Real research: Elaine Williams examines how service providers can better serve needs of homeless youth

Featured photoElaine Williams.

Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing

When Elaine Williams was in middle school, her family was evicted from its Richmond apartment. Without a home of their own, the Williams family had no choice but to live with family friends for the next several years.

I was unaware what unstable housing or homelessness even was. It was my normal. 

“I experienced unstable housing in my childhood, which led to homelessness in my adolescent years,” said Williams, a senior in the School of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University. “At the time, I was unaware what unstable housing or homelessness even was. It was my normal. It was what I dealt with on a day-to-day basis.

“I wasn’t really aware of what it was until I was in high school and I was trying to go to college and my social worker told me, ‘You’re an unaccompanied youth,’” she said. “That’s the first time I understood what that actually meant. For me, growing up, that was just my way of living. It was just survival.”

Defining homelessness

During her first semester at VCU, Williams joined the Advocates for Richmond Youth, a “participatory action research team” of young people, all of whom have direct experience with homelessness or unstable housing, who are working to prevent youth homelessness in Richmond and beyond.

As part of her work with the organization, Williams has been researching the experiences and service needs of Richmond-area youth who are facing homelessness and housing instability but who do not meet the traditional definition of homelessness.

“Based on past research I have conducted on this issue, I have found that many youths define their living circumstances [differently] from the criteria that are used to verify eligibility for services,” she said. “Many services that serve youth utilize the traditional definition of homeless, which has caused a major disconnect between service providers and homeless [and] unstably housed youth.”

Williams’ study, “Exploring the Experiences and Service Needs of Non-Traditional Homeless Youth in Richmond,” will be presented as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program’s annual Undergraduate Poster Symposium at VCU.

“Through my study, I have learned about the crucial role that the definition plays in the lives of youth who may not meet the criteria of being literally homeless,” Williams said. “It also makes it difficult for youth to even come forward about being homeless because of the constraints with the traditional definition of homelessness. At this point, I am still working on collecting and analyzing the qualitative section of the study. However, based on the secondary data that is being analyzed I am able to convey that the experiences will be similar.”

A familiar pattern

Elaine Williams talks with representatives of Richmond-area nonprofits and service providers at a pop-up drop-in center for young people experiencing homelessness or housing instability sponsored by Advocates for Richmond Youth.
<br>Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs
Elaine Williams talks with representatives of Richmond-area nonprofits and service providers at a pop-up drop-in center for young people experiencing homelessness or housing instability sponsored by Advocates for Richmond Youth.
Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

Williams’ personal experience with homelessness, and the difficulties she encountered when seeking to obtain services to help, inspired her research.

“During the time that I was unstably housed, I reached out to services for help but was rejected because I was not literally homeless,” she said. “This experience helped me understand the barrier that the definition was for receiving services.”

Working with the Advocates for Richmond Youth, she learned that other young people in similar situations experienced the same difficulties.

I [found] that youth who were literally homeless were more likely to receive assistance than youth who were couch surfing or living in a host home,” she said.

Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Social Work and an organizer of the Advocates for Richmond Youth, worked with Williams on the research and supported her throughout the study.

“It has been really exciting to see Elaine extend the work of Advocates for Richmond Youth and her classroom learning from the social work program to take up a research question that explores one of her specific passion areas related to youth experiencing homelessness,” Wagaman said. “Elaine is a powerful community advocate who sees the potential in using research to influence social change. I know that her study will have an impact on how our community thinks about its efforts to respond to youth homelessness in all of its complexity as a social issue.”

In addition to the poster symposium, Williams will be presenting her research findings to stakeholders in the community, she said.

Williams, whose research was made possible through a VCU Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Summer Fellowship, said the project has helped prepare her for her future career as a social worker.

“As a future social worker, being able to use research to guide my practice [will be] crucial when working to change homelessness among youth,” she said.

“I would like to also work to make a change in the definition of homelessness [so that it] encompass the experiences of all youth who may experience homelessness and unstable housing,” she added. “I am passionate about social justice issues and challenging systems that make it difficult for people to reach their fullest potential.”

 

Subscribe for free to the VCU News email newsletter at http://newsletter.news.vcu.edu/ and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox every Monday and Thursday.