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Beth Shinn

Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair, Department of Human and Organizational Development
Professor, Department of Human and Organizational Development

Research: Marybeth (Beth) Shinn studies how to prevent and end homelessness and create opportunities for groups that face social exclusion.  She seeks to use research to shape social policy. The 12-site Family Options study she conducted with colleagues at Abt Associates and Vanderbilt shows that offering long-term rental subsidies to families in homeless shelters not only ends homelessness for most but has radiating benefits for parents and children and reduces problems like substance abuse, domestic violence, and psychological distress that can sometimes cause homelessness. Qualitative interviews with 80 of the families across four sites helped to understand families’ experiences in the homeless service system, how they make housing decisions, and why so many parents become separated from their children.

Prevention of homelessness requires both that programs be effective and that they go to the “right” people – those for whom they will make the most difference. Targeting may be the harder problem. Thousands of people apply for New York City’s HomeBase homelessness prevention services each year. Shinn and students developed targeting models that the City has adopted to get services to the people most likely to become homeless without them, and have shown that there are no people too “risky” to serve.

With colleagues at the Urban Institute, Beth is studying whether supported housing can avert child out-of-home placement among families where homelessness contributes to risk. Her role is to develop a model to select the families for whom the intervention can be most helpful.

Past collaborations with community organizations and research institutes include an experimental study of the Pathways Housing First intervention with adults who experience both chronic homelessness and serious mental illness, a survey of older adults in poverty to understand why some become homeless, an evaluation of New York City's street count, and an experiment to determine whether a Family Critical Time intervention with rapid housing placements and transitional services fostered positive outcomes for children who were homeless with their families.

More broadly, Beth is interested in how social policies and settings influence inclusion and foster capabilities – or people’s freedoms to do and be for disenfranchised groups. She is collaborating with colleagues in Portugal on a study of fostering capabilities for adults with serious mental illnesses. Because understanding and changing the characteristics of settings requires measuring them, she is also examines techniques for ecological assessment.


Teaching: Beth teaches research methods, including Community Inquiry, which is the introductory methods course for doctoral students, Public Policy Development and Advocacy, and Philanthropy and Social Problem Solving.  In the last class, funded by the Philanthropy Lab, students study community needs and decide how to give away $50,000 or more.  In the past, Beth has taught Evaluation Research, Understanding Organizations, and Community Psychology.


Service: Beth currently chairs the Community Research and Action admissions committee and serves on the Shared Governance Committee for the University.  She is also Process Chair for faculty grievances arising from tenure, promotion, and retention decisions at Vanderbilt.  In the past, Beth has served s President for the Society for Community Research and Action and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.


Community Engagement: Locally, Beth serves on the Governance Committee for Nashville’s Continuum of Care, the organization mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to do planning and apply for HUD funds for our City.  She has also served on the Healthy Nashville leadership Council.   At the national level, she serves on advisory boards for the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Board of Directors for the Partnership for the Homeless in New York City.