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Resiliency in Homelessness

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Published: Tue, 09 May 2017

Problem Statement

There is a great deal of research into resilience in children, whether they are housed or homeless. However, there is less research about resilience in adults, whether they are housed or homeless. This does not make sense to me. Children’s well-being, which includes their resilience, is directly correlated with that of the adults in their families. Women currently earn 60 cents for every dollar a man earns with a wider ethnic pay gap (CCH, page 3). Families with children make up thirty-five percent of the homeless population, with the remaining sixty-five percent of the homeless population being single individuals (CCH, page 1). Get data on #’s headed by single parents, especially female-headed families. According to the City of Chicago 2007 Point in Time Count, the racial demographics of the homeless population were: African American: 75 percent; White: 16 percent; Latino: 6 percent (CCH, FAQ). Strength in the face of adversity is one of the most important characteristics you can have. Challenges and disappointments are inevitable in life. Resilience is one of the keys to life satisfaction. Resilience can help prevent depression, enhances relationships, helps us deal with sudden and unexpected challenges, as well as those we anticipate and cannot avoid. It also safeguards us against long-term difficulties.Given this reality I decided to investigate if resilience reduces negative effects of homelessness in adults and in their transition after becoming housed. The information I find can be useful for those working with adults who are homeless and those making the transition from homelessness to housing.

Methodology

I wrote 10 questions based on the theory found in a literature review on resilience. I interviewed five experts in the field of homelessness: Erin Ryan MSW, the Executive Director of Lincoln Park Community Shelter (LPCS) ; Ms. Jen Patterson, Director of Development and Communications at Housing Opportunities for Women (HOW); Mr. Steven Skovensky, Ms. Natalie Hutchinson, and Ms. Ann Birhle, are Resident Services Managers at Mercy Housing Lakefront. LPCS, HOW and Mercy Housing are located in Chicago. All five interviewees have at least five years working with the homeless and those housed after being homeless. I chose Mr. Skovensky, Ms. Patterson, Ms. Hutchinson and Ms. Birhle because after working with them from approximately 2000-2003. (I currently work with Ms. Hutchinson, Ms. Birhle and Mr. Skovensky.) footnote I asked Ms. Ryan after becoming acquainted with some of Lincoln Park Community Shelter’s graduates. I asked an Executive Director of another shelter in Chicago but there was no response from her. [Ms. Ryan’s phone interview lasted 30 minutes, due to a prior commitment; she later answered questions sent by email. Ms. Patterson’s interview lasted an hour at her office. Mr. Skovensky’s and Ms. Birhle’s interviews lasted approximately 40 minutes in their offices. Ms. Hutchinsons’ interview lasted an hour in her office.] footnotes The questions I asked each person were: 1) their definition of resilience; 2) if resilient clients behave differently than those who are less resilient; 3) if resilience can be taught; 4) if resilience can be taught in a difficult situation; 5) the strengths and limitations or shortcomings the clients have; 6) if men and women show resilience in different ways; 7) cultural, racial or ethnic differences in how resilience is shown; 8) how their organizations work with clients/residents to learn resilience; 9) if resilience can ease the negative effects of homelessness and the transition to being housed; 10) if there was anything important I did not ask them about

Interview Summary

Everyone’s definitions of resilience agree with each others’ and mirror literature. Examples of resilience given included: the ability to adapt to one’s circumstances, the ability to move forward when faced with challenges and/or barriers, which are different for everyone and have multiple layers, like jobs, families, and so on (Patterson, Ryan); the ability to persevere and bounce back under extreme conditions and overcome extreme barriers; ability to recover and rebound from difficult or traumatic experiences (Skovensky); an ability to recover and rebound from difficult or traumatic experiences and learn from them and create positive change (Hutchinson); Ms. Patterson mentioned that someone’s social network, which allows people to be more resilient; that support system disappearing is the worst thing that happens before someone goes to HOW. People need to use their skills and support network to navigate and rebuild. The adaptability piece – the ability to shift and change easily — is key. The resilient person has an easier time because life is constantly changing.

Barriers may include any form of trauma, like violence, loss, addiction, mental health crises, incarceration, becoming homeless, and the public health system (being ill and not having insurance). Primarily one of the big things of resilience is overcoming what would incapacitate most people (Skovensky). Responses varied when participants were asked if more resilient clients behave differently than those who are less resilient. Those less resilient might take a couple steps backward or not move forward in a way they thought they could. The person might move from the shelter to housing, found they weren’t as ready as they thought, and move back into the shelter. Some clients might need more support, such as a case manager in an on-site office or someone ensuring they take their meds daily or need transportation daily (Patterson). Erin noticed that often the hardest thing to overcome is a person’s stereotypes of what homelessness is.

LPCS staff encounters what appears to a denial system in place. More educated people often act like they’re better than others. People are sometimes unwilling to help until defenses are broken. It’s important to help people come to terms with it during what Ms. Ryan called a grief process, which some handle better than others. Some are more willing to network, are open to suggestion, willing to take advice, more open-minded and talk to people; they have more human connections. Those who are more isolated have a more difficult time. This includes people dealing with chronic illnesses, whether physical or mental illnesses. Mitigating factors can complicate things for people, with the admission they need help and the willingness to accept it being important. This is especially true with addiction. This also reflects the literature on resilience. which? Mr. Skovensky mentioned two things that stand out for him: 1) those who appear more resilient seem to have an element of using humor as a coping mechanism; they seemed to laugh, smile, almost incongruent with their experiences.

You’d think they’d be completely demoralized but they could laugh and smile and keep moving forward. 2) Using their creativity; using art, and/or writing to chronicle their experience. One person in the photography group saying it made him feel better about his life and his problems; may be more about self-esteem than resilience though. Somebody sharing their experiences in their writing inspired others in the writing group; it helps the writer and the audience (Skovensky). This reflected what Smith and her colleagues found. More resilient people don’t seem to be as stuck in past hurt or mired down. They have the ability to roll with the punches a bit better. More resilient people don’t personalize things as much, don’t say that negative things are being directed specifically at them; they can contextualize things better. it’s easier to ask for help because they don’t take things personally. They can rely on available resources more easily, feel more of a sense of community, and involvement (Hutchinson). Ms. Ryan and Ms. Patterson believe that the basic principles and concepts of resilience can be taught. However, imparting that information; people must be willing to put that information into practice. Some people say want to be told what to do but the most one can do is lay out the options available so the client can make their decisions from there.

As Ms. Patterson said, clients must do it for themselves. Mr. Skovensky believes that resilience may have more to do with personality. Resiliency seems more like a character trait or something engrained in our personality than a skill. Which paper is this like? Coping mechanisms, which involve specific strategies for dealing with problems or concerns, are skills that can be taught. Examples – understanding your support system and the role it plays; understanding resources available; understanding how to process anger in a way not detrimental to you or others; understanding it’s okay to say no to situations, don’t have to be all things to all people; only thing one can own is your own actions, not others’ actions. Resiliency, on the other hand, seems more intangible in how you can measure and explain. As a result it is hard to describe who is resilient and who isn’t. Like Ms. Birhle, Ms. Hutchinson believes resilience can be encouraged but requires a certain kind of outlook that can be modeled for people. Resilience comes from a particular way of looking at the world, a particular perspective, which can be taught. People who are more resilient feel more of a “we” instead of “us vs. them”. Anyone can teach anything to someone willing to learn. If someone isn’t ready for the change, then why even consider it?

People can be taught different ways of coping if the person is ready and open to learning it. This reminded me of the pre-contemplative stage described by James Prochaska and his colleagues. In this stage, there is no intention to change behavior in the foreseeable future; many people are unaware or under-aware of their problems, despite the fact that their friends and families are well aware of the problems (Prochaska, DiClimente, Norcross, 1992). When it comes to teaching resilience in difficult situations, there was some disagreement. Ms. Patterson said yes but also acknowledged that it is harder to take a step back from things and take a long-term perspective during hard times, especially if one hasn’t practiced at it. Ms. Ryan said she thinks different coping skills can be taught which, over time, can make one more resilient. People can also experience a shift in world-view as a result of tragedy or joy that can increase resilience, such as a cultural, spiritual, or otherwise awakening (such as hitting “rock bottom” in an addiction). For Ms. Hutchinson, it is either the best or worst of time to teach resilience, depending on the person. In substance abuse, it is similar to hitting bottom before being ready to change. A tree will bend or break in a strong wind. Resilience is the bending tree. Have to recognize the need for it, and be willing to try it. When I asked if people can improve on their resilience, Ms. Hutchinson said yes; like stretching and exercise, it becomes easier the more someone does it. Mr. Skovensky disagreed, saying he believes that coping skills can be taught but is not convinced that resilience can be taught, since he believes it is a personality/character trait. For him, it comes back to a person’s life experience and personality (Skovensky). I then asked about strengths they see in their clients. Ms. Patterson sees many strengths in HOW clients, including the motivation to succeed and improve their lives, the willingness to take responsibilities of living, initiative, determination, and the willingness to take control of their lives. The clients are willing to reframe their experiences and how they define and see themselves.

Ms. Ryan sees diverse strengths with mainly cultural differences. Some people tend to have stronger ties with family support systems, or churches or other groups. Also, those who have grown up without as many opportunities, who are closer to poverty, are usually a bit more resourceful in terms of using internal coping skills and resilience. Some cultures value the concept of community and it is not shameful to ask for help, whereas others value independence and self-reliance more. The “it takes a child” vs. “bootstraps” philosophies. In Ms. Ryan’s opinion, the first one is more helpful in terms of long-term resilience from something as devastating as homelessness. For Mr. Skovensky, the ones who have been the most resilient have some insight into their own situation, insight into whatever their barriers are (whether addiction and recovery, or mental illness). Having an outlet, whether it’s creative or a good sense of humor, that gives them the ability to place it in context. Having a good support system is vital. Resilient people don’t let themselves be labeled (like “I’m an alcoholic”, “I’m bipolar”, etc.). They exhibit a willingness to take responsibility for their lives. Ms. Hutchinson sees hopefulness, determination, a sense of purpose, tenacity, the ability to forgive themselves and others, the willingness to ask for assistance, and endurance.

When asked about limitations or shortcomings, the answers varied somewhat. For Mr. Skovensky, it includes the inability to build/sustain relationships with anyone (case manager or family member); flat-out addiction. A sub-grouping of that is a lack of insight into how an addiction can be affecting their life. Being unwilling to ask for help. For Ms. Hutchinson, the question about shortcomings was a one. She doesn’t like to think of it as a shortcoming because it is a value judgment in a way. For her, it includes: being challenged by past traumas, which clients see as making it difficult for them to move; have less energy for the present if burdened by the past or past trauma; weighted down; trying to find a quality and struggling to do so; difficulty accepting responsibility for decisions or actions. Those with less resilience tend to have an outward locus of control; things happen to them. They are more reactive than proactive. Resilient people have the ability to accept things rather than fight them; instead of why me, it’s why not me, it’s happened and now I have to respond. Most participants saw some difference in resilience based on gender. Ms. Patterson said there is an equality when the monetary dynamic and the accompanying power dynamic are removed. There might not be a lot of possessions or money but everyone was really strong because they want to find their way to somewhere safe. At REST’s women’s shelter, women seemed a bit more territorial as a way of showing they are valuable and contributing.

At the Men’s shelter they said “yeah sure, go ahead”. For Mr. Skovensky, it’s more difficult for women to succeed than men. Women have more barriers because the way society is set up. It’s almost like they have to work harder to overcome barriers and trauma. I don’t think I can comment on whether men or women are more resilient. Barriers include more violence (domestic, sexual abuse during childhood) against women, more stereotyping and expectation of what women’s roles are, exploitation of women on the street (prostitution), unequal power dynamic in society. The literature I found does not explore differences and similarities in how men and women show resilience and the role socialization plays in those behaviors. Ms. Birhle and Ms. Hutchinson agreed that men and women display differences due to gender socialization playing a role. Sometimes men think they have to be rugged individualists. As a result it may more difficult for them to ask for help in certain things; be vulnerable or show vulnerable feelings (Hutchinson). While Ms. Birhle does not subscribe to women are this way and men are a different way, she noticed that it takes men more time to ask for help. They try to suck it up, saying “I can handle it.” Ms. Ryan said there were differences at a surface level but not much individually.

The issues are the same with men and women exhibiting similar reactions. I asked Ms. Hutchinson and Ms. Birhle if there are any differences along racial or ethnic lines. Ms. Hutchinson said that it might have more to do with class issues then ethnicity. It’s about access to resources in a way. If you don’t have resources, it plays a bigger role than ethnicity or race, which is more about economics than race or ethnicity. If people feel there is a place to reach out to they’ll do it. We can find differences in places people have access to resources than the role race plays, which tends to be more monetary. A white person may have skin privilege. A white person might not feel harassed in a store where a person of color does. I consider this to be significant since she is black. Ms. Birhle noticed it mainly with minority communities. African-Americans and Asians tend to ________ more of a stigma; as a result members of those communities tend to a harder time doing it. Asians are more private; mental illness is considered a problem and they might not get help. African-American people in our society have adapted to more oppressive situations and probably been resilient to racism and lack of great opportunity. On the one hand, African-Americans can be really resilient because they have always dealt with a lot; black people have to work harder. On the other hand, the environment contributes to a lot of problems, whether violence or poor education and not seeing a way out. It is different for whites. Blacks having less access to resources and racism, which is institutionalized in society. There is a similarity class-wise (economically) across race and ethnicity but whites don’t have the issue of race in this society

Interview Summary 2

I asked what the organizations do to help their clients with resilience. Ms. Patterson said that HOW teaches their clients what they need to do but won’t do it for them. I was unable to ask Ms. Ryan. The LPCS website mentions three tracks clients can participate in that help with substance abuse recovery, mental and physical health, and job hunting. These tracks helps clients identify and address the reasons why they are homelessness and the barriers they face to becoming self-sufficient. Clients are required to participate in one or more track. These programs reflect information about resilience in terms of the capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out; a positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities; skills in communication and problem solving and finding help. Mercy Housing Lakefront provides many services and programs for its residents. Mercy Housing Lakefront’s model of engagement of providing supportive housing with on-site case management and trying to treat people like adults and not forcing them to make changes and dealing with people where they’re at, I think in developing a good relationship with them, developing a community. Mercy Housing Lakefront also: 1) tries to provide a lot of activities the form of Tenant Leadership program, creative opportunities (writing group, art group); 2) trying to provide a home, a safe place; 3) referral to local services and benefits when residents ask for referrals (Birhle). offer encouragement and support that may strengthen or encourage resiliency through case management and groups, they work with people to develop coping skills (Skovensky). There is a program at the Belray Apartments called ‘Motivation Mondays’, which helps provide motivation for changing participants’ lives for the better. Group members gather resources emotionally, talk about self as a whole being. Participants are asked what they want to accomplish, what their barriers are, and what support do they need (Hutchinson). My last question was if resilience eases the negative effects of homelessness. Four of the five interviewees said yes. For Ms. Ryan, the more quickly people adapt, the more quickly they’re out of it, bounce back and avoid a downward spiral. Resilience includes: capacity to make realistic plans and carry them out; positive view of oneself; self-confidence; communication skills and problem-solving skills; capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses (Ryan). Ms. Patterson stated that resilience helps people cope with the challenges, identify solutions and act on them. Resilience may not change the challenges and barriers people face but can help people cope (Patterson). For Ms. Hutchinson, resilience eases the negative effect of any trauma. Homelessness can be recognized as a temporary state. If they are resilient, they recognize they will come out of it and can come out of it. Their comments strongly reflect literature on resilience. Mr. Skovensky found it hard to answer that question, not experienced it himself. For him, he thinks it does help as a means of overcoming the negative effects

The last question

The last question asked if resilience helps people make the transition from homelessness to being housed. One reason I asked this question is I couldn’t find anything in literature about this subject. Four of the five said yes. Ms. Patterson said that being housed presents a different set of challenges than being homeless. [ The challenges include maintaining a budget and home, developing relationships with the landlord and neighbors, connecting with area resources.

Ms. Ryan relates resilience closely with adaptability. The better able someone is to adapt to a new situation, the more resilient they are. Making the transition from homelessness to housing is a big change, and requires adaptability in order to handle it well, especially if someone has been homeless for a long period of time.] [Ms. Hutchinson stated that resiliency is a positive quality which helps you move from one place to another. It is a response to stressors.

For Ms. Birhle the staff noticed that for some residents – those less resilient – homelessness takes such a toll, they are tired and want to just have their apartment. The more resilient a person is, the better able they are to adapt, and adapt to changes that are huge and stressful, recognizing when they need help and asking for it.] Mr. Skovensky hopes resilience helps with that transition. They want people to know the services and groups that are available at the building and in community. The Delmar Apartments conducts a new tenant orientation, providing a cohort the person can be part of as a support system. This reflects the need for a support system – in literature. I asked Ms. Hutchinson if there was anything I didn’t ask that she considered to be important. She couldn’t think of anything then began a dialog with me. She asked what I think is the core aspect of resilience?

What is the most important thing, where if that one thing is absent you can’t have resiliency? My answer was determination, tenacity; if you don’t have it, you’re not going anywhere. Ms. Hutchinson then ask: What about endurance? My response was that stepping back to recharge one’s batteries isn’t the same as quitting. Ms. Hutchinson said that maybe part of it too is planning; we can’t be reactive all the time. Spending time to reflect is important since it is needed for recharging and learning. The ability to reflect on your experiences is so important; allowing us the space for reflective thought. These important questions and the concepts they represent are not mentioned in the literature I found.

Recommendations

Study adult population and resilience. How does resilience help adults, especially those experiencing adversity? Study how resilience helps those making the transition from homelessness to being housed. Tailor services to what the person or family wants and needs. The decision as to what services the family or individual partake in should be a collaboration between the clients and service-providers. Study how Prochaska’s work on whether the stages of change relate to resilience. Why or why not? How can people be encouraged to move out of pre-contemplation and powerlessness to making positive changes? Study to learn best practices on what services best bolster and/or teach resilience. What are the best practices on learning how to turn negative experiences into lessons of growth. Study how tenacity, determination, endurance and reflecting on one’s experiences relate to resilience. What role do those qualities play in resilience, if any? Study what the core aspect of resilience is, where resilience does not exist if that aspect is absent. Study how to ¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬____________ that aspect Many articles about building resilience are available on-line. This is unavailable for those without Internet connections and looking for information. How do creative arts (including art, writing, photography, and so on) play in resilience? How to they ______ resilience? Workshops and training classes on building resilience are available in many places. However, cost may be prohibitive to anyone with a low-income or unable to take time off work or lacks transportation to the workshop. Insurance, whether public or private, could pay for attending these workshops. Carpooling can provide transportation for those lacking transit. Emphasizing employment as the main route out of poverty misses the mark, especially lacking an adequate education, and support system (childcare, adequate mental health, and so on). Explore the differences and similarities in how men and women show resilience and the role socialization plays in those behaviors.


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