Psychology grad program chronicles Pittsburgh’s homeless

Written By Nicole Pampena, Co-Features Editor

“There were four of us out on rounds that morning. Packed into the blue SUV, we pulled up past a house that was isolated from the rest, surrounded by woods. I am continually amazed at how the ‘camps’ are so often hidden in plain sight, but this one was a little different. The path we followed was very well hidden, tucked neatly away into a thickly wooded area that you would have never believed was only about 100 yards from the busway.”

The above excerpt, written by graduate students Alexandria Bright and Calla Kainaroi, describes one practicum experience for clinical-community psychology majors.

Under the guidance of Assistant Professor of Psychology Robert McInerney, students are tasked with visiting the homeless throughout Pittsburgh and speaking with them about their experiences. Based off of only cryptic field notes and memory, one or two students then compile the experience into a narrative.

The concept began in the fall 2016 semester when McInerney teamed up with Operation Safety Net, an organization dedicated to providing healthcare to those living on the streets. From there, he met its internal medicine physician, Dr. Jim Withers.

“I invited Dr. Withers to come and present to the Confluence students, and that’s where I sort of met him,” McInerney said. “I said ‘Our students do an unusual kind of psychology here. We’re a very different program from most programs in the United States.”

As opposed to more formulaic, natural science-based psychology, Point Park’s program takes a humanistic approach and focuses on collecting qualitative data.

This type of data is exactly what Dr. Withers was seeking at the time. He wanted to develop a method of program evaluation at Operation Safety Net where he can hear feedback from those he gives medical attention.

In order to launch the research, McInerney turned to three students from the newly-developed master’s program for psychology.

The fourth student involved in the practicum and majoring in clinical-community psychology, Isaiah Noreiga, joined soon after and began writing the narratives as part of a class.

“We’re like the eyes and ears of [McInerney’s] narratives,” Noreiga said. “We conduct interviews, take field notes and he synthesizes.”

Although more in-depth stories covering entire life stories are feasible, the narratives are typically only around one page in length and journal singular experiences. McInerney describes the stories as “focused but open-ended.”

One experience chronicled by Bright and Kainaroi illustrates their interaction with a homeless woman in the camps.

“…one of the women started a fire with rubbing alcohol in an old tin can as the five of us crouched around not knowing what to expect. She reached into her tent and pulled out an acoustic guitar. Strumming and singing, she shared her passion with us.”

According to McInerney, eliciting more personal and authentic responses is a challenge itself and requires a certain set of “street smarts” where students must be “vulnerable in the presence of the other.”

“We don’t want it to be too Q & A,” Noreiga said. “We want to experience with them what their experience was…You have to build a relationship first. Upfront they know who we are. They know why we’re there.”

The reason why they’re there? Advocate ethnography.

“One intention is to publish that data in a scholarly way,” McInerney said, “but I think what’s more interesting and more important is to get the word out. It’s to raise consciousness in the city…This is stuff people actually read.”

McInerney and his students have made efforts to publish the narratives in magazines and newspapers where the subjects are not identified. Despite little success with getting the stories printed to a wider audience, they remain persistent and hope to try publishing online through a blog or Facebook group instead.

“We stopped producing them because we ran into the roadblock of having no place to put them,” McInerney said. “Understandably there are institutional problems here…When Jim Withers and his staff go out there, this is medical attention. So this person is a patient for lack of a better word. There are issues of privacy.”

As long as care is taken and the content is appropriate, McInerney and his students plan to continue their efforts.

“We often dismiss people who call the streets their home, making judgments based off assumptions without caring to know their stories,” Bright and Kainaroi write. “We can’t possibly capture the breadth and complexity of every human experience in this brief article, but our hope is that some insight into their lives might reveal that they are not so different than us.”