Business & Society

USU's Transforming Communities Initiative Developing Homelessness Landlord Outreach Program

By Steve Kent |

Video by Taylor Emerson, Digital Journalist, University Marketing and Communications


After this article was published, the initiative became the Transforming Communities Institute.

Social work students at Utah State University are working with each other — and building on the work of classmates who came before — to build a program combatting homelessness in the Bear River region.

Aided by a $7,500 grant from the Union Pacific Foundation, USU's Transforming Communities Initiative is currently guiding undergrads as they develop a program to engage landlords to fight homelessness. The program builds on some of USU's strengths, such as Social Work Department Head Jessica Lucero's longtime involvement on the Local Homeless Coordinating Council, as well as USU's emphasis on impactful research.

"USU has such a strong foundation for undergraduate research," said TCI Director Jayme Walters, adding that the reputation is helpful in appealing to social work students who'd like to get involved. The TCI is capitalizing on that strong focus on undergraduate research to tackle important but complex community issues with an approach that looks beyond the limits of a single semester.

As part of the TCI, social work students take a two-course class: A research course in the fall semester and a community practice course in the spring that translates their research into real-world impact.

The class is part of USU's Community-Engaged Learning program, which emphasizes hands-on learning in ways that make a meaningful impact in communities. The program works with faculty to help students design learning projects that fulfill course objectives while making a real difference.

Last year, the TCI had undergrads research often-overlooked key players in homelessness: landlords.

"We learned that landlords don't know a lot about what's happening with homelessness issues in this region," Walters said. "And then we also learned that they were really interested in helping address the situation, but really just didn't know how."

Alyssa Cronin was one of the students who worked on last year's project. She liked it so much that this year she's helping teach the next cohort as they develop a pilot program to get more landlords engaged in resolving homelessness.

"The majority seem to not be aware that there is that sort of large-scale issue in the area," Cronin said, "and those that do are either not aware of any other resources that are available."

When demand for housing is high, landlords can afford to get choosy with applicants, running background checks requiring more in terms of deposits and rent prepayment. If someone's background includes evictions, criminal charges or other events a landlord might interpret as red flags, they and their families may have a much harder time competing with applicants who are perceived as lower risk. Resources are available, however, that can help guarantee rent for those who qualify, or agencies that can act as intermediaries should issues with a tenant arise.

During spring semester, students are asking landlords what their main concerns are and what features the landlord engagement program could include that would be most likely to get them involved.

"We're currently doing those interviews and then the (fall) class that is in the community practice is going to take those interviews that are completed, the transcripts," Cronin said, "and they're actually going to develop a final product, a program that we're going to be working with BRAG, Bear River Association of Governments, to actually start implementing."

It's easy to assume that social workers just address the issue by focusing one-at-a-time on people experiencing homelessness. In addition to that approach, however, there's "macro practice," researching the broader view and involving more people.

In social work, "a lot of people are going into micro practice, which would be smaller projects working one-on-one with individuals," Cronin said. But USU's generalist instruction also includes "the macro, which would include community organization building, advocacy for policies, the actual research, the larger-picture pieces that you put together that allow people that are working on the one-on-one basis with individuals to have resources to actually offer those individuals."

Getting undergraduates involved in macro-level research helps them see how it impacts social work with individuals.

"Promoting self-change or individual gumption only goes so far when what someone needs is, 'Well, I need actual education assistance. I need transportation to get where I need to, to my job,'" Cronin said. "It doesn't matter how hard the individual tries if they do not have access to the resources that they need.”


Steve Kent
Utah State Today


Jayme Walters
Transforming Communities Initiative

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