San Francisco Adopts Students’ Homeless Recommendations

By SAMANTHA BRONSON, USF NEWS Posted Mon, 01/14/2019 - 09:07

Over two days last spring, Molly Marsh MA ’19  and 17 other Urban and Public Affairs students fanned out across San Francisco’s District 1 — where USF is located — to count the homeless and record basic information about them such as their apparent race and age. They combined the data with in-depth research and presented their findings to District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer.

The city ended up changing its approach to homelessness in District 1, adopting the students’ recommendations of bringing in mobile outreach services and setting aside $50,000 for a homeless outreach team.

“This is what we’re all interested in — policy and implementing policy. This was a chance to take what we’ve learned out into the field, to get outside of our comfort zone and what it typically means to be in school,” says Marsh, referring to the urban and public affairs research methods course that generated the project. “To see the impacts of our research was mind-blowing.” 

First of its kind

The students’ homeless count was the first of its kind in the district. The city had conducted overall homeless counts in the past, but those did not specify how many reside in District 1. 

With maps in hand, teams of two students drove through their assigned areas and recorded the number of homeless individuals they saw — once during the day and once during the evening. They counted 51 people without homes, including children and the elderly.

Students went further with their research, interviewing homeless advocacy groups, city staffers, community leaders, and pastors and ministers. They formed policy research teams to focus on more in-depth aspects: One team researched other cities’ approaches to homelessness; another team generated a map showing homeless services in San Francisco. They found that no homeless services were offered in District 1. 

In May, the students presented their findings and recommendations at a District 1 meeting. Those were taken to the full Board of Supervisors and two of their suggestions were adopted. 

“This is a great example of how USF as an institution can partner with San Francisco,” says Professor Keally McBride. “The city benefits from our students’ educational process and our students’ educational process benefits from their direct environment.”

Change homelessness

The research methods course is a great example of how students begin to link theory with practice, says Rachel Brahinsky, assistant professor and program director. It’s always taken during students’ second semester of the program and allows them to build on what they’ve learned and encourages them to look for opportunities to conduct and apply research. 

The goal of the class, and of the program as a whole, is to be of service to both the students and the community. Previous research methods classes have studied criminal justice, policing, and community development. One student’s master’s thesis about sexual assault reporting and prosecutions in San Francisco resulted in City Hall hearings and the creation of a new city office dedicated to the issue. Another thesis was used by the city to support the creation of regulations for short-term rentals, Brahinsky says.

“You are contributing as you are learning,” says Brahinsky. “That we’re located in a place where students can step right into partnering with people who are thinking creatively about solutions to urban problems as they unfold and test new ideas is incredibly special. We are not just studying the community that we live in, but also supporting that community.”

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