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The Pennsylvania Gazette Profiles Panel Discussion with Jennifer Egan and Dennis Culhane

See this coverage as it originally appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette:


Supporting Supportive Housing

By JoAnn Greco

A writer and a researcher on homelessness, housing policy, and storytelling.

Although she might be best known as a novelist, Jennifer Egan C’85 has also worked as a journalist whose pieces on social issues often landed on the cover of the New York Times Magazine.

While writing one of those stories in the early 2000s—about unhoused children in New York—she interviewed Dennis Culhane, now the Dana and Andrew Stone Chair in Social Policy at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice.

Twenty years later, the two convened at the Kelly Writers House for a freewheeling conversation about the continuing scourge of homelessness. Egan—who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a National Book Critics Circle Award for her 2010 novel A Visit from the Goon Squad [“Surprises Are Always the Best,” Jul|Aug 2011]—began by pointing out that she again turned to Culhane’s research for an article about a huge new supportive housing facility in Brooklyn that ran in the New Yorker last fall.

When asked by Culhane, who Egan referred to as the “reigning expert” on the subject, about what she’d concluded from her reporting, Egan replied that supportive housing—which combines subsidized housing with coordinated services for people with mental illness or substance-abuse disorders—“really works.” Her article cited a recent study that showed that about 90 percent of homeless people who enter supportive housing remain housed after two years. Culhane—who has researched homelessness and assisted housing policy for decades [“Three Degrees of Separation,” Feb 1997]—pointed out that “about 80 percent of the population that experiences homelessness does so for a relatively brief period. They have some kind of crisis or triggering event, a family conflict, an illness or disability.” Thanks to rapid rehousing programs, such as that offered by the Department of Veteran Affairs, about a third of them are rehoused within a week, and half are out of homelessness by two months.

By the time you get to nine months, that number is down to a relatively small group of people whose situations are more complex, Culhane continued. “They’re not able to solve their problems, they don’t have relationships to go back to, they’re not necessarily employable.” Most of these men and women are suffering from addiction and about 20 percent have some form of mental illness. In these cases supportive housing—such as the Brooklyn facility Egan wrote about—has proven to be successful. But there are only enough units for about 10 percent of this population, Culhane said, and even basic shelter beds are in short supply.

When Egan raised the “horrific crisis” of opioid addiction, Culhane remarked that the “treatment capacity just isn’t there.” Still, he added, while opiate addiction has doubled to 15 percent of chronically homeless population, “it’s not the dominant part of the story. It has become the dominant part of the narrative, though, especially here locally.”

When an audience member asked about the significance of narratives, Culhane said that “they definitely have an impact, because they shape not just how we think about the problem but how we respond to it. There are so many misperceptions about the nature of homelessness and what we’re doing [to solve it].” Stories about the “heroes” and successful programs may be inspiring, he continued, but “when you step back and look at how little we’re actually doing, it’s disturbing that that narrative isn’t out there. So from a research perspective, we’re always trying to point the conversation in a direction that will [result in policies that] do the most for the most people. I’m always spending a lot of time with people to understand the complexity and nuance because this is not a simple problem.”

Egan said she didn’t want to follow the familiar templates that often shape stories about homelessness. She spoke with several experts, did a lot of street outreach, and spent time with case managers, but still “didn’t feel like anything was coalescing. And then I realized: OK, that’s the story I’m telling. I’m talking about some people over time who have experienced homelessness and now are housed—that’s it. And I’m bringing data and the things I’ve learned, and the reader can decide for themselves what narrative they want to draw from that.”

Culhane praised Egan’s commitment to reporting over a long period of time and talking with many people holding different perspectives, likening it to the approach taken by social science researchers. Egan added that while her fiction writing skills—including the ability to fill in a scene, include sensory details, and use dialogue—came into play, her “endless appetite for people’s stories” was key. “The life stories that I had the privilege of listening to were just so remarkable,” she said.

As for whether her work can affect policy, “I don’t know the answer, “Egan said. “I think supportive housing groups were happy to have it, although I didn’t present a rosy picture of success. But you,” she said turning to Culhane, “have actually impacted policy.”

Culhane responded by emphasizing that “journalism is a hugely important part of this. For example, the aging of the homeless population is a crisis being covered all over the country by local papers, so [that’s] sustaining attention on the story.”

“I think the elderly and disabled homeless angle is the place we should be focusing on,” he continued. “We actually have federal programs that are supposed to be preventing destitution among [those populations] and [they] are not working. We need all the storytelling. It’s really crucial.”