Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

16870 The Use of Qualitative Research to Illuminate Elders' Pathways In and Out of Homelessness

Friday, January 13, 2012: 11:00 AM
Independence E (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Kelly Mills-Dick, MSW, PhD Candidate, Boston University, Boston, MA
Judith Gonyea, PhD, Associate Professor, Boston University, Boston, MA
Purpose: According to recent estimates, there are over 75,000 homeless elders in the U.S. today (Cunningham & Henry, 2007; Gibeau, 2001) and this figure is expected to rise as the baby boomers swell the ranks of the older population. Despite these statistics, homeless older adults remain both an under served and studied population by service providers, researchers and policy makers. A noticeable gap in the limited existing research is the absence of the voices of those on the frontlines of homelessness—the elders and the outreach workers. (Martin, 1990; Tully & Jacobson, 1994). The primary purpose of this qualitative study was to address this critical gap by exploring how older adults and outreach workers define and mitigate problems associated with urban elder homelessness. Informed by the epistemological stance of constructivism and the iterative approach of phenomenology, this qualitative study provided important insights into the nuances of qualitative data analysis. This paper will highlight the translation of the epistemological underpinnings and design approach to specific methodological strategies.

Methods: This qualitative study consisted of a series of separate in-depth interviews with homeless older adults and their outreach workers, as well as fieldwork observations with older adult – outreach worker dyads. The study setting was an organization dedicated to ending elder homelessness and the sample consisted of 20 homeless older adults selected using a two-stage purposive randomized sampling strategy and 6 outreach workers selected using purposive sampling. Data was collected over the course of one year and initially analyzed using an inductive approach (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). While some forego coding to rely on phenomenological interpretations of themes and meanings (van Manen, 1990), coding was utilized to capture the content and essence of the data (Saldana, 2009). This paper will discuss the specific coding strategies and procedures utilized to maintain authenticity while incorporating relevant sensitizing concepts. At first, themes were used as simply as possible for “meaning condensation,” then woven together for “meaning interpretation” for further exploration and explanation of meaning (Rubin & Rubin, 1995). Conceptual theorizing was used to illuminate concepts that identify common aspects of the phenomena of elder homelessness, and interrelationships between concepts surrounding the phenomena. Ways in which the phenomenological constructivist stance influenced data collection, analysis, and presentation will be discussed.

Findings: Core themes that emerged from study data were related to older adults' and outreach workers' constructions of pathways in and out of homelessness, as well as the experience and meaning of being homeless. Participant narratives wove a tapestry of personal struggle, frayed social support, and systemic failure, undergirded by cumulative disadvantaged and trauma across the lifespan. Findings highlight the complex, multi-faceted factors impacting the housing and homeless status of older adults and provide potential strategies for problem resolution.

Implications: This study provides valuable insights as to what those on the frontlines perceive to be key individual- and structural-level factors in addressing elder homelessness. Further, this study offers a specific example of the application of a phenomenological constructivist approach, highlighting the impact of epistemological perspectives on methodological strategies.

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