Tackling Grand Challenges: Building Knowledge of Social Innovations Through Field Expertise

By: Jennifer Wilson, PhD Student, Graduate School of Social Work

In 2017 I was introduced to Beloved Community Village, Denver’s first tiny home village providing an alternative sheltering solution for those experiencing homelessness. As a PhD student at the Graduate School of Social Work, I had been working at the Center for Housing and Homelessness Research. Our Center was brought on to conduct an evaluation of the village, looking at outcomes for residents as well as the experience of living in the surrounding neighborhood. One evaluation turned into two evaluations, tons of data collected, a few hefty reports, and numerous presentations from 2017 to 2021.

After several years studying the topic, I knew I wanted to write about these communities for my dissertation. But, as is often the case with emerging social innovations, there was limited research on tiny homes as a response to homelessness. Often times, this draws the academic conclusion that “little is known on the subject.” However, this felt inaccurate to me – with so many tiny home villages popping up across the country doing this exact work, surely the field must know something (many things, even). This led me to pursue a two-part dissertation study: 1) engaging experts in the field to identify priority specifications for developing tiny home communities addressing homelessness, and 2) operationalizing a research method for engaging the field in identifying the priority specifications of social innovations in general.

Given limited empirical evidence on tiny homes addressing homelessness, it felt important to gather knowledge directly from the field and share it with others looking to adopt or scale this approach. I wanted to center this work in practice and lived experience, demonstrating that the field can and should play a direct role in defining its own work and best practices. Additionally, rigorous research methods can be time-consuming and inaccessible to the public. So it was important that the research be conducted in a nimble and accessible manner, with a focus on disseminating findings back to the field for immediate use. While my dissertation process, carried out during COVID-19, was not exactly nimble, the field has provided some confirmation of the utility and value of the resulting findings. My hope is to release an open access white paper this spring detailing the study’s results. And given interest expressed by the field itself, I am in the process of organizing a virtual forum this year for tiny home villages addressing homelessness to share knowledge and connect with one another.

A note about COVID-19: The conditions of the pandemic made it especially difficult to request the participation of shelter and housing service providers who were stretched to their limits. In an effort to be responsive to active constraints on the field, one study amendment involved adding a series of targeted questions about how the pandemic was impacting village operations, including shifts in policy and practice. This data was compiled and immediately returned to the field for consideration and application. Furthermore, funding from DU Grand Challenges and the Advancing Community-Engaged (ACE) Student Scholarship Grant made it possible to double the compensation amount issued to study participants, providing a more accurate and equitable valuation of expert time.

Editor’s Note: This work was supported with an ACE Student Scholars Grant, thanks to the generous support of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations for DU Grand Challenges.

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