A Class of ’23 Graduate Draws on Theory in a Policy Role Helping NYC’s Homeless
Henry O. Love is the vice president of policy and planning at WIN (Women in Need, Inc.), the city’s largest providers of shelter.
Back when Henry O. Love (Ph.D. ’23, Psychology, Developmental Psychology training area) was a kindergarten and first-grade teacher in Bedford Stuyvesant and East Harlem, he knew that a few of his students were experiencing homelessness. But knowing this wasn’t the same as understanding it, he says, and he decided to go back to school to learn more about the issues that were related to poverty and educational outcomes. He earned a master’s in education policy and social analysis at Columbia, and later enrolled in the Graduate Center’s Psychology doctoral program, where he studied how school environments shaped behaviors for young people, particularly boys of color. During his time as a Ph.D. student, he led an intervention project for Gateway Housing that was focused on improving school attendance of school-aged children who lived in shelters.
The intervention had great results for elementary and middle-school students, but the high school students hardly benefitted at all, Love says. This finding led to his dissertation: “Permanent Shelter in the Empire City: Youth Experiencing Family Homelessness and Navigating the Homeless Industrial Complex with a Narrative Inquiry Approach,” which his adviser, Professor Colette Daiute (Psychology, Educational Psychology, Urban Education), describes as “a brilliant integration of scholarly and practical research, sampling the interacting narratives of multiple stakeholders in what he refers to as the ‘homeless industrial complex’.”
His time working on the intervention led Love to meld his talent for research with his desire to work in the world of program design, direct impact, and policy development. Since last September, he has served as the vice president of policy and planning at WIN (Women in Need, Inc.), the largest shelter provider in New York City. It houses 4,800 people every night, more than half of whom are children. Contrary to the common misconception about homeless people in New York, the average person in a shelter isn’t an adult but a child under the age of 5, Love says. “There’s a lack of knowledge around young people who are with their families and who are experiencing homelessness,” he says. Even within academic research, most studies are on “young people who’ve run away, who are by themselves. Or it’s on the head of household, independent folks.”
Love grew up in Detroit, majored in history as an undergraduate at Emory University in Atlanta, and came to New York for his first teaching job. When he decided he wanted to enroll in a doctoral program, it was Dauite’s research that drew him to the Graduate Center. Her work on human development in adversity highlighted the perspectives of those often characterized in deficit terms — such as refugees and immigrants — as experts about the policies and practices defining much of their lives. Love extended that approach, Dauite says, in his “innovative dissertation study with youth who had grown up in shelters and the policies and practices that had influenced their lives.”
His position at WIN allows Love to work in the type of environment in which he thrives. “For me, as a policy researcher, I like to live in that space of how do we bridge that relationship between academics and folks who are either experiencing [homelessness] or directly serving people who are impacted,” he says. Researchers might lack the firsthand insights of people who work closely with the operational aspects of a program, or of the people who those programs are designed to serve. Likewise, workers on the ground are sometimes skeptical of research findings. “I’m working for a provider that’s very focused on programs,” he says. “And I’m trying to bring the research elements into it, which can often be a challenge.”
As Love works on developing new programs at WIN, he asks himself questions that are closely tied to his time at the Graduate Center: “How do we take what I’ve learned as a qualitative researcher and bring that into programmatic design? And how do we lead with the voices of those who are most impacted to help us co-design? And are we making the right choices as researchers and as policymakers? That was a process I totally got from doing narrative inquiry work,” Love says. “If we can do that with research, there’s no reason we can’t do this when designing programs.”
Love has seen a huge increase in homelessness in New York City during his time here, fueled most recently by the migrant crisis. What does he think would relieve homelessness in a meaningful and lasting way? The short — yet sweeping — answer is reparations for people of color. This means “thinking about reparations on a very global scale, and what that means for primarily Afro-descendant groups in the Western Hemisphere and Indigenous groups, because the folks that are fleeing, and are coming to us, are people that are experiencing anti-Black or anti-Indigenous discrimination, whether that’d be the Garifuna in Honduras or the Arawak in other areas,” he says. “And how we’ve responded to immigration, for these folks of color, has been the homeless system.”
On a somewhat smaller scale, Love would like the city to move away from “the right to shelter and more towards the right to housing.” While the shelter system is designed to be temporary, families sometimes stay in the system for years, bounced around from one facility to another. Also, no matter how many shelters the city builds — by his count, nearly 150 have opened since last September for asylum seekers — it is impossible to meet demand. “We’re in a housing crisis,” he says. “And you need people to be able to even get a voucher. If you’re undocumented, you can’t, and if that’s who most of our long-term stayers are, then how we move them up?”
“Housing is health care,” Love says. “Housing is a human right.” Without access to this right, homeless people in the city face extraordinary risks; the consequences are sometimes deadly, as seen in the recent killing of Jordan Neely. Asked about the death of Neely, who had been on a watch list for homeless people in urgent need of help, Love says, “I think his unfortunate passing forces us to think more about what are the structural issues that are contributing to incidents like that to happen. When you look at all these different health outcomes, and you look at people who are unhoused — it’s not a chokehold, but it’s a slow death.”
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