On the surface, he seemed like a major success.
The man wasn’t using drugs or relying on the emergency room for medical care. He had his own apartment and had cut negative ties from his days living on the streets of Los Angeles. But Jack Lahey could tell something wasn’t right.
“He was low risk because he was completely isolated,” Lahey said. “We asked him, how do you like your life? He said, ‘I don’t like it, but it’s OK.’ It was so beautifully sad.”
It was a bit of a wakeup call for Lahey, a master’s student at the USC School of Social Work, who spent several hours with the man as part of a research project exploring how people’s lives change after they enter permanent supportive housing following an experience with homelessness.
As a clinician working in social services, he had similar clients who never left their apartment. He would do their grocery shopping and help them apply for benefits or access mental health care.
“We just thought they were easy cases,” Lahey said. “As a researcher, you understand how detrimental it is and that it’s actually a very disturbing case.”
Witnessing that insight is gratifying for Suzanne Wenzel, the Richard M. and Ann L. Thor Professor in Urban Social Development and lead investigator of the research project.
The shadow knows …
Through a process known as ethnographic shadowing in which researchers spend time with study participants to see how they live their daily lives, she said Lahey is adding depth and richness to data on issues such as mental and physical health, substance use, access to care and quality of life.
“This is a unique way of blending research and practical skills for an MSW student that isn’t often done,” she said. “Jack is being immersed in a scientific project, an experience I think we need to afford to more of our master’s students.”
The research team is also benefiting from Lahey’s clinical experience, said Benjamin Henwood, an assistant professor who is mentoring Lahey. The two had met during a previous project before Lahey decided to pursue his master’s degree at USC, and Henwood was impressed by his work at a permanent supportive housing agency.
“Not only could we use the support, but he knows the population so well that it was a really good fit,” Henwood said. “To the extent that we want our research to be as translational as possible, having somebody who has worked in the field only enhances our study.”
In addition to working in homelessness services, Lahey has managed Social Security and disability benefits for individuals with serious mental illness, helped people find jobs as an employment specialist, worked as a union organizer in Washington, D.C., and conducted research for a transportation workers union.
Finding his path
Describing himself as innately curious, Lahey said he majored in history as an undergraduate because he is interested in how people’s perceptions and experiences in the past inform their current lives.
“Going into social work, I wanted to understand that in terms of theory,” he said. “I was learning a lot of techniques in the field and they were working, but I had no idea why. I really wanted to understand the thinking behind some of these practices, like motivational interviewing.”
When his neighbor, current Ph.D. candidate Liat Kriegel, learned that Lahey was interested in research and theory, she suggested that he help out with a project being led by Henwood.
The experience turned out to be a major factor in his decision to enter the MSW program, and after taking a research methods class, his fate was sealed.
“The more I kept digging into writing research papers and understanding that world, the more it clicked,” Lahey said.
He now plans to pursue a doctorate and is interested in specializing in older adult populations, particularly individuals with criminal records and a history of homelessness and mental illness. Few services are available for people in the community with that combination of factors, he said, and as a researcher he envisions developing new strategies and tools to meet that need.
Lahey said he hopes sharing his experiences in the field, both as a clinician and a researcher, will inspire other students to take a similar path.
“I feel like my skills are being utilized, and I definitely feel like I’m being challenged,” he said. “I would really encourage anybody who is interested to get involved, because I think there is a place in research for everybody.”