Improving Poverty Programs

Our Welfare Experts Team Up With Counties to Help Them Better Help the Poor

by Patricia McBroom

Pressed by the need for research on their growing social problems, Bay Area counties have teamed up with the School of Social Welfare to move local poverty programs onto firmer footing.

The new county-university partnership--which released its first report in December for San Mateo county--fills an historic need for research at the local level.

If federal cuts in welfare become a reality, counties will be expected to shoulder major new poverty burdens, making the need for action-oriented research even more significant, said Michael Austin, professor of social welfare. He is the university's chief consultant on the county partnership.

Given the name "Research Response Team," the university's role in this partnership is unusual in that counties determine the problems to be studied and the university provides the expertise, all of which operates at a speed which is almost unheard of in academic work, said Austin.

The research team, sponsored by the Bay Area Social Services Consortium, delivers results in six to eight months, compared to the years that are more typical of academic settings, he said.

Moreover, individual counties choose the focus of research, said Austin. San Mateo County wanted to study its homeless problem; Contra Costa County needed to know the demographic profile of people on general assistance and Santa Clara County has asked for help in evaluating foster care. All of these projects are currently on the boards or nearing completion.

Now a year old, the partnership delivered its first county report to a meeting of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors this month. The study of homelessness contains a description of needs and a plan of action for the homeless that has been agreed upon by three diverse groups.

Those groups are the university's research team, coordinated by Sheryl Goldberg; the county's Human Service Agency, directed by Maureen Borland; and the Hunger and Homeless Action Coalition of San Mateo County, directed by Anne O'Leary.

"This partnership represents one of those rare opportunities when a county agency, a local advocacy organization and university researchers find common ground to enlist the support of political leaders," noted Austin.

From interviews with 419 homeless people in San Mateo County, researchers obtained a detailed profile by gender, ethnicity, age, work background and housing, including a report of their needs.

They found, for instance, that almost one-third of the homeless in this non-representative sample had some sort of employment and less than one-half had any government assistance. About 70 percent were male; 30 percent, female; and more than a third had children, most of whom had shared the homeless experience.

The majority had lost their housing because they could not make rent payments and were evicted, according to the report.

"If we can get a better picture of who these people are, we can do a better job of providing relevant programs," said Goldberg.

Austin, who conducted some of the interviews, said he was impressed by the ability of the homeless to articulate their needs and to be aware of local resources.

"There was street savvy there and a sense of pride in survival skills. These people are not choosing to be homeless. Many view their condition as temporary. A fair number became homeless through illness or loss of employment," he said.

In addition to the interviews, the research response team assisted in compiling a validated count of the homeless in San Mateo, using Social Security numbers and birthdates.

Unlike most estimates of the homeless, the count contains no duplications. It does not, however, include people whose social security numbers could not be obtained.

By this method, San Mateo County established that during the year 1994, there were at least 4,499 homeless individuals in San Mateo County, including 1,850 children.

Next in the research team's pipeline is a demographic profile of people receiving general assistance in Contra Costa. Interviews have been conducted with 450 recipients of the county-funded program.

Sixty percent were men; most were young, single and on the fringe--one step from homelessness. Description of this population is a first step toward helping them become self-sufficient, said Goldberg.

In Santa Clara, the university-county partnership is looking at the quality of care provided by families who have taken in foster children, with the aim of comparing relatives and non-relatives as foster families.


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
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