Social work student lands award for research on Fort Collins homeless

Story by Kristin Breakell

Reuben Addo, a Ph.D. student in the School of Social Work at CSU, received an honorable mention award for the Western Social Science Association’s Best Graduate Paper.

His paper, entitled “Homeless Individuals’ Social Construction of a Public Park: A Symbolic Interactionist Perspective,” examines the lived experiences of homeless individuals and reveals the assumptions behind the presence of homeless individuals in a public park.

Reuben Addo

Conflicts have arisen with housed residents and local authorities regarding homeless individuals’ use of public parks. The discourses around the use of parks can be perceived as valuing housed residents over homeless individuals. Addo’s study draws from a symbolic interactionist framework and adds to the limited body of literature on homeless individuals’ use of public parks. It informs policymakers that the presence of homeless individuals in public parks is grounded in their survival needs.

After earning his undergraduate degree in social work from CSU in 2010, Addo decided to return in 2014 to pursue his Ph.D. “I felt the faculty in the School of Social Work were not just interested in educating students, but in the overall well-being of students,” he said.

Addo’s paper was inspired by a qualitative research course he took with School of Education Professor Louise Jennings. Reuben conducted weekly participant observations at Jefferson Park in Fort Collins. He chose that location due to the apparent tension between the homeless individuals who frequented the park and the city authorities. Addo felt the narratives around the use of the park favored housed residents and wanted to use his research to tell the story of homeless individuals in the park through an academic lens.

With the assistance of Malcom Scott, assistant professor in the School of Social Work, Reuben got approval from the Institutional Review Board to conduct a formal study. Reuben’s research consisted of 10 semi-structured interviews with homeless individuals who are regular visitors in the park. His study gives a voice to an important and often underrepresented portion of the Fort Collins community. Reuben said one takeaway for people from his paper is that his study suggests that the actions of homeless individuals in public spaces is grounded in their perceived attitudes of housed residents.

For the award, Addo received a certificate, a cash prize of $400 and free registration at the WSSA conference, where he was recognized this month at the WSSA President’s Reception and Awards Ceremony in Reno, Nevada.