Helping the homeless through research

City taps SPA researchers to evaluate Denver Day Works program

April 20, 2018

When officials at the City of Denver needed community research and data analysis, they turned to CU Denver.

More specifically, they turned to the School of Public Affairs’ (SPA) Center on Network Science (CNS), where researchers motor through data to help people and communities. Associate Professor of Public Affairs Danielle Varda, (PhD ’05), leads the five-member CNS team, which performed a comprehensive system evaluation of the Denver Day Works (DDW) pilot program.

“This was an opportunity to impact social change in the city where we live.”

– Danielle Varda

Launched in November 2016, DDW provides people in Denver who are experiencing homelessness with work experience, food, shelter and supportive services. Through DDW, individuals experiencing homelessness gain paid, part-time work for a 10-week period. The hope is that participants will then transition to permanent, full-time employment.

“This was an opportunity to impact social change in the city where we live,” Varda said.

Examining community issues

Danielle Varda, PhD, CU Denver Associate Professor of Public Affairs
Associate Professor of Public Affairs Danielle Varda, PhD, speaks at a press conference to present the results of her team’s evaluation of the Denver Day Works program to address homelessness.

After its first year of programming, DDW wanted to assess its progress and areas for improvement. Program officials needed comprehensive research and data on a short schedule. Varda called all hands on deck for the project, and her team produced a 62-page evaluation in eight weeks – record time for a project such as this, Varda said.

The CNS team used the PARTNER Tool – which Varda created and is now widely used by researchers – to collect information on the quality and quantity of DDW’s partnerships and relationships.

Their research involved a data analysis of budget, finance and program information, as well as qualitative analysis through interviews of stakeholders at all levels – from the mayor’s office to work-site hiring managers to program participants.

They learned that transitioning people from homelessness to gainful employment is a complex process. In addition to the work opportunity, they need essentials like housing, hygiene tools and time management skills.

“There’s a perception that an individual can get a job and that’s all they need, but there’s so much more to it,” Varda said.

Translating data into policy

The SPA researchers gave the City three recommendations for the DDW program, and the City took all three and put them into action.

Their recommendations reflected the complexities of homelessness and self-sufficiency, encouraging a “whole-person perspective” for DDW. In December 2017, the city and DDW signed off on the research results and adopted the CNS recommendations, almost to the letter.

“It was really great for us to be able to use data and evidence to inform these important policies of the city,” Varda said. “It’s what you hope for – that your recommendations are translated into policy.”

Gaining a national reputation for research

Translating research and data into policy is the end goal for researchers such as Varda, but it doesn’t come easily.

“We are the best in this niche of systems evaluation.”

– Danielle Varda

“You have to have a very competent team to do this kind of thing,” she said. “I have an outstanding team – highly skilled, brilliant hard workers who lead with their hearts.”

Varda’s team has earned a national reputation for its high-quality system and network evaluations. Their clients include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and The Annie E. Casey Foundation. These days, they don’t have to look for projects – groups in need come to them.

“We are the best in this niche of systems evaluation,” Varda said. “We have technology that we built ourselves. We focus on translating data to practice – we don’t just write reports and put them on shelves.”

And they do it all with communities in mind.

“We want communities to feel like we’re working with them to answer tough questions, not just studying them,” Varda said.