UB Social Work School Teams With Salvation Army to Help Families At Risk For Homelessness

By Mary Beth Spina

Release Date: December 4, 1998

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Finding permanent, affordable housing doesn't always solve the problem of homelessness for some families, particularly those headed by parents at risk for substance abuse, mental-health problems or both.

But there's hope and help on the horizon for these "at risk" families through a collaborative effort between the University at Buffalo School of Social Work and the Salvation Army.

The social-work component is a key part of a three-year, $302,631 transitional housing program grant to the Salvation Army from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The UB team, headed by Janet Palya, assistant dean for field education and off-campus programs in the UB School of Social Work, will adapt the successful Strengthening Families Program (SFP) model to the project.

Although the model, developed by researchers at the Washington-based Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, has been used elsewhere around the country on other projects, UB researchers will be the first to adapt it for use with homeless and transitional-housing families.

Described as one of the "most powerful family-change programs in the country," SFP focuses on recognizing, understanding and changing behavior patterns that contribute to dysfunction of the family.

"Unless dysfunctional behavior patterns within the family are changed through a comprehensive, structured program, the cycle of homelessness is apt to continue," says Palya.

Palya notes that homeless families in which substance abuse and mental-health problems are not major issues, also may, given time and stress, become "at risk."

The SFP will include 14 separate sessions for parents, their children and the entire family. Parents will learn how to improve their parenting, communication and nurturing skills; children will focus on improving behaviors, and the family members together will discuss and demonstrate what they've learned in their individual sessions.

A total of 45 families will participate in and complete the UB-run program, which Palya says can be tailored to families from different backgrounds, cultures and environments.

She hopes the first family will be ready to enter the transitional housing program this month. Erie County BOCES II, Consumer Credit Counseling and Cornell Cooperative Extension will provide skills training in such areas as education/vocation learning, personal finance, money management and nutrition.

Once families "graduate" from the program, they will be followed for six months by Salvation Army staff, who will monitor their transition and, when necessary, offer assistance and counseling.

Although UB researchers won't be formally involved with the families after they leave the program, an evaluation component will help them track SFP's success rate and how it might be changed or improved, Palya adds.

Nancy Smyth, Ph.D., associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Social Work and associate research scientist at the Research Institute on Addictions, will serve as a consultant on the project.