Less than two weeks before they accept their diplomas, two University of Wisconsin-Platteville Baraboo Sauk County college students demonstrated the Wisconsin Idea — how their learning can benefit the community — through an honors project on the hot-button issue of homelessness.

Emily Kowalk of Portage and Colby Powers of Sauk City designed a survey to gather insight into the homeless population living in the Wisconsin Dells area after a local nonprofit approached their adviser and economics professor Musa Ayar over the winter.

“I’m trying to push them above and beyond and then show them that actually with the tools they have, they can help the community do something good — and learn themselves,” Ayar said.

That community impact, immediate relevance and “real-life application” is what drew Powers to volunteer for the project, which he and Kowalk presented at the university’s Spring Honors Symposium on Tuesday.

“Our survey clearly shows that this is a local issue,” Powers told the audience. “These are people who live here, people who grew up here, people who have family here.”

The two 20-year-old students dug into research on homelessness, finding a 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that estimates eight in every 10,000 people were homeless in Wisconsin. They used other surveys as a reference to design their own questionnaire tailored to the population around Wisconsin Dells and Lake Delton.

Ayar then brought the surveys to a small group of area stakeholders with whom he’d met previously to discuss the issue, including the high school principal and the director of St. Vincent de Paul. They were tasked with distributing several surveys to homeless people they knew.

While smaller than they’d hoped, the sample size of 18 respondents was acceptable given the total Dells population, Ayar said.

Of those 18 homeless respondents, Powers and Kowalk found more than two-thirds were female, almost half supported children and none were college graduates. Most were between the ages of 26 and 45.

More than half reported having issues with their mental health; only about 20% said those issues caused their homelessness. Another 20% answered that an argument with family or friends was the cause of losing their home. Other contributing factors were alcohol or drug use, incarceration, raised rent, losing a job, domestic violence and divorce.

Almost all respondents said they would use a homeless shelter if one was available.

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“If it was implemented in that community, it wouldn’t go to waste,” Kowalk said of a shelter in the Dells area, which they included as a recommendation based on their research. “It’s something that they want and need, essentially.”

The two students will present their findings to the community stakeholders, who will “hopefully” then implement some changes, they said. Based on their findings, they recommended improving awareness of available services and expanding mental health assistance.

Ayar said Dells nonprofit Beacon House originally asked him to study poverty and homelessness in the area. The first meeting with stakeholders convinced him that a survey was necessary to understand the issue after attendees voiced various assumptions about homeless people.

Despite some pressure to study the Baraboo area, Ayar said he’s avoiding that while the issue remains “hotly debated” since the village of West Baraboo considered allowing homeless shelters in residential districts. He does, however, think a similar study should focus on Baraboo and said he might consider doing one in the near future.

The survey is meant to give community members a foundation of data to work from, he said, possibly giving shelter organizers a better chance of gaining community acceptance. So far, he was struck by the majority of respondents being women, often with children — a finding that contradicts common stereotypes.

“This is almost like a humanitarian crisis,” he said.

While neither student is pursuing a career in a related field, Kowalk said “I think it is something that is important and needs to be addressed, so I’m glad we did it.” She’s planning to continue her schooling so she can work in elementary education. Powers will be going to UW-Stevens Point to pursue a degree in conservation.

The four other undergraduate honors projects presented Tuesday spanned topics from the mapping of a possible ancient fault and environmental ethics to the correlation between people with adverse childhood experiences and incarceration.

UW-Baraboo Campus Dean Ed Janairo emphasized the power these research projects have on students.

“They transform our students when they engage in this kind of research and they learn that they are able to contribute to human knowledge. I mean, that’s what scholarship is all about,” he said. “They change their perspective on the world through the knowledge that they’ve learned themselves.”

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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