2021 HRI Seed Grant Recipient: Alaina Brenick

The 2021 HRI Seed Grant has been awarded to Alaina Brenick, Associate Professor in Human Development and Family Science for her project “A Right to Housing, A Right to Health: How do Connecticut Constituents View the Homeless Community’s Right to Housing During and Beyond COVID-19"

When Connecticut became an early U.S. hotspot in the COVID-19 pandemic, stay-at-home orders and strict hygiene protocols quickly followed. For those privileged to have homes, these safety protocols could be followed with relative ease; for the homeless community, the inequality was devastating. Once Governor Lamont issued stay-at-home orders, the state’s Rights to Housing agenda quickly transformed from prioritizing affordable housing and tenant protections, to finding “homes” in which the state’s roughly 3,033 homeless could reside—homes with regularly accessible and working hygiene resources; homes in which social distancing could be practiced. This shift in housing the homeless community, however, was driven less by the motivation of “housing as a right” and more by “housing as health care.”

Overwhelmingly, 84% of the homeless population has underlying physical health conditions and is at risk for severe illness. The homeless population, currently, is comprised of an older population with many communities largely aged from 50-65 years. This aging of the homeless community—another significant risk factor—is further exacerbated by the fact that the population ages faster as well. Homeless individuals of a median age of 58 years experienced geriatric conditions at rates comparable to housed individuals 20 years their senior. As a result, a positive COVID-19 test translates into harrowing statistics; they are twice as likely to be hospitalized, 2-4 times as likely to require critical care, and 2-3 times as likely than the general housed population to die from a positive diagnosis. “…The true likely fatality outcome would be on the higher end of this range given the challenge of actually getting homeless clients to the hospital, especially when they are unsheltered, as well as the unusually high mortality risks that prevail among the homeless population.” This extreme vulnerability caused many local officials to issue orders to provide “non-congregant” housing, medical transportation services, and accessible hygiene resources.

Although, these mitigating actions were mostly accepted with empathy and understanding by the housed constituencies, many of these services are now ending. Using empty hotels rooms to house the homeless during a pandemic helps the hotel industry stay afloat and provides a public health provision. This, however, is a unique situation. Typically, the homeless are stigmatized and victim-blamed for their own homelessness, as a result they are seen as undeserving of the right to housing; did a global pandemic change this? Are the homeless, deserving of increased vulnerability to COVID-19? If a global pandemic changes these perspectives, can these changes be maintained once the threat of the pandemic is no longer upon us and can the change generalize to all regardless of the reason for homelessness?

Thus, the specific goals of this research project are threefold: 1. To assess the level of support Connecticut residents have for the right to housing for our homeless community; 2. To determine if that level of support differs based on the reason for homelessness/context of homelessness; and 3. To examine the limits of any level of support of right to housing for the homeless. The study results will inform the CT Housing Committee’s approach to the Housing Rights Legislation and allow policy makers to understand clearly how and why constituents support certain aspects of rights to housing and how to best engage with their constituency to view rights to housing for the homeless as more than a matter of public health, but as a matter of social justice.

About the Awardee:

Alaina Brenick is currently Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Sciences and Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Health, and Human Development at the University of Connecticut. She received a pre-doctoral traineeship from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to obtain her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland prior to her postdoctoral fellowship at the Friedrich Schiller Universität of Jena, Germany. Dr. Brenick is a scholar-activist dedicated to the interdisciplinary and translational approaches fundamental to the field of Human Development and Family Sciences. Drawing from social and developmental psychology, education, and social work she is interested in identifying and examining individual, micro-, and macro-level factors that contribute to intergroup conflict, as well as the conditions necessary for reducing prejudice, discrimination, and victimization across development and systems. Specifically, her research focuses on how diverse groups of children, adolescents, and young adults in the U.S. and in other regions of the world—sometimes with vastly different societal structures, norms, and expectations—experience, reason about, and respond to intergroup conflict and group-based victimization (e.g., discrimination, denial of rights, bias-based victimization). She is committed to translating her work into practice. Dr. Brenick’s research provides a fundamental knowledge base for creating contextually and developmentally appropriate intervention programs, designed to reduce individual prejudice and systemic oppression and promote socially just and equitable intergroup relations.