Abstract: A Foot in Both Worlds: Overcoming Barriers to Systemization between Secular and Sectarian Organizations in Homelessness Services (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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A Foot in Both Worlds: Overcoming Barriers to Systemization between Secular and Sectarian Organizations in Homelessness Services

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Valley of the Sun B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer M. Frank, PhD, Assistant Professor, Millersville University, Millersville, PA
Background & Purpose

The passage of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act in 1987 began a process of federal influence into local efforts to address homelessness in communities, eventually requiring community collaboration and the complete systemization of homelessness services (Watson 1996). Over several decades, federal initiatives encountered disparate local organizations pursuing incompatible approaches to mitigating homelessness. System builders had to contend with constituent programs deeply divided about philosophy and practice, usually according to their secular or religious purposes. While most secular organizations adjusted readily to federal mandates, many Protestant, evangelical organizations balked. Federal funds were predicated on broad collaboration, but if system builders pushed federal requirements on these faith-based organizations (FBOs) too assiduously they risked losing necessary service partners.

Strategies such as the utilization of a singular definition of homelessness, a community goal of “ending homelessness,” (NAEH, 2001), systemic implementation of “best practices” (Colangelo 2004; NAEH 2006), and the adoption of a “Housing First” approach (Tsemberis, Gulcur & Nakae 2004; Gulcur et al., 2007; Tsemberis 2010) required that communities facilitate systemic collaboration. Evangelical Faith-Based Organizations [EFBOs] are much less likely than their mainstream counterparts to seek public funds or collaborate with government or secular agencies (Ebaugh, Chafetz & Pipes 2006), and often celebrate aims other than meeting the direct needs of clients’ basic needs, such as spiritual transformation (Sager 2011). As a result, it was necessary to implement particular strategies over time to overcome serious ideological, financial, and practice differences. In this historical qualitative case study, I explored one community’s experience in navigating the integration of disparate homelessness services providers across sectarian divisions.


This was an historical case study that used semi-structured qualitative interviews to implore how one county systematized homelessness services between secular and sectarian service providers. A combination of purposive and snowball sampling were employed to identify useful informants. A total of 33 qualitative interviews were conducted over a six-month period. Interviews lasted approximately 60-90 minutes, were audio recorded, and transcribed by hand. Relevant documentation (reports, meeting minutes etc.) was collected to triangulate the data generated by the interviews. Transcriptions and other documentation were uploaded to Nvivo for analysis using a grounded theory approach. Line-by-line coding produced over 200 unique codes, which were collapsed into major themes from the study.


Findings from the study revealed points of resistance between HUD-funded secular agencies attending to homelessness and non-HUD funded organizations, including differences in ideology about the nature of homelessness and the possibility of ending it, and resistance to several “best practices,” such as the Housing First approach. Emerson County was able to overcome these points of serious resistance through targeted strategies of empathizing with organizational interests, using tactical messaging, and facilitating collaboration through the use of individuals who were perceived to have “a foot in both worlds.”

Conclusions & Implications

This presentation will share the results of an historical case study of system building in homelessness services that identified tactical strategies for secular and sectarian collaboration across difference.