Islander Students Address Corpus Christi Homelessness to Create Real-World Solutions

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Homelessness pervades many communities and people considered chronically homeless are often treated as invisible. These individuals often live in public spaces not meant for human habitation, such as parks or encampments, for at least a year and may suffer from a series of diagnoses such as physical disabilities, substance abuse disorders, mental illness or other medical conditions.

In spring 2018, the Master of Public Administration (MPA) Program Evaluation course at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, taught by Dr. Sarah Scott, assistant professor of criminal justice and public administration, teamed up with the Advisory Council on Homelessness, Mental Illness and Substance Abuse, also known as the Homeless Advisory Council, to provide recommendations that could improve the quality of life of homeless individuals in Corpus Christi.

To begin the project, “Evaluation of Homeless Initiatives in Corpus Christi, Texas,” MPA graduate students teamed up to assess the Corpus Christi homeless population and its needs. By looking at a Point-in-Time Count and a 2015 Corpus Christi Police Department Homeless Survey, students noted that 15 percent of the surveyed homeless population consisted of United States military veterans. They also found that many homeless individuals reported a need for case management and ID cards, as well as a desire to work part-time or full-time jobs.

“Addressing homelessness in Corpus Christi is important because people living on the streets feel like they’re not valued as members of our society,” said John Reed, a MPA graduate student in Scott’s course. “Our job as public administrators is to do the best we can to provide a suitable lifestyle for our fellow citizens and give back to the community.”

Using homeless veterans as their target population, students collected data on two different initiatives to see if either would be viable in Corpus Christi. One initiative, the Homeless Workers Program, focused on proving homeless individuals with opportunities for daily employment as part of community beautification programs. The second initiative, the Tiny Homes Program, would provide low-cost housing and give homeless individuals the foundation to build relationships with their neighbors.

One team of students collected data on four Homeless Workers Programs across the United States and compared which programs had the best practices. Students observed that the most successful programs were affiliated with a nonprofit organization and offered additional services such as shelter, health services, meals or medical assistance.

Another team of students collected data on homeless housing programs in Austin, Dallas, Los Angeles and a rural community near Albuquerque, New Mexico. Two students from the team traveled to Austin to experience “Community First! Village,” an established Tiny Homes Program. They found residents there partake in on-site microeconomic jobs, such as blacksmithing, painting or mechanics, pay a reduced rent, use communal facilities to promote interaction between neighbors and hold each other accountable with a zero-crime tolerance. The students noted that these community-focused practices with the help from a nonprofit organization make “Community First! Village” and others like it, successful.

At a packed presentation held on campus in late spring, a representative from each team of students shared their findings and recommendations with members of the Homeless Advisory Council as well as fellow Islander students and faculty. The MPA students recommended that Corpus Christi would first need to define the word “community” and use that definition to guide development, secure land and establish a work program that provides homeless individuals a chance to improve their lives. They also noted that working with a nonprofit organization seemed to promote the best results.

“It’s been a great partnership between the University and the Homeless Advisory Council,” said Amy Rhoads Granberry, CEO of Charlie’s Place Recovery Center and representative of the Homeless Advisory Council. “Having students run the research while we work on logistics has been a fantastic experience. This is a community problem and we want to ensure the part of the community that lacks a voice is given a voice.”

With the success of this class project, Scott plans to incorporate the topic of homelessness in future courses and tailor subsequent Program Evaluation courses to tackle different initiatives at different stages for several years. With sustained effort, she hopes to have a bigger impact, not only on the community but also within her class, by providing students with hands-on learning opportunities to work towards real-world solutions.

“Knowing that I can affect change in both my graduate program and as a citizen is a good feeling,” said Richard Anthony Schreiber, an MPA graduate student who will be creating a survey this summer to establish the needs of homeless veterans. “My internship at City Hall helped me dive deeper into this project and I’ve even signed up for Dr. Scott’s upcoming classes to continue working on improving homelessness.”

Along with the presentation held on campus, students presented their findings to the Corpus Christi City Council, the Regional Health Awareness Board and the Nueces County Commissioners Court.