At the heart of Katherine Marcal’s research is the reminder that individuals who are homeless deserve support and respect in society — just like everyone else.
An assistant professor in the School of Social Work, Marcal started teaching at UNLV last fall. Her community engagement work includes partnering with the Southern Nevada Homeless Continuum of Care (Southern Nevada CoC) to help address the complexities of homelessness — particularly how families, children, and young adults can become and stay resilient after facing adversity.
Southern Nevada’s homeless population is ranked among the nation’s highest. We asked Marcal to shed insight onto one of the most pressing issues facing urban cities.
What brought you to Las Vegas and UNLV?
I was finishing up my dissertation in my last year of my PhD, and I was on the job market. Our department at UNLV actually reached out to me because they really wanted to bring in some new people and make homelessness research a priority. I was unsure about living in Las Vegas — I had never been here before, and all I knew was the Strip. I liked that idea of coming in with the institutional support around that research area. I'm so glad that I took the chance because I love Las Vegas now. I don't know what I was hesitant about.
What factors have led to Nevada having the highest incidence rate of youth homelessness in the nation.
So often when people think about homelessness, you think of people on the streets that you see panhandling. In the U.S., the largest growing segment of the homeless population are families with children. We've seen that explode over the past 20 to 30 years. That said, Vegas is unique because we have a very high rate of street and chronic homelessness, and youth homelessness. Some of the reasons for that are the reasons why homelessness is a problem in all parts of the country, which is a lack of affordable housing.
However, one factor that is unique to Vegas is that we have such an overwhelming entertainment industry, so lots of people come out here and engage in high risk behaviors, which can make it hard to get back on your feet. Another thing I'll mention is the prevalence of sex trafficking in this region. Lots of tourist cities have major sex trafficking problems, so because we've got such a great concentration of cultural and touristy things to do here, unfortunately we also see a spike in sex trafficking.
Tell us about diversion strategy.
Our Southern Nevada CoC has implemented a pilot of diversion services, which is a sort of preventive approach with families. The idea is our homeless system is completely overwhelmed. We've got a ton of tools, but scarce resources and it's really hard to tell initially who needs what. Often people end up in shelters because there's such a long wait for everything else, and a shelter is more of a catchall. The problem is that the people in shelters have a really wide range of needs. Some don't really need to be there, but it's the best option they've got. Some need something way more intensive, and a shelter is not going to meet all their needs.
So with diversion, we do a quick assessment as people are seeking shelter and determine if there’s something really easy we could do immediately to help them avoid entering the homeless system. This could include just needing a one-time rent assistance payment to get them through that month until a new job starts, or that they need help mediating with a landlord who wants to evict them. Basically the idea is to divert them out of the homeless system and work with the resources we have. If someone comes into a shelter, it's going to cost hundreds of dollars per night to serve them, and if we could pay their rent or pay the outstanding balance on their utilities that would allow them to stay in their place, that's going to be a lot cheaper and faster. So it's a really exciting intervention because it's inexpensive, it's light touch, it's very flexible, it's individualized to the client. And it eases up some of the strain on our service providers. We're working on a pilot of that that just concluded in December, so I'm going to do an evaluation of that program and start thinking through how we could scale it up and improve the implementation of it. I'm really excited about that.
You mentioned your favorite part of the week is being in the classroom.
We have a super diverse student body here and even within one classroom, you see such a range of backgrounds and experiences. That just makes for the most exciting class discussions — people have such a range of lived experiences and perspectives and opinions, and to see those come out throughout the semester is really exciting. We're training future practitioners in our programs, so to know that the field of social work is getting so many bright, compassionate, motivated new professionals is so fulfilling as a teacher, and just as a member of the profession. It's really, really exciting and makes you feel a little better about the state of the world when you see such motivated, compassionate people going into the field.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I'm actually mixed race, so my dad is an immigrant from Hong Kong — he is a mix of Chinese and Portuguese, and my mom is from Missouri, Irish Catholic — so I grew up in a multiethnic, multicultural immigrant home. I think that provided a really unique perspective. When you have immigrants in your family, it brings such a richness because particularly with interracial parents, they bring the best of both of their cultures.
What do you like to do to unwind?
I'm a real dog lover. We have a German shepherd named Rosie that we spend pretty much all of our time with when I'm not at work.
What are you currently reading?
I love a good murder mystery, and I've been reading the Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French.
If you could enact one law or piece of public policy in relation to child welfare and homelessness tomorrow without any limitations, what would you do?
I would ensure safe, affordable housing to every family that needed it. In Las Vegas, we have the largest shortage of affordable housing of any major metropolitan area in the country. So many families get caught up in service systems, and so we spend tons of effort and money serving people, but if we could just get them into stable housing they would be much better off in so many ways. Something that really guides my research is that the experience of homelessness is so damaging. Children in particular are extremely resilient and can get over a lot of bad stuff. But housing is one of the most basic needs we have as human beings, and if we could get as many people as possible into safe, stable housing, that would be a major leverage point for addressing or preventing lots of other social problems.
What do you wish more people knew about individuals who have experienced homelessness?
I would say resilience. There are so many harmful stereotypes about people experiencing homelessness — that they can't hold a job, or they've got a substance use disorder, or they're bad parents. What gets lost is that so many people have traumatic histories, and the fact that they are getting out of bed every morning and doing the best they can is something to be celebrated with compassion and an understanding that people can survive almost anything with the right amount of support.
With any number of negative stereotypes we assign to homeless folks, we're losing the fact that these are probably some of the most resilient people in our society. If given a chance, it would be incredible what they could do. Particularly children. All of the child development literature tells us that homelessness is bad for kids any way you look at it, but kids are also really tough and can get past a lot. When something bad happens to a child, it doesn't mean that they're damaged, it often means that some compensatory process will kick in and make them even tougher than before. We forget just how much potential people have.
What can a community do to be part of the solution?
In terms of private citizens, it's as simple as treating the homeless person you see on the street like a real person, and having positive interactions whether or not you have cash or anything to give them. Treating someone with dignity and affirming that you see them, that they're a human being who deserves that kind of baseline level of respect can be a really positive force for people. I mean, any of us would be super offended if someone just ignored you or walked right over you or rolled their eyes at you, pretended they didn't even see you. That's so damaging.
Then, there's all sorts of ways you can volunteer. All of our service providers throughout the community are doing great work, kind of in their own, you know, whether it's families or children or youth or victims of sex trafficking or mental health concerns, there are tons of ways to get involved. The website helphopehome.org is great for keeping the community up to date on what's going on, what providers are doing, and what the regional plan for addressing homelessness is.
What advice do you have for students interested in conducting social work research?
Something a lot of the general public doesn't understand about research is that it's slow and typically it doesn't give yes or no answers. Research is complicated. Often the conclusions we draw are nuanced and not well reduced to newspaper headlines, for example. To do social science research, it really takes a sense of humility and patience because you're going into other people's worlds and understanding their lives and problems. We don't get to just airdrop in and then leave. Our presence really has an effect on communities. The questions that we ask as researchers say a lot about what's important to us as an institution or a society, so it's important to be very mindful of that.