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Class Explores DC Immigrant Housing

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DC Doors Logo (House)

An honors-level research class at the School of International Service is collaborating with the nonprofit organization DC Doors to raise awareness about the homeless immigrant population in Washington, DC. DC Doors is led by SIS alumna Janethe Peña, SIS/BA ’02, and the class is taught by Assistant Professor Maria De Jesus. The class is conducting community-based participatory research with families who participate in DC Doors in order to help change the dialogue on homelessness.

Undergraduate students Camille Bridger and Hope Johnston-Holm discuss their visit to DC Doors and their experiences with the collaboration:

This semester, the American University Scholars Program provided students with an opportunity to take Power, Justice, and Health: Community-Based Participatory Research Models HNRS 196-012H, an honors-level research class. At first, we didn’t know what to expect. To our surprise and excitement, our professor, Maria De Jesus, welcomed us to a class that would focus on hands-on community-based participatory research. She informed us that we would conducting collaborative research with DC Doors, a grassroots organization that helps homeless female immigrants find housing, get jobs, and gain confidence by being able to provide for themselves by the end of their time within the program.

Taking a tour of the site was a very powerful experience for our group. We saw the rooms that the women stay in and could tell that the staff members were proud of their tenants. There wasn’t just pride in their voices, but hope and passion. Janethe Peña and her staff encapsulate those traits. It’s no wonder that the women coming into DC Doors feel safe in this environment. The staff members of DC Doors are welcoming and friendly to all who enter.

After the visit, our class put our thoughts into action and created five groups for our research. We want to change the dialogue surrounding homelessness and focus on the resiliency of the families that DC Doors assists.

• We created a social media group to document our research and to spread the word about DC Doors and its amazing, unique work.
• The survey group will analyze generalized information, including the demographics of its clients and the effectiveness of the resources available to them both through DC Doors and in the larger community.
• Our literature review group will explore ideas like resiliency, causes and perceptions of homelessness, and the importance of confidence and stability to homeless families.
• Our photo-voice group will give disposable cameras to the families in DC Doors so they can document their lives in ways that highlight events and experiences most important to them. Through a collaborative process, the research team will then co-analyze the pictures and co-create brief narratives to complement the pictures as a way of highlighting their lived experiences. We hope that the cameras, as tools of research and discovery, will become sources of empowerment for the families.
• The digital stories group will conduct narrative interviews with both staff members and the women to obtain their perspectives. The research team will ask the staff members to share their thoughts on working with the women and what the organizational resources and barriers are at DC Doors. They will ask the women personalized questions about their experiences. The group will then videotape some of the stories in order to highlight the resiliency of these women, as well as the wonderful work that DC Doors has done for them.

This class has now morphed into a greater social project where, as a group, we have the opportunity to make a difference in the perception of homelessness as it affects immigrant populations in Washington, DC. We hope that through our research, DC Doors will continue to benefit immigrant women and their families. Visiting the site showed us that the homeless women DC Doors is working with are real people. People have a tendency to dehumanize the homeless, but these are women who have children and husbands. These are families. DC Doors understands this and we’re excited to be working with the organization because of the real change it makes in supporting families.

DC Doors is a grassroots initiative that provides safe and affordable housing to the homeless immigrant population in Washington, DC. For more information, visit