Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Penn English Artist-in-Residence Jennifer Egan Featured in Penn Today: "Investigating Homelessness"

See this coverage as it originally appeared in Penn Today:


Investigating homelessness

In a Kelly Writers House event, writer Jennifer Egan and social scientist Dennis Culhane discuss journalism and the homelessness crisis.

It’s almost unimaginable now, Jennifer Egan says, but during the 1970s, throughout her entire adolescence, she never saw a single person sleeping outside. Egan grew up in San Francisco, a city that now has almost 8,000 unhoused people. “So, it has always felt new to me, Egan said of the homelessness crisis, noting that she first became aware of the problem as a college student in the 1980s. “And I was dimly aware that it was regarded as a kind of sudden emergency that was going to be solved. But it hasn’t been, yet.”

Egan, an award-winning novelist and artist-in-residence in the Department of English in the School of Arts & Sciences, and Dennis Culhane, the Dana and Andrew Stone Chair in Social Policy at the School of Social Policy & Practice, discussed homelessness, policy responses, and long-form journalism in “Investigating Homelessness,” an April 16 Kelly Writers House event.

Culhane, who has studied homelessness for decades as a social science researcher, asked Egan, who reported on homelessness for The New Yorker, how she sustained optimism in the face of suffering.

Egan based her article at the subsidized housing facility 90 Sands in New York City. During the course of her reporting, several of the people she interviewed passed away. “That was really hard to deal with,” Egan said.

“There were there were moments where I had had to move away from it a little bit because I reached a point where I felt like this was all there was, that everyone lives in this precarious way,” she said. “It was possible, in moments, to feel like the world was going to hell.”

In New York City, both individuals and families have a legal right to shelter, yet the residents of 90 Sands had been unhoused for an average of eight years prior to coming to the facility, Egan said. A person who has been living on the street for long stretches of time is someone who has trouble fitting into the city’s social service structure, she said. “These are people who tend to have severe mental illness and/or severe substance abuse, usually a combination.”

Egan urged listeners to move away from a fixed idea of success when it comes to this population. “People would often say to me, ‘Oh, are they getting jobs? Are things really moving on? Are they back on their feet and hitting the ground running?’ And the answer is no.”

As a self-described Type A person, Egan at first shared this perception, she says. But in this context, the answer is to stay housed, she said. Supportive housing, in addition to providing shelter, connects residents with social services, which people who experience mental illness and substance use need, Egan said. “Supportive housing really works.”

For people who experience chronic homelessness, being housed solves the problem of being homeless, Culhane said. “You’re not going to solve all of the person’s problems or confront all of the issues, but we’re trying to focus on the one we can achieve, and that is the source of so much trouble in their lives. I think that that’s an important takeaway.”

Egan asked Culhane to explain the difference between chronic homelessness, the kind formerly experienced by many of the residents at 90 Sands, and episodic homelessness.

In the homeless population, 80% are homeless for a brief period of time due to a triggering event: family conflict, illness, disability, or hospitalization, Culhane said, noting that a third of those people are rehoused within a week and half are housed within six weeks.

“A lot of the initial research on homelessness was cross sectional, meaning they got the samples on a given day.” Culhane said. A typical example of this is the Point-in-Time Count. Collected by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Point-in-Time Count documents the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January.

“The problem with that is that it over represents the people who are always homeless for very long periods of time,” Culhane said. “So that really created a misperception.

“Homelessness is mostly very brief because it’s a terrible experience,” Culhane said. “People are desperately concerned and upset when they find themselves in the situation, and they do everything they can to get out of it.”

People who have been homeless for as long as nine months are in a relatively small group of people with complex situations, Culhane said. “They’re not able to solve their problem; they don’t necessarily have the relationships to go back to; they are not necessarily employable; they may be suffering from an addiction or a major mental health problem.”

In the chronically homeless population, 20% have a severe mental illness and another 65-70% have a serious substance use issue, Culhane said. “Part of the definition of chronic homelessness is not just the persistence but the fact that they have these significant disabilities.”

Two interventions are highly effective in combating homelessness, Culhane said. First, a rapid rehousing program, which provides funding for the first and last month’s rent, a security deposit, and debt repayment. The Department of Veterans Affairs has the largest national program of this type, he said.

The second intervention is supportive housing, which targets the chronically homeless, Culhane said. In supportive housing, residents have a permanent housing subsidy and case management that might involve social workers and psychiatric care, he said.

The problem is underfunding. Only 12% of people who are chronically homeless will be able to get into a supportive housing unit in a given year, and only about 8% will get into a rapid rehousing program, Culhane said. Even shelter beds can only sleep about half of the adult homeless population. “We just don’t have the resources,” he said.

“When people want to blame homelessness on individuals and their behavior and all these other things, you have to look at our behavior, which is we’re only providing shelter for half of the adult population. The rest of them have to sleep outside,” Culhane said.

Prompted by a question from the audience, Culhane and Egan relayed their personal connections to the topic.

While attending St. Bonaventure as an undergraduate, Culhane spent the summer of 1983 living in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, where he worked at the St. Francis Inn soup kitchen. “Basically, I was struck by the nature of the problem and the community and the issues that were going on and decided that I was going to go to grad school and focus on that issue,” he said.

“It’s so funny, we’re exactly the same age,” Egan said. “So, some of that has got to be what we saw in our generation, that sort of newness of homelessness.”

For Egan, a family member also connected her to the issue. Her brother, who took his life in 2016, developed schizophrenia in college. “He couldn’t do all the things he thought he would be able to do as a younger person,” she said. “And he went from being a golden boy who was just remarkable, you thought he would do anything … And I just watched this [illness] consume him.

“Because he was so articulate about what it was like to have voices in his head all the time, I felt very connected to that experience,” she said.

Egan said it was very clear to her that her brother would have been homeless without the support of her family. “When I think about someone with fewer advantages, it’s just so nightmarish,” she said.

Another audience member asked about how writing could be helpful in combatting homelessness.

Journalism is vital to sustain the public’s attention, Culhane said.

Culhane is focused on the elderly and disabled homeless; the aging homeless population is a crisis covered all over the country by local papers, he said. “I think the public would really care about that,” he said, “and we actually have federal programs that are supposed to be preventing destitution among elderly and disabled people. And those programs are not working.”

“Narrative has an impact because it shapes not only how people think about the problem but how we’re responding,” Culhane said. Often, that narrative tends to focus on local heroes or personalities, he said, but it’s important to step back and look at the issue from a research perspective, “always trying to point in the direction of doing the most for the most people. This is not a simple, one-dimensional problem.”

All storytelling, he said, is really crucial.