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Date Permissions Signed


Date of Award

Fall 2017

Document Type

Masters Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Bruna, Sean

Second Advisor

Loucky, James

Third Advisor

Fisher, Josh


This thesis examines how community develops and is experienced among staff and residents of St. Mary’s House, a single-site permanent supportive housing program modeled in the Housing First approach. Supportive housing modeled in the Housing First approach has been gaining prominence in recent decades as an effective resource for managing chronic homelessness nationwide. Despite this, limited attention has been given to the experiences of those being housed. In particular, there is a dearth of research on the experiences of community within single-site supportive housing and the perspectives of residents remain marginalized in the policy discourse.

My thesis begins with a critical examination of chronic homelessness. I argue that federal level neoliberal policies produce the structural circumstances for chronic homelessness to exist as well as housing interventions that displace attention from these structural causes. Within this frame, the rise of the Housing First approach is complexly enmeshed within a rationale that problematizes the visibility and costs associated with chronic homelessness rather than basic commitments to the poor.

Utilizing a collaborative methodology founded in the principles of participatory action research (PAR), I conducted four months of field work at St. Mary’s House. I spent the majority of this time participating and observing in the daily milieu of St. Mary’s House and conducting interviews with supportive services staff and residents. In addition, I utilized photovoice as a visual tool to explore community from the perspectives of residents. All project data was analyzed through a grounded theory framework with feedback from the program director of St. Mary’s House. Emerging themes were then theoretically developed by concepts of sense of community, place making, and habitus.

Findings from this research are developed three different ways. First, I examine the processes of community organization at St. Mary’s House. This analysis sheds light on the ways in which the service arrangement between staff and residents structures the parameters with which social interactions are organized and community participation is produced. Second, I analyze the dimensions of experiences at St. Mary’s House and the structural challenges to building community through four aspects that I distinguish as (1) surveillance, (2) resident proximity to one another, (3) resident “exits,” and (4) the service provider/recipient paradigm. For each aspect I demonstrate how the tensions that impact residents’ experiences stem from components of the service arrangement. Third, I present resident generated photovoice material through three themes: (1) depictions of home, (2) participation in neighborhood, and (3) solidarity in homelessness. I discuss how these themes illustrate the capacity of participants as active and resilient community members. I argue that residents’ lived experiences, largely unfamiliar to service providers, are valuable for more broadly conceiving what constitutes community at St. Mary’s House, and could be used for informing related services and programming.

This thesis concludes with recommendations for building community at St. Mary’s House and considerations for permanent supportive housing programming.





Western Washington University

OCLC Number


Subject – LCSH

Homeless persons--Housing--Washington (State)--Whatcom County--Personal narratives; Social workers--Washington (State)--Whatcom County--Personal narratives; Low-income housing--Washington (State)--Whatcom County

Geographic Coverage

Whatcom County (Wash.)




masters theses




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