government needs to be more realistic.”

Fink’s perspective is supported by the facts. Conducting a rigorous analysis helped Fink and Smith-Moyo better understand the reality of creating change, and it boosted their confidence in working with data. The latter skill is important in the social work field “because evidence-based practice is here to stay,” says project supervisor Leanne Wood Charlesworth, L.M.S.W., Ph.D., chair of Nazareth College’s Department of Social Work.

Facility with data was not the only thing the students learned. “The interviews helped them feel more comfortable talking to people from various walks of life and different positions of power. In the end, that might be the most important outcome,” adds Wood Charlesworth, who received funding from Nazareth College’s SOARS (Summer Opportunities for Activities in Research and Scholarship) program to facilitate the research.

The team hopes to get a paper they wrote about their work published this fall.

In the meantime, Fink has an internship at Person Centered Housing Options (PCHO), a nonprofit organization working to address homelessness through the Housing First model, and St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center. Her work is focused on substance abuse and mental health issues.

Smith-Moyo is now interning with PCHO and UR Well’s Street Outreach, the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry’s street medicine program. She has been told that medical attention is only 20 percent of the equation, and that social work is the other 80 percent.

“I would've never thought how important my work was,” she says. “These are medical students and they’re looking to me — someone with absolutely no experience but because of the knowledge I've gained over the past couple of years — to help them better connect with this population. I feel like I'm a major bridge between two worlds.”


Robin L. Flanigan is a writer in Rochester, N.Y.

Update

In December 2020, a paper based on Fink and Smith-Moyo's research was accepted to be presented during the 23rd International Conference on Homelessness, to be held in May 2021. The conference was originally planned to be held in Paris, France, and has been rescheduled to occur virtually in response to the ongoing pandemic.