MOUNT VERNON — A group of Cornell College students is wrapping up work with a Cedar Rapids agency that provides services to the homeless to increase visibility of and empathy for the local homeless population. The three students worked closely with Willis Dady Homeless Services for eight weeks on two different projects. Tori Barnes-Brus, an associate professor of sociology at Cornell, oversaw the students’ community-based summer research projects.
Phoebe Trepp, the executive director of Willis Dady, said the two projects — one honing in on eviction data and the other involving videos and other visual components to share stories of homeless people — will convey to stakeholders a more complete picture of what homelessness in Linn County looks like.
“I’m really stoked about the fact that we have captured the humanity behind homelessness in at least some situations,” Trepp said. “We have captured that even though we report numbers of homelessness and data, it really is about the people that are affected and that go through it and that they are real people who have real stories that matter.”
Trepp said her organization sees about 1,500 people experiencing homelessness each year, meaning they’re either on the streets or in a shelter. On a given night, she said there are about 400 homeless people. Some people experience short episodes of homelessness, Trepp said, while others can remain homeless for a while.
Cornell student Nicola Etter, 20, studied eviction rates and the legal process behind it in Linn County. She found there are 766 evictions in Linn County annually, per 2016 data, putting the eviction rate at about .58 percentage points above the U.S. average, according to data compiled by Princeton University professor Matthew Desmond.
Etter examined the link between affordable housing and high eviction rates. Her research revealed that a lack of affordable housing was a key reason people get evicted. The median rent of $695 in Linn County is unaffordable to more than 9,000 renters, she found.
“It’s not necessarily that they can’t pay for it, it’s that we’re not providing them with the housing they can afford,” she said.
Now that she has armed Willis Dady with data, Etter said she hopes stakeholders are able to use her research to reach solutions that they can deploy to help the homeless. She said if the local government spent more on housing right off the bat, it would possibly save millions on police and hospital services down the line.
“When people can’t afford their housing, they’re much more likely to be evicted,” she said. “... Eviction is not inevitable.”
Cornell students Mia Farinas, 20, and Sloane Bartelme, 21, worked on the second project, which featured video interviews with Willis Dady clients and others to help create empathy for the homeless population.
“I think people often see communities that are experiencing homelessness and don’t really think about the positive things that they can do for each other within that community, but it’s so clear after speaking to everyone that they help each other,” Farinas said.
By that, Bartelme added, she means homeless people sometimes take on the role of homeless advocate, helping point others in similar situations to valuable resources — food and clothing, for instance.
Through their interviews, Farinas said people’s reasons for being homeless were all over the board, from domestic violence to economic struggles.
Bartleme said their work showed them homelessness isn’t simply a moral failing.
“It’s just not true,” she said. “It can happen to anybody. People view themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires, but the reality is that they’re just lucky homeless people right now. We’re all much closer than we think we are.”
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