As we research and design (and live), we are always throwing out “what if” ideas. A couple of the more (seemingly) “far-fetched” ideas that have been thrown out in conversation around the topic of homelessness: Let’s get rid of ARCH the building altogether. Instead of corralling all of the homeless people in one place, let’s adopt them out to various churches around the community. Let’s deliver case management services in one of those food trucks.
These ideas may seem odd because there are obvious advantages to providing many resources in a centralized location. For instance, even with many services for people experiencing homelessness localized around downtown, clients are still spending (wasting) a lot of time traveling from place to place—often by foot or by bus.
But there are also disadvantages—and opportunity areas.
ISOLATION VS. INCLUSION
All of this reminded me of some ideas from a past class about differentiated education for students with disabilities. In the history of “special ed,” students with disabilities have moved from segregated special education classrooms to inclusion in general education classrooms (although the issue is still contentious among some). This chart (from this book by Smith, Palloway, Patton, Dowdy) shows the four phases that have occurred in the last fifty years or so.
- Relative isolation (residential programs, or no schooling)
- Integration (considered special education students who were placed in general classroom part of the time, primarily for socialization)
- Inclusion (in all school programs and activities. students belong in the general classroom)
- Empowerment and Self-Determination
“While the changes in special education of students with disabilities during the past twenty-five years have been dramatic, probably the most significant change has been acceptance of the idea that special education is a service, not a place.” (P.5)
A SERVICE, NOT A PLACE
Instead of separate special ed classes, schools today usually offer a mix of inclusion and resource room services (either pull-out model of taking students out of the class for parts of the day or a special ed resource teacher will come into the classroom to help the student for part of the day). Inclusion benefits both students with disabilities and those without, as it increases the diversity and the learning/teaching opportunities for all within a general ed classroom.
Here are some reasons to support inclusion written back in 1984 by Stainback and Stainback (included in the same book mentioned above):
- “Special” vs.”Regular” Dual systems assume that there are 2 types of children. “In reality, all students display a variety of characteristics along a continuum.”
- Inidividualized services. Everyone benefits from individualized educational programming.
- Good basic instructional programs can be effective for all students.
- Competition and duplication. Competition between professionals as well as duplication of effort.
- Classification. Dual systems require extensive, time-consuming, and costly efforts to determine which system students fit into and then which disability category they fit. “Unfortunately, classification often is unreliable, results in stigma, and does not lead to better educational programming.”
- “Deviant” label. “A major negative result of the dual system is the requirement to place ‘deviant’ labels on students. To determine that a student is eligible for the special system, a clinical label must be attached to him or her. To routine reaction to the labels ‘mental retardation,’ ’emotionally disturbed,’ and even ‘learning disabled’ is an assumption that the student is not capable of functioning as well as other students.
Hm, sounds familiar to some of our research around homelessness.
SOME DISADVANTAGES OF SEPARATE SERVICE SYSTEMS
We all came into this with some pre-conceived ideas about who a “homeless person” is. One of my major personal insights as I talk to more and more people who are experiencing homelessness is that the term homelessness applies to a broad range of people. It’s such an obvious statement to make, but it’s hard to truly know it, it’s hard to get past the stereotype. There is a stigma around homelessness and ARCH. It’s true that many of the people who use ARCH’s services also have addictions and/or mental illness, but there are also people who you would never think to label as homeless. They are smart, funny, coherent, worried, stressed, angry, confused, depressed, hopeful, happy—just like you and me. They check email, have cell phones, bake pies, ride bikes, are looking for a job that is a good fit for their personality—just like you and me.
Every person has a story, and I would have never heard these stories if I hadn’t been in this class doing this project because I never would have wandered into ARCH on my own. Because ARCH is a separate place for “homeless people.” And going there would put me into a certain category of people. Just like a student with a learning disability would be seen under a certain light if s/he were put into a special education classroom rather than in the general classroom. ARCH is associated with only one segment of the homeless population, and it’s unfortunate (to say the least) that everyone who uses ARCH gets lumped into one category in the public’s mind. And there is this artificial separation between people who use ARCH’s services and the wider community.
Classification is also a common theme. We’ve seen the time and effort that it takes to figure out where an ARCH client should go for help. If someone wants help with job training, he needs to navigate the system to figure out if he should go to Texas Workforce Commission, Texas DARS (people with disabilities), or Goodwill. And within Goodwill, they have to qualify for either the track that works with people who are disabled, the track that is for fathers only, or the track that works with people who have barriers to employment.
Each program has its own specific grants and funding. Organizations are “competing” to work with the same clients, and their efforts overlap. Some try to specialize in certain areas, so they don’t overlap with other organizations’ services and funding streams. This often results in supply not meeting demand. Yet all of these organizations working with many of the same clients have a hard time communicating with each other. Clients often have to give the same personal information over and over again (even under the same roof), and they’re probably getting multiple messages in their a la carte system of support services. Just as with students who may have multiple teachers, coordination and communication among everyone is crucial.
“PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE” (AND JOBS ARE JOBS)
That quote came from someone Alex and Ruby interviewed, but it’s the biggest thing Kat and I have been feeling this past week as we talk to more and more clients. “People who are experiencing homelessness” sounds like a mouthful and may be too PC on the surface, but I truly believe it’s the only accurate way to describe the people we’ve been talking to. They aren’t “homeless people,” because once you hear their story, you quickly realize that they are not defined by their homelessness. That is just a subset of conditions that they’re currently dealing with in their lives ri
Kat and I are researching jobs right now: what barriers homelessness present in someone’s job search and job stability, and what job training programs exist for the homeless. We’ve talked to people at Goodwill, Texas Pie Kitchen, Church Under the Bridge, and in the computer lab and waiting areas at ARCH. In the following weeks, I hope we can introduce you to a man who knew he loved to cook since he was 11 watching the Food Network, a young woman who has found support at her church and is really good at making pie crust, a Philadelphia native who carries his “office”/laptop around whereever he goes and who knows where all the good coffee is, and someone who is new to Austin and who has a steady day job at the Governor’s mansion for the next few months.
We’re in the stage of our research where we’re inputting and collating and sorting through all of our data right now. My gut says…no—I abduct that the processes of finding a job, and of finding the right job for you, and of keeping that job…they may be complicated if you don’t have a stable home or a physical address, but there are similar processes all of us go through in trying to find a job.
CONTINUUM OF SERVICES
I want to leave you with two terms that are used in talking about educating students with disabilities.
- Continuum of services: The specific placement of students with disabilities falls along a continuum, and placements may vary from institutions to full-time general education classrooms—depending on how much individualized attention they need and how well they would thrive or not in an inclusive environment. I’m sure the services for people who are either currently experiencing homelessness or who are at-risk of becoming homeless fall along a continuum as well, and it’d be instructive to think about (and model) their options in this way.
- Least-restrictive environment: In education, this means students should be placed in the least-restrictive environment possible. If they can get assistance added into their general education classroom, they should stay there instead of being pulled out for a resource room hour or totally pulled out into a special eduction class. Which services for people experiencing homeless could be moved into less-restrictive environments? Into more general public environments? What different design challenges does that then present?