The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that more than 3 million people, 1.35 million of them children, experience homelessness in a given year. In today’s economy, even more people are at risk.
More than ever, it is crucial to understand how to help them. The key is in getting a handle on support systems, says sociology major Iraimi Mercado ’12. For her senior thesis, she spent months researching homelessness, focusing on how services impact the lives of women and children living in emergency shelters. She’s hoping her findings can offer policy makers guidance as they create regulations that impact families.
Her research involved one-on-one interviews with single mothers living at the Old Colony YMCA Family Life Center in Brockton, Mass. She explored which services over what period of time have helped them.
“I wanted to see how the services have changed over the years and whether the Old Colony Y has found new ways to help women transition into their own apartments,” Mercado says. “Massachusetts state officials have changed policies that regulate how long families can stay in emergency shelter programs, to push people through at a faster rate. Transitional housing programs, which are supposed to be long term, are different from short-term emergency shelters. But many of the long-term programs have become short-term emergency shelters.”
Sociology major Iraimi Mercado ’12
The Old Colony Y’s program is one that has changed. The shift has occurred as federal and state officials aim to address homelessness by working on prevention strategies and improving access to affordable housing. However, says Mercado, “Officials who make these policies need to realize that every family has different needs. Some families may need only six months in emergency shelter programs, but there are families who need much more time. In my interviews, I’ve seen that the support women receive in programs is really important long term for them to build the confidence to access services and to develop plans that will help them become self-sufficient.”
Mercado, who is the treasurer of iSpeak!, a peer advisor for the Global Center for Education and an ambassador for the Institute for Study Abroad, has been interested in researching homelessness since her freshman year at Wheaton, when she wrote a paper on the myths about homeless people for her First-Year Seminar. This year she presented her thesis, “Redefinition of Home: An Analysis of Services Provided to Homeless Families,” at the Sociology and Anthropology Senior Symposium at Wheaton.
“Homeless families headed by single women are the fastest-growing homeless population across the country. I’m interested in looking at this particular population because there has not been enough research done on them,” says Mercado, who in the past lived in transitional housing at the Old Colony YMCA when her mother had trouble finding permanent work.
Mercado’s research is unique, largely because of that personal connection that gave her the access and trust she needed to interview research subjects, notes Assistant Professor of Sociology Karen McCormack, her thesis advisor. “They allowed her in and shared stories with her that they would hesitate to share with others. The impressive piece is that she manages to link what she is finding—personal narratives—with public policy. She tries to always stay focused on the implications of these cases for designing and implementing policies, and she is coming to see the relationship between governmental policy, local institutions, and women’s daily lives. She is uniquely positioned to have some impact, since she does a lot of work advocating around homelessness.”
Looking ahead, Mercado has her eyes set on a career in public policy. “I’m interested in working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop housing policies so that all Americans have access to affordable housing. I also want to get an understanding of best practices in terms of working with these families.”