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Faculty & Students Research Unhoused People in Lancaster Park

The result? A 31-page paper that reflects 18 months of research and takes a closer look at the populations who frequent the Lancaster County park. 

Millersville University faculty members and graduate students from the Center for Public Scholarship and Social Change and the School of Social Work recently released a report on the use of Lancaster’s Binns Park that is sparking conversations around the county. The report, titled “People & Places: Community needs and the use of public space in Binns Park,” is a 31-page paper that reflects 18 months of research and takes a closer look at the populations who frequent the Lancaster County park located in the heart of the city. 

Graduate students in the social work program Jenna Graeff ‘22, Rachel Preibisch and Dawn M. Watson conducted much of the research through interviews, observation, creation of the survey and qualitative data analysis. The team looked to Dr. Mary H. Glazier, professor emerita of sociology, and Dr. Jennifer Frank, associate professor in the School of Social Work, for guidance as they began and implemented their research. 

Dr. Jennifer Frank

According to the report, unsheltered homelessness in Lancaster City, particularly manifested by people sleeping in Binns Park, has received increased attention recently. Stakeholders cited a number of concerns about the public space, including drug use, drug sales, overdoses, violence, and the welfare of those who congregate there, especially individuals struggling with their mental health. The report states that “Binns Park has become a de facto space for the homeless community, a situation recognized by all stakeholders and the community at large.” This study attempted to understand the complexities of the issues that comprise the Binns Park problem through observation, interviews and surveys.

Dr. Mary H. Glazier

The lack of public restrooms in the park contributed to other issues identified by stakeholders in the community. The research team also discovered that some congregants were not, in fact, homeless. Violence and conflict among participants were also not frequent occurrences. This and more leads to what the report describes as “congregants conducting their private lives in public spaces.” The most pressing issues were: 

  • Developing more accurate information regarding Binns Park and its congregants 
  • Identifying and promoting effective approaches to engage congregants  
  • Finding common ground between formal programs and informal efforts  
  • Honoring the needs of congregants for human connections 
  • Implementing a people-oriented approach 

Guest speaker Dave Costerella sparked ideas for the project in a class when he shared his personal experiences doing street outreach. “It started in the homelessness class, which turned into class research and then community engaged research,” shares Graeff. “The suggestion that we have to do something,” says Preibisch. “When Dr. Frank hears those words, watch out because you’re going to do something,” explains Graeff. 

With that, the team got to work. “Social work is not just talking about things and saying, ‘Oh, that’s sad.’ It’s doing something about it,” says Watson. After the initial idea was sparked, they secured a Community Engagement Grant and collaborated with the Center for Public Scholarship to design a new and more in-depth research strategy. 

According to Glazier, this park points to a shortage of affordable housing and to inadequate resources for people in need. “The presence of unsheltered homeless residing in public places is an indication of the significant lack of affordable housing. It is essential that community leaders and elected officials work cooperatively to ensure that shelter is available, and that people receive the assistance that they need to secure permanent housing. Our research has also indicated that many of the people congregating in public spaces have experienced difficulties accessing the services that they need.” One of the ways to do this is by reducing barriers that discourage people from accessing services.  

Both Frank and Glazier jumped at the chance to work with students on the project. “The graduate students have been phenomenal partners in this research,” Glazier says. “They have technical skills that facilitate data collection and analysis and are also able to build rapport with people from diverse backgrounds. This research project would not have been possible without the work of the graduate students.” Frank echoed her sentiments, saying, “I adore collaborating with students on research. Often students don’t see themselves as researchers at first and they’re even intimidated by the notion. But once they learn the basics of social research, and gain a bit of confidence, they find that they become naturals. This group of students are some of the most intelligent, inquisitive, and engaged scholars that I have worked with at MU.”  

To read the full report, click here.

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