A photo of a person holding a house made of cardboard.

Photo by iStock.

More than a dozen undergraduate students at Boston College wanted to help the homeless. They created GiveCard, a nonprofit, and planned to give debit cards to people living on the streets in Boston. 

But they didn’t roll out the program right away. Before they started, they wanted to connect with experts who work to prevent homelessness. They wanted to listen to homeless people tell their stories. And they wanted to know that their idea would succeed. 

That’s where the School of Social Work came in. After the founder of GiveCard met with Dean Gautam N. Yadama, faculty member Kelsey Werner created a course to give the students the tools to refine their startup.

The class, “Designing Interventions to Address Complex Social Problems,” aligns with the school’s ongoing effort to improve the lives of vulnerable people around the world. The Center for Social Innovation fuels the charge, harnessing the power of data science, computer simulations, and community partnerships to address social problems. 

“The course responded to student interests and community needs,” said Werner, who taught the class this fall. “I didn’t explain homelessness to the students. I gave them the tools to understand the problem from different perspectives.”

Werner tapped the United Way to help students better understand homelessness. She and Yadama are working with the nonprofit to help reduce homelessness among children in the Boston Public School System. 

“It was a natural fit as we try to build this partnership,” said Werner, who directs social and community-based systems modeling. “The students learn how to analyze a problem, but we also tap our partners for expertise.”

After meeting with a member of the United Way, the students mapped their perceptions of the factors that drive homelessness, making causal loop diagrams and stock and flow diagrams to visualize the complexity of the problem. 

Imagine that you are homeless: You can’t find a job because you don’t have an address. You get fined when you sleep on the sidewalk, but you can’t afford to pay, so you get thrown in jail. When you get out, you have a record, and no one will hire you. 

The students said the models helped them untangle the complexity of homelessness in Massachusetts.  According to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2019, more than 18,000 people in the state are homeless, over 12,000 have children, and 480 are 24 or younger.

“I have never tried to unpack a complex problem with modeling,” said Sofia Pedro, an economics major. “That is something that I found very helpful and will be applicable to any other complex problem.”

Andrew Bailard, another economics major, agreed. “It’s like a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “You can see how you can use these skills to impact the way society functions.”

I hope this becomes a proof of concept of how we can respond to need in the future. This is a good example of how social workers can lead.
Kelsey Werner, director of social and community-based systems modeling

During the course, students met people who were once homeless and now help others rebuild their lives. One woman, who works for the nonprofit Homes For Families, introduced students to the cliff effect, which occurs when a pay raise at work triggers a disproportionate loss of government help. People who are subjected to the cliff effect suddenly become unqualified for subsidized food, housing, and healthcare, leaving them worse off than before their raise. 

“I wanted to expose students to a diversity of thought,” said Werner. “From Day 1, we wanted to bring in people from the community with lived experience.”

After discovering the cliff effect, students said they reshaped their venture. Instead of giving debit cards to homeless people on the street, they decided to give them to people on the verge of losing their homes or moving out of shelters. The money on the cards would pay for basic needs, including food, gas, and clothes.

“Our new target audience is people who might be one paycheck away from homelessness,” said Diksha Thach, an international studies major. “We’ll be able to give people autonomy and break down some cycles of homelessness.” 

The students plan to launch GiveCard in February, giving debit cards to 10 families and refining their model based on feedback. “Obviously GiveCard will not end all homelessness,” said Thatch, “but maybe we can help people out of it or prevent them from entering it.” 

Although the class ended in December, the school plans to continue to work with the students. The specifics are still up in the air, but the ultimate goal is simple. “Give Card funds go up,” said Bailard, “and homelessness goes down.”

Werner wants to teach another section of the course. The topic will be different, but the principles will be the same: Introduce a diverse group of students to a social problem, connect them with community partners, and help them create a solution with people affected by the issue.

“I hope this becomes a proof of concept of how we can respond to need in the future,” she said. “This is a good example of how social workers can lead.”