Really Understanding Homelessness: How the University Can Contribute
Bill Birdsall (U of M, School of Social Work)
Monday, 4/13/2015. ARCHIVED EVENT
Location: 6050 ISR Thompson St
My intention is to propose that a group of U of M institutions, including Schools like Social Work, Public Health, and Public Policy, but also ISR to be sure, form a consortium to encourage research on Washtenaw county homelessness and the agencies and organizations that serve the homeless, carried out in collaboration with the community of the homeless insofar as that exists. I have very strong views on both why we should do that and what should be involved in our doing it. The strength of those views is counterbalanced if not contradicted by two things; one is my firm belief that very good research, maybe better research, on those topics may be carried out independent of the consortium. Secondly, even though I have the outline of a program that I hope would enable that research to be successful, I fully realize my considerable limitations as a research planner. That is part of the reason that I am so pleased to explain my thoughts to experienced researchers here at ISR. Population Studies is an especially appropriate local within ISR because sampling the homeless is itself a great challenge.
Non academic aspects of my life are very relevant to my talk, so my bio is a little broader that it would otherwise be. I will try to be brief. In 1953, mid way through college, I joined the Jesuits. While a Jesuit I studied philosophy, economics, and theology, in that order. I was ordained a Catholic priest in 1966, spent two years with two other Jesuits living in a Black slum in Washington, D. C. while working as a research economist for the Social Security Administration. Getting to know lots of poor people on a day-to-day basis shook up any simple solutions to poverty I may have entertained. I will probably talk about a couple of examples from those days. In 1969 I left the Jesuits and the priesthood to marry. In 1973, I began a 29 year stint teaching policy, research methods, statistics, and program evaluation in the University of Michigan's School of Social Work. I was involved off and on with projects at ISR; in 1989 I was lucky enough to be the PI for the Detroit Area Study to learn about attitudes toward the housing of the frail elderly.
The date 1/1/1 seemed propitious, so I retired then although I have continued to teach a sophomore honors seminar in LS&A on the evolution of cognition and I dabble in analyzing the consequences of drinking and smoking using the CDC's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System surveys.
Over the last four years I have been involved with the homeless in Ann Arbor, enjoying a communal meal with some of them several times a month, observing their efforts to govern themselves, and supporting MISSION, a local non-profit dedicated to helping the homeless, helping them obtain a house from which to serve the homeless. What I have learned from this "internship" is very important to the substance of my talk.
In 2014, Caleb Poirier, the 2007 founder of the local tent community of homeless people called Camp Take Notice, invited three UM doctoral students to study the consequences of obtaining housing via a tent- or tiny-house-community. Shortly after that I joined the group and having been involved since in designing what I have learned to call community based research. That brings me up to NOW.