Supporting homeless youth: Assistant Professor Shantá Robinson’s research helps young people succeed

July 29, 2019

Across the city of Chicago, thousands of young people face ongoing or periodic homelessness. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) recently approached the University of Chicago’s Poverty Lab and asked for assistance in dealing with this issue. The Poverty Lab then tapped Shantá Robinson, Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration (SSA), to help lead the project.

“The Poverty Lab, which is one of UChicago’s Urban Labs, often works on projects tied to issues of poverty and inequality in our educational systems,” Robinson said. “This partnership we’ve formed with CPS is designed to help us understand the experiences of these students who are dealing with periods of homelessness with or without their families.”

Beginning in January 2019, Robinson joined Emily Metz, Kelly Hallberg, and Annie Driscoll in a mixed-method study that involved visiting schools across the city and conducting focus groups with students in grades K - 12 who are experiencing homelessness. All of the focus groups were with students and families who have maintained connections to CPS during their experiences with housing instability. Additionally, a number of CPS schools are currently serving the homeless student population very well. The research team has identified these schools and is focusing on how the broader CPS system can build upon the strengths that are already in place at several locations. Data collected during this process will help identify ways in which CPS can create systemic changes to better serve this student population. The intent is that CPS will implement recommended strategies as early as this fall.

“It’s not often that you get to see the real-time impact of your work so immediately, but the most important thing about this project is getting the data into the hands of the school administrators as soon as possible so change can be immediate,” Robinson said. “I’m a researcher at the University of Chicago and eventually I’ll turn this work into a paper or journal article, but I’m also a community member and a parent. The issues reflected in this work are important in all aspects of my life.”

All of Robinson’s research projects have a common thread: amplifying the voices of marginalized young people and demonstrating that organizations are not powerless to create pathways that help young people achieve lifelong success. Her most recent paper, Homeless Youth of Color and the Shaping of Aspirations: The (Re)productive Role of Institutions, was published in Urban Education and details a year-long ethnographic study exploring the occupational aspirations and informal educational experiences of a diverse group of homeless adolescents who found social welfare assistance through a non-profit organization. Most recently, Robinson completed an ethnographic study designed for LGTBQ individuals experiencing temporary homelessness. Robinson immersed herself in a 10-week intensive culinary institute operated by a non-profit organization for Chicago residents ages 18 and up who identify as LGTBQ and are experiencing homelessness. The program trains people to become sous chefs in Chicago’s vibrant restaurant industry, creating a career pathway that ideally eliminates the homeless factor. 

Robinson learned about her peers’ backgrounds and observed their progress throughout the program. Each participant agreed to contribute to Robinson’s research project, which will take the form of a book tentatively titled Tarnished Spoons: The Promise of Epicurean Education for Marginalized Folx.

“The program itself was exhausting and it made me very grateful for the job that I have,” Robinson said. “It made me realize that we tell young people that their dreams and aspirations matter and that they should follow their passion. But I’m finding that passion is only for the privileged, those who already have access to economic and social mobility. We kind of determine the paths people can take if they’re poor or homeless. What resources exist that support people with other interests? These folks were passionate and talented in many different ways, but they did a food program for 10 weeks because that’s where the jobs are.”

Robinson’s book will include several follow-ups with program participants, examining their experiences after the program several months later and then a year after the program’s conclusion.

It’s essential to Robinson that she incorporate community connections into her teaching as well. One partnership with the University of Chicago Charter School Woodlawn Campus involves Robinson teaching a class composed of half UC Woodlawn students and half UChicago Laboratory School students. Another course will be taught jointly to SSA undergraduate students and UC Woodlawn students, who will take the course in pairs and be assigned one final grade per group. Robinson also works with her graduate students to help them hone their teaching skills.

“I like when my students think about inventive ways to examine the material,” she said. “It’s important to keep the surrounding community in mind and think of ways we can really reshape teaching and learning for our students.”