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June 2008 Issue

Rebecca Lee, PhD (left), visits with Carolyn Cannor at the Interfaith Hospitality Network Day Care Center in Lower Price Hill.
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Student Nursing Study Takes a Closer Look at Culture and Homelessness in Ohio

By Angela Koenig
Published June 2008

Monday through Wednesday evening, doctorate student Rebecca Lee lives a stable life by most standards.

She teaches community health at the UC College of Nursing, interns at the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati, volunteers and dotes on her husband and four sons.

Thursday through Sunday, however, Lee becomes “homeless” as she experiences firsthand the everyday struggles this growing population faces.

The immersion into homelessness is an integral part of Lee’s doctoral research study: the influence of culture on the experience of family homelessness, particular to Appalachian families.

“I am basically spending time with the mothers and their children, doing everything they do— going on appointments to look at apartments, riding the bus and sleeping in churches at night,” explains Lee, a second-generation Appalachian, who contends that culture characteristics such as self-reliance, stubbornness and pridefulness can impede homeless families as they seek resources and outside assistance.

Lee says she identified the topic for her doctoral research after years of volunteering at the Interfaith Hospitality Network Day Care Center in Lower Price Hill, which is classified as an urban Appalachian community.

“What I noted while I was there was that a large number of families coming through struggled because of their background,” Lee says, citing an extreme sense of privacy among Appalachian households as one roadblock to assistance.

“You don’t talk about your problems to outsiders—whether you have a drug conviction, served time, are sick—however, these are all things they have to divulge to receive help.

Another hurdle is the outdated perception of homelessness as “the old guy with the bottle, panhandling,” says Georgine Getty, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless (GCCH). In fact, according to a 2001 GCCH study, families comprise nearly one third of the homeless population in Cincinnati and families are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population in the United States. 

News of Lee’s research was heartening to the GCCH director.

“I don’t see a lot of professional academic interest in homelessness, when the more we can learn about various homeless populations and people experiencing homelessness the better chance we have of ending it,” Getty says.

With so many families, regardless of culture, living paycheck to paycheck, Lee says there needs to be more of a reality check when
it comes to homelessness.

“We should be shocked as a society” to see the barriers homeless families face, she says. For example there are only two homeless shelters in the city which will allow men and teenage boys, she says, and very often families have to rise at 5 a.m. to depart a sponsor shelter such as a church.

Lee says she hopes her research will help to guide the design
of culturally congruent interventions and programming that improve the overall health and well-being of homeless families. She hopes to defend her dissertation fall 2008.

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