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Posted on April 7th, 2015

Back to School – Homelessness

Accessibility patterns and community integration among previously homeless adults: A Geographic Information Systems (GIS) approach; Dara V. Chan (The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Sucharita Gopal and Christine A. Helfrich (Boston University); Social Science & Medicine v. 120 (2014), pgs. 142-152.

This is our second foray into the topic of homelessness in this monthly column. The previous edition looked at homeless shelter dispersal and how many of the resources were not in convenient locations with regards to the homeless population. Most were off the beaten path so as to give those who looked down on the homeless the opportunity to have an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality about this national issue. This article review is a little more upbeat as the authors explore community integration for those who were previously homeless. However, everything is not all good as community integration is impacted by a lack of resources to adequately provide housing for those transitioning from ‘down on their luck’ to ‘upwardly mobile.’ Similar to the first article on homelessness, the study reviewed here examined (through the use of GIS) accessibility and proximity of integration resources for those in need.

Community features and their proximity to available resources for the homeless.

In their literature review, the authors state that obtaining permanent housing is linked to decreased hospitalization rates, negative psychological symptoms and substance use and abuse; and it often leads to greater well-being through planned health initiatives typically orchestrated by community partners. The researchers are quick to point out that not all housing will remedy the ills that affect homeless populations; it is quality housing, in quality neighborhoods that are most likely to lead to life improvement for the formerly homeless. Building off of social ecology theory, the scholars stated that physical and social environments stimulate moods, attitudes and behavior. This also includes proximity to popular community features, such as lakes, rivers, libraries and shopping centers.

An accessibility index of the most frequently needed resources as identified by the participants (i.e. grocery stores, parks and libraries).

GIS has been frequently used in rehabilitation and public health research to measure the relationships between neighborhoods and health, but of late there has been a call to investigate mobility as a third, and vital, prong of community health assessments. This study, then, looked at how attributes of the physical environment, specifically accessibility and proximity to resources, influenced community integration. This study relied on accounts of previously homeless people to document the resources that were deemed most valuable to their rehabilitation and re-integration into the community. This included in-depth interviews with 37 people who had been homeless for various lengths of time throughout their lives.

Findings from the study indicate that an individual’s activity space size (defined as how one interacts with the community environment) is dependent on the number of resources available within a reasonable distance. Activity space size varied by group based on the need to travel. Those with the most readily available resources decreased their range of travel. It was the proximity to the resources viewed as most necessary by participants that indicated the success of community integration for those transitioning from homelessness. While the structural barriers of community planning and resource availability are integral to success for this population, it was also reiterated that individual needs services have to be taken into consideration for future program development. Individual success is dependent on mental and physical health as much as it is on access to resources that stimulate positive community integration.

Justin Harmon
Staff Writer

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