Abstract: Examining Relational Work at Three Different Homeless Shelters (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Examining Relational Work at Three Different Homeless Shelters

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Ines Jindra, PhD, Professor, Idaho State University, Pocatello, ID
Michael Jindra, PhD, Professor, Boston University
Background and Purpose: How do people in homelessness and poverty change their lives and get back on their feet? Since welfare reform, there has been a major shift in the ways many nonprofits assist the poor and homeless. Instead of solely addressing needs in the short term, many organizations are turning to a variety of practices that aim to get people out of poverty or homelessness over the long-term, which we have called “relational work.” Relational work is defined as interpersonal engagement that lasts over a period, including classes, mentoring, counseling, or any form of ongoing meeting or group work with a focus on changes or goals. Much diversity exists among nonprofits that engage in relational work. In this project, we examine three residential shelters which are engaged in relational work to different degrees. We study the differences between these shelters and how they affect residents’ life trajectories.

Methods: The methods used for this study consist of case study research and narrative biographical interviews. First, using a form of case study research (participant observation of selected events and interviews with staff), we analyzed the three institutions regarding the intensity of their relational work. We also analyze the extent to which they use case management, are faith-based in their practices, use the community as therapeutic means, and enforce a daily structure of activities. Second, employing theoretical sampling, we conducted seventeen narrative interviews at the first, twelve interviews at the second, and nine interviews at the third homeless shelter. These interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed, and analyzed using the narrative biographical interview method.

Results and Implications: First, while the first shelter is an example of a shelter where intense relational work happens, this happens less often at the other two shelters. The second shelter engages in case management with all residents, and has a daily structure (though less defined) and community, but without much focus on faith and on deeper issues. At the third shelter, involvement in relational work and case management is minimal with less of a focus on community, structure, and religion. Second, we found that these differences between the shelters in the extent and nature of relational work influence the narratives and the biographical trajectories of their residents. a) The more residents or participants involve themselves in any of the three programs, the more they were starting to grasp their biographical trajectories. b) The more encompassing a program is in terms of relational work, including a focus on religion, therapeutic community, and daily structure, the more it helps most residents to improve their lives. c) Religion has an added benefit in the sense that residents gain a different perspective on their past, present, and future lives, and also gain a sense of hope and self-worth, and self-reflexivity. Finally, we discuss the benefits of and controversies around intense relational work, highlighting some practical implications.