April 2014 Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 4

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Undergraduate Students as Applied Sociologists: Community-Based Research Addresses Homelessness

Laura Nichols, Santa Clara University and Norma A. Winston, University of Tampa

Homeless individuals seek shelter on a Santa Clara bus.

Sociology undergraduate majors who possess a strong foundation in sociological theory and methods can greatly benefit from an opportunity to apply their skills to address community issues and needs. In this short piece we provide examples of two community-based projects related to homelessness, which involved undergraduate students in Applied Sociology classes. One took place at the University of Tampa, a small private university in Florida with an accredited program in Applied and Clinical Sociology; the other at Santa Clara University, a small private university in California where Applied Sociology is a required capstone for all sociology majors.

The Homeless PhotoVoice Project

For the past two semesters, students in the Applied Sociology class at the University of Tampa have engaged in the Homeless PhotoVoice project 1. This project is one of a number that have developed out of a long-term association between the course instructor, Norma Winston, and the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.

The goal of the Homeless PhotoVoice Project was to give students in Applied Sociology the opportunity to engage in service learning by advocating for a disadvantaged group (the local homeless community). The homeless participants shared their daily experiences by photographing their world, and the students acted as an impetus for social change by “showcasing” the photos and associated captions written by the photographer for the public and policymakers.

Before the project took place, students actively discussed assigned readings about homelessness and heard the testimony of a formerly homeless person. For the field assignment, students in groups of three spent a block of three hours with a homeless person and did a “photo capture,” which was organized and chaperoned by a volunteer from the Homeless Coalition. The homeless individual described for the students a day in his/her life and captured pictures with a disposable camera of the locations they visited together. The photographs were developed and pooled, and then the students selected the 25 best pictures and arranged them with captions for display in a PhotoVoice Showcase.

Early on in the class the students divided into two committees: The “Showcase Committee” was responsible for setting a time, a date, and arranging a location for the Showcase as well as preparing the PhotoVoice display; the “Media Committee” contacted the media about publicizing the event and created a press release for distribution to the local media as well as posters for advertising the Showcase on campus.

While journalists had brought to light the practice of individuals who were using the all-night bus route for shelter the year before, little was known from bus riders themselves about why they rode the bus for shelter instead of utilizing other shelter options.

The PhotoVoice Showcase was a day-long event staged in a prominent location on the University of Tampa campus and was open to the public as well as to the university community. Members of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County attended. The students rotated times spent at the Showcase so that some of them were available at all times to talk with viewers.

Public Transportation as Shelter

At Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley, in collaboration with Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority, Laura Nichols has also had students involved in applied research projects related to homelessness for many years. For example, sociology students have helped collect data on service needs, and they have produced infographics for the countywide Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS). The most ambitious project to date occurred when Nichols was asked if her undergraduate students could conduct research to help multiple agencies, which did not usually work together, get over an impasse related to what to do about homeless individuals riding the county’s only all-night bus line as a form of shelter.

The goal of PhotoVoice project was to use sociological skills to improve aspects of society. Students were given a glimpse into a day in the life of a homeless person through first-person photographs such as this photo

The working group brought together to address the issue included the county’s public transportation provider, the city housing department, and Santa Clara social services. The group was divided as to which organization was responsible for addressing the issue. While journalists had brought to light the practice of individuals who were using the all-night bus route for shelter the year before, little was known from bus riders themselves about why they rode the bus for shelter instead of utilizing other shelter options.

The project became one of four community-based projects that teams of sociology majors participated in as part of for their Applied Sociology class. The students were trained by the county public transportation’s safety team and met with three formerly homeless individuals who at one time had ridden the bus for shelter. One of these individuals rode the bus with the students during one of the three nights of data collection.

Teams of students rode the full bus lines over night, talking to riders on the bus, and interviewing and taking notes during the layovers. Students kept field notes and also conducted structured interviews in English and Spanish with riders who were willing to be surveyed. Students analyzed the combined survey responses and field notes and prepared a formal research report that was presented to the stakeholders. Students also presented their findings on the last day of class, which housing and county officials attended.2

Both the class projects and assignments at the University of Tampa and Santa Clara University helped give sociology majors a deeper understanding of homelessness and community responses to housing issues. In addition, through an applied focus, students were able to see how their observation and research skills could be used in ways to educate others and bring neglected voices into policy discussions. Community-university partnerships, maintained by faculty over time, can become incubators for projects that give students the opportunity to apply sociology in meaningful ways.


  1. For more information on the project go to: http://www.ut.edu/Sociology-Students-Get-Picture-of-Homelessness.aspx? or http://theminaretonline.com/2013/11/07/article31472.
  2. More information on the methods and the findings can be found in this research brief: http://www.scu.edu/cas/sociology/staff/upload/Bus22ExecSummaryFeb08draft3.pdf or article: Nichols, Laura and Fernando Cázares. (2011). “Homelessness and the Mobile Shelter System: Public Transportation as Shelter.” Journal of Social Policy 40 (2):333–350.


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