Psychology professor uses passion and expertise to help launch PSU center on homelessness
Author: Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Posted: October 1, 2018

It was during Greg Townley's undergraduate days at North Carolina State University when it began to dawn on him that a crucial part of any long-term solution to homelessness would be supportive housing, or affordable housing that is coupled with social services. 

A psychology major who is now a Portland State University professor, Townley volunteered at homeless service centers and psychiatric facilities. He remembers seeing people in the hospital one week only to be living on the streets the next.

"This revolving door of individuals being institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals or prisons and not being provided with the proper support and resources to maintain their independence, housing, employment and health outside of those institutions seemed so problematic to me and something that I wanted to be able to address in the work I was doing," he said.

Townley, an associate professor in PSU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who specializes in community psychology, or how a person's environment can impact their mental health and wellbeing, has spent much of his career studying homelessness and housing interventions. 

He is now bringing his expertise to PSU's Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative, one of two new university research centers tasked with tackling some of the city's most pressing issues. 

He will serve as co-director, along with Marisa Zapata, an associate professor of land-use planning in the College of Urban and Public Affairs. Each of the university's colleges and schools are involved and other faculty members from CLAS include Maude Hines, an associate professor of English, and Janet Cowal, a senior instructor of applied linguistics.

"People often think homelessness is caused by individual-level factors like mental illness and addiction, but while those factors can explain why some people are homeless, it can't explain why so many become and remain homeless," Townley said. "We have to think about the cost of housing, the availability of affordable housing and the role that structural issues like racism and poverty play."

Townley said the idea of "housing as healthcare" will be a key focus of the center's work. Three of the most fundamental human needs are a good place to live, someone to love and something meaningful to do during the day — with housing being a catalyst for everything else.

When people become homeless and are struggling to survive, it can be nearly impossible to manage chronic diseases, mental health problems and other serious health conditions. But once they have a stable housing situation, they can focus on managing their health, finding a job, re-establishing relationships with family and friends and cultivating hobbies and interests.

"We often think about mental health and addiction as being precursors to homelessness, but it's more important to focus on the role of homelessness in contributing to worsened mental and physical health," Townley said. "Housing is the first part of a process of recovering health and living life to a person’s greatest ability."

Studies have also found that providing housing with supportive services to those experiencing chronic homelessness can save taxpayer money when compared to the costs associated with the use of emergency rooms, shelters and jails.

Among the projects Townley will be working on is documenting the health impacts and associated costs of homelessness; addressing homelessness and housing insecurity among students, staff and faculty at PSU; and understanding how people think and talk about homelessness to help reframe the conversation and motivate community action. 

The center's other research efforts include examining how innovative approaches like tiny home villages and hygiene centers can support people experiencing homelessness and evaluating the effectiveness of policies and programs to reduce and prevent homelessness.

Townley said efforts to reduce homelessness need more than a short-term Band-Aid approach.

"We need long-term solutions, and our hope is that the center is a way to combine a variety of expertise from many different disciplines to help uncover these solutions and frame them in a way that's useful to practitioners, policymakers, researchers and individuals experiencing homelessness," he said. "We want to be able to start with a focus on our community but conduct work that is generalizable and transferable to cities throughout the region, country and even the world."