Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Volunteering can change attitudes about homelessness

If you believe homeless people are drug addicts and lazy, but you volunteer to help them, your belief might change.

That’s the finding political science Assistant Professor Tom Knecht and sociology Professor Lisa Martinez, who learned in a recent research project that volunteering can change attitudes.

Knecht and Martinez surveyed volunteers about their thoughts and feelings toward people who are homeless before and after volunteering for Project Homeless Connect, a program to share services with the homeless. Last year, DU hosted Project Homeless Connect 4; 525 homeless clients received a
wide range of services. 

Knecht says volunteering changed attitudes for the better. 

“Our study shows volunteering strongly shaped how people view the homeless,” he says. “After Project Homeless Connect, volunteers were less likely to say that homelessness was the result of substance abuse, mental illness or a personal choice.”  

One volunteer told researchers the experience made her realize that homeless people “were not that different” from her.  

The study also showed that spending time with a homeless person or family usually erodes stereotypes. 

“So if you’re interested in changing someone’s perception of the homeless, encourage them to volunteer,” Knecht says. “Of course, this leads to a catch-22: People with the most entrenched stereotypes are also those least likely to voluntarily seek out contact with the homeless.” 

Knecht says social networks could solve that problem. Many volunteers told researchers that they helped because a friend or colleague asked them to. 

Researchers reported involvement from fraternities and sororities, athletic teams, entire academic departments and from several students taking service-learning courses. 

“These networks are an important means of getting people to volunteer, even if there is some initial resistance to the idea,” Knecht says.

One surprise from the study, Knecht says, was that volunteers’ preferences to fight homelessness didn’t change very much. 

“We had expected that how people viewed the homeless would strongly shape their opinions on how to solve the problem,” he says. 

For example, researchers thought it would be reasonable to expect that those who believe homeless people to be a danger to society would prefer restrictive policies, but that wasn’t found. 

“In short, people exhibited greater resistance to change when it came to policy preferences than perceptions of the homeless as individuals,” Knecht says.

Eric Fretz, director of DU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, says the research is part of what’s called “engaged scholarship.”

“The larger context is around DU supporting engaged scholarship — basically the production of knowledge that works toward helping make the community stronger,” Fretz says. “And that’s exactly what Tom has done here. It’s about DU sharing its resources with the community.”  

DU will host Project Homeless Connect 6 on May 9.

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