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WSU School of Social Work gets Humanities Center funding to study unique homeless population

June 5, 2014

WSU School of Social Work gets Humanities Center funding to study unique homeless population

Older men who become homeless due to a parent’s death are the focus of a new research collaboration between the Wayne State School of Social Work and Detroit-based Neighborhood Service Organization (NSO), which hope to identify the factors that place this unique population at risk.

Funded by a grant from The Humanities Center at Wayne State, the research will involve interviews with and observation of men in their fifties who seek assistance from NSO’s Homeless Recovery Services (HRS) after losing the parent or parental figure with whom they resided. Assistant Social Work Professor Tam Perry, who heads the study, said her team wants to know why these individuals are unable to draw upon the resources and social ties that keep others in their situation off the street.

“This is truly exploratory research, as very little is known about this group of men,” said Perry, who has published extensively on aging in urban centers. “It may be that substance abuse or mental illness has played a role, or a lack of employment or education. But what seems fairly certain is that these men have fewer social supports than the average individual. We want to find out why this is.”

Perry is conducting the study with Wayne State M.S.W. student Luke Hassevoort and Justin Petrusak, a clinical supervisor and program manager at NSO who has worked with Perry on research related to the forced relocation of older adults in Detroit. Petrusak, who earned his B.S.W. and M.S.W. at Wayne State, proposed the current study after observing that older men facing homelessness after a parent’s death are unique from other homeless individuals in key respects. First, they tend to suffer from chronic rather than short-term homelessness, which is unusual for those experiencing homelessness for the first time. Second, they tend not to draw upon government sources of financial or social assistance.

“It appears these individuals have one thread in their safety net – their parent – and when that thread is cut there is nothing to catch them,” Petrusak said.

At present, it’s impossible to quantify the number of individuals who suffer from homelessness as a result of a parent’s death because the federal database used by homeless services providers nationwide does not capture that information, Petrusak said. It’s also not clear why NSO is seeing more men than women become homeless due to a parent’s death, he added, noting this may be because women frequently have children to support them or more readily share housing with others during hard times.

In addition to identifying factors that place this population at risk, the study will explore whether homelessness due to parental death is unique to, or more prevalent in, Detroit.