While many students decamped from Ann Arbor for Fall Break Friday, Megan Comfort, a research sociologist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, presented her research on integrating social work and ethnography with what she calls hypermarginalized populations — people in extreme poverty affected by mental illness, poor health, substance use, incarceration or homelessness.

Comfort spoke in a presentation for the Ford School of Public Policy titled “Integrating Social Work and Ethnography with Hypermarginalized Populations.” The talk was co-sponsored by the School of Social Work Learning Community on Poverty and Inequality.

Comfort’s new research study, which involved the innovative step of incorporating a social worker into intervention-based research in addition to a researcher. The study followed 20 impoverished residents of Oakland, Calif., between the ages of 26 and 59. None of the 20 participants had stable housing, and many suffered from mental illness, substance abuse, sexual abuse and repeated incarceration.

She aimed to investigate how the impoverished navigate their surroundings and how the addition of a social worker can affect their experiences.

Comfort used the case of “Charlie,” the pseudonym for a participant in the study, to illustrate the challenges hypermarginalized populations face.

Charlie is a 46-year-old, HIV-positive man who suffers from social phobia, depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and drug and alcohol addiction. He has been repeatedly incarcerated and had been unable to secure permanent housing because of his felony record.

Ultimately, Charlie’s social worker was able to secure him subsidized housing. However, his parole officer told him he was legally unable to live there because the housing was outside of the county where he was incarcerated. This left Charlie with the choice between living illegally in a stable home or living legally on the street.

Comfort repeatedly mentioned and critiqued the “Kafkaesque” bureaucratic institutions that the extremely poor must navigate.

She also emphasized the critical and stressful role that social workers occupy. Comfort included a humorous slide in her presentation that described their responsibilities.

“If you ever wanna know what a social worker’s mind feels like … imagine a browser with 2,857 tabs open… All. The. Time,” the slide read.

Comfort also presented the case of “Crystal,” a 35-year-old woman on probation and parole. Crystal became homeless at age 11, began using drugs at age 14 and is a survivor of repeated physical and sexual abuse. She has been in and out of jail, at one point returning four days after she was released.

On one occasion, Crystal went to the hospital following a violent sexual assault. She arrived there wearing only underwear, and was treated and released that night without shoes and only wearing a hospital gown. She had no identification or money.

Since Crystal had chosen not to press charges for sexual assault, she was not eligible to be taken in by a domestic violence center, leaving her with nowhere to go.

Comfort explained how Crystal was able to find shelter because she called her social worker, underscoring the importance and value of social workers and the impact they’re able to have on the communities they serve.

Public Policy Lecturer Megan Tompkins-Stange said the presentation will stick with her and alter the ways she thinks about this work moving forward.

“In this paper you have given voice to the voiceless,” she said.

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