No Place Like Home

Kate Larson ’22 and Professor of Communication Studies Ripley Smith, one of the student-faculty teams to receive a 2021-22 Edgren Scholarship, conducted research among those experiencing homelessness. Their work will support the efforts of local community partner Envision Community Collaborative, with the goal of building a prototype microhome community designed by those who will live there.

By Michelle Westlund '83, senior content specialist

December 10, 2021 | 2:30 p.m.

Edgren Comm Studies Team

Professor of Communication Studies Ripley Smith and Kate Larson ’22 received an Edgren Scholarship for their project “No Place Like Home: Understanding Social Connections Among Those with Lived Experience of Homelessness.”

On any given night, more than 14 out of every 10,000 Minnesotans experience homelessness. Not only is this a challenging situation for each individual, but it affects the larger community on many levels, including public health. Homeless populations often experience high levels of negative health outcomes due to violence, substance abuse, and chronic mental health conditions. That’s why it’s important to understand the social context of homelessness in order to address the issue in its layered complexity.

A Bethel University faculty-student research team partnered with a local organization to work toward that end. Professor of Communication Studies Ripley Smith, whose areas of emphasis include intercultural and media communication, and Kate Larson ’22, whose studies focus on rhetoric and public influence, partnered with the Envision Community Collaborative in Hennepin County, Minnesota. The core mission of Envision is to create a place where people experiencing homelessness can elevate themselves to be designers, problem-solvers, and decision-makers for the community they create. Designed and led by people experiencing homelessness, it is also a collaborative vision drawing on perspectives from across the community, backed by support from a variety of partners.

Bethel is one such partner, and Smith and Larson’s research is one of the tools that will help inform Envision’s next steps. The researchers designed and conducted a study titled “No Place Like Home: Understanding Social Connections Among Those with Lived Experience of Homelessness.” They were one of several student-faculty teams selected to receive funding through Bethel’s Edgren Scholars Program, which supports faculty-student research partnerships and honors the vision of collaborative mentorship championed by Bethel founder John Alexis Edgren.

Envision is currently working on a proposal to build and operate a two-year live housing demonstration, placing between 15 and 40 people in microhomes clustered around a common house, living cooperatively as an intentional community. Toward this goal, the organization hoped to identify specifics about social support network properties and their correlation with housing instability, health, conflict, and safety variables. A key ingredient to the success of Envision’s intentional community is understanding this social context for homelessness, so they can focus not only on how it occurs, but whether there are significant transitional social structures that can be facilitated for persons experiencing homelessness. This understanding of social context, informed in part by the Bethel team’s research, is critical. “Our work is contributing to the vision of this planned living community,” says Smith, “and that gave our research a strong sense of meaning and purpose.”

Smith and Larson conducted 62 interviews with people experiencing homelessness. Working as a team, one interviewed while the other inputted data. After both qualitative and quantitative data collection, the two coded the data separately and then came together to discuss their observations and make sense of the data on a meta-level together—thinking through it, organizing it, and interpreting it. While they are still working on data analysis, the team has already noted several takeaways from the research process.

First, the student-faculty collaboration was invaluable for both. “Kate is a bright student who brought unique insights to the research,” says Smith. “She was a strong ‘sparring partner’ who was not afraid to put an idea out there. Because she was learning in process about the methodology, she asked questions that forced me to think differently. When we’re familiar with something, we make assumptions, and her fresh eyes and questions prompted a fresh perspective in our approach.”

Larson says the experience greatly impacted her. “The project was an immersive and humbling learning experience in many ways,” she explains. “From learning about and participating in the minute aspects of the research process and critically examining details of our research with Ripley, to humbly hearing the heartbreaking stories of those experiencing homelessness, it was a deeply impactful experience.”

Smith and Larson agree that the project was deeply affecting on both a professional and personal level. “Talking one-on-one to people experiencing homelessness was new to both of us,” says Smith, “and hearing their stories was often overwhelming. Many of them have been impacted by trauma, tragedy, and poor choices, and their perseverance in rebuilding their lives is truly inspiring.”

Communication Studies at Bethel

No matter what career path you choose, strong communication skills are essential. At Bethel, we prepare students to be skilled communicators in any setting. Our communication studies graduates know how to critically analyze situations and communicate in strategic, compassionate, and culturally sensitive ways. 

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