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Published: October 16, 2015

CSSME Tackles Homelessness in Community Engagement Initiative

As an applied sociologist, Professor Norma Winston has taught cost-benefit analysis to her UT students for decades. So it was second nature for her to be involved in a community partnership measuring the cost effectiveness of an initiative to combat chronic homelessness.

Established in 2012 by the Steps Forward Initiative, Cypress Landing provides comprehensive housing and support services to Tampa’s homeless with the hopes of increasing their stability and overall health and reducing the utilization and costs of emergency services provided by taxpayer funds, summarized Jack Geller, dean of the College of Social Sciences, Mathematics and Education, who worked on the report with Winston and Assistant Professor J. E. Sumerau, the director of UT’s applied sociology concentration.

The team measured health and emergency service costs of residents prior to and after moving in to Cypress Landing and found an overall cost reduction of nearly $490,000. Read the full report.

“The data suggests we probably have to have more of this housing, not less of it,” Geller said. “You’re never going to eliminate homelessness, never going to eliminate mental illness, never going to eliminate tragedy in people’s lives, but you can mitigate some of the costs.”

Sumerau, who regularly promotes social justice, health and well being within and beyond academic settings on two blogs, is on the board of directors for a local association that manages properties for low income and homeless populations.

“I think the broader public should be aware of both how little some people have to live off and how much many people struggle to make ends meet,” Sumerau said. “We would thus — as a society — all do better to realize both what we have in our own lives and the importance of doing all we can to reach out to our fellow citizens facing struggles.”

The team presented its findings last weekend at the annual meeting of the Association of Applied and Clinical Sociology.

This is just one example of the types of community outreach projects to come from the College.

“When you talk about the aggregation of academic knowledge and human capital, the opportunities are tremendous at universities, but more often lost than applied,” Geller said. “My career has been about taking human capital and engaging the local community.”

Geller would like the College to act as a front door to the University for community members who want to connect on projects. His College might not be the one to assist, but they can help folks network through UT to the right people. The more opportunities faculty participate in, the more hands-on opportunities that will open for students to engage in as well.

“This has great application, because it’s what we are called to as applied researchers, boots on the ground,” Geller said. “These are baby steps but part of a strategy of extending our human capital at UT to the community.”

Geller has already pitched an idea to the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County regarding a community leadership program piloted in Wimauma, FL. And he hired a full time geographer to teach spacial analysis, which could have application in other community-based initiatives.

Both Winston and Sumerau are active in other community engagement projects, including evaluating anti-bullying and anti-child abuse programs in Tampa. Winston recently assisted with the redesign of a homeless survey implemented by Hyde Park United Methodist Church.

“I love doing this service work,” Winston said. “In sociology we claim to teach skills that will be useful in the workplace. Working on research projects for the community helps students to experience how these skills can be applied. At the same time, they serve the community.”

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