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GSSWGraduate School of Social Work

Homeless Hackathon leverages experiential education to address community need

June 15, 2017


For college students, Friday nights are often reserved for socializing. But on the evening of May 5, dozens of University of Denver students spent their Friday trying to solve the problem of homelessness.

They were participants in the University's first Homeless Hackathon, which was sponsored by the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services and hosted by the Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) and its Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness. The participants' aim was to develop technological, social, political and/or legal solutions that best meet the needs of Denver residents who are experiencing homelessness.

"Social workers are very skilled at understanding problems in their complexity, and because of that, we tend to think in big, complex models," says hackathon steering committee Chair Kim Bender, a professor and associate dean for doctoral education at GSSW. "But there are things we can learn from engineering and other disciplines. Those big complex problems are made up of smaller, more approachable problems. There's a benefit to breaking that down and thinking outside the box."

The event's 32 participants included community members from a variety of professional backgrounds, and both graduate and undergraduate students from GSSW, international studies, computer science, marketing, engineering, psychology, construction management and other DU programs. Following an overview on the issue of homelessness, participants heard from a 12-member expert panel that included a Denver city councilwoman, a state court judge, a pastor, a psychologist, nonprofit and management experts, service providers, advocates, educators, and individuals who have experienced homelessness. Participants then broke into six teams and spent the rest of the seven-hour hackathon brainstorming, prototyping and pitching their ideas, with guidance from experts and mentors along the way.

"The [hackathon] reenergized me and reminded me why I chose social work," says participant Kelsey Stone, MSW '17, who spent her concentration year interning at Urban Peak—a nonprofit that serves youths who are experiencing homelessness. "It was vastly different from any experience I've ever had in that it was so interdisciplinary. In graduate school, you're focused on your niche; to be able to work across dimensions and share ideas and knowledge was so incredibly valuable."

Stone's team pitched an idea to use an app to streamline and increase collaboration among resources and services for people experiencing homelessness. Another team proposed a microloan program that would help people in crisis pay for rent and other necessities. But when the teams were scored on feasibility, innovation and impact, it was another app idea that won the grand prize. Because people may stand outside a shelter for hours only to find out space isn't available, the winning team presented an app that, in real time, would update shelter-bed availability citywide; beds could be reserved through mobile phones and kiosks.

"In the hackathon setting, you don't make a mistake—you try and fail forward," Bender says. "You get feedback, you take a couple of steps back and try again until you come up with an idea that is new and exciting."

"The great value of this exercise was generating awareness and elevating empathy for a major social issue among people who might not otherwise invest so much time in learning about it," adds steering committee member Jennifer Wilson, a first-year GSSW PhD student who previously managed an emergency shelter. "There were a lot of participants—engineers, computer science and international development students—for whom this isn't a primary focus. I believe this elevated their sense of connection to this issue and increased their motivation to act, do something, get involved."

Increasing awareness and reducing the stigma of homelessness were the event's overall goals, and Wilson, along with GSSW doctoral student Jonah DeChants, developed pre- and post-event surveys to help gauge participants' awareness of, and attitudes about, homelessness. Although analysis won't be complete until late summer, anecdotal feedback indicates that students want more events of this type—with more information, more discussion, more time to develop and refine their ideas, and opportunities to move ideas forward. Bender, GSSW Dean Amanda Moore McBride and Project X-ITE Faculty Fellow Matt Rutherford are exploring the possibility of a course, certificate program or other venue for more interdisciplinary experiences like the Homeless Hackathon.

"This kind of experiential learning shouldn't be supplementary to our education—it should be core," Wilson says. "It would be great for the University to continue exploring these types of learning opportunities, as I think they're incredibly effective. One student said that in her entire master's experience, this was the most practical and engaging thing she's done."

The Homeless Hackathon steering committee included representatives from GSSW and several other DU programs: the Sturm College of Law, Barton Institute for Philanthropy and Social Justice, Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science, and Project X-ITE. Sponsors also included Papa John's Pizza, Domino's Pizza, Starbucks and Kaladi Coffee Roasters.

Give to the Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness


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