Alum Profile: From Yakima to Edinburgh, UW Geography Alum Melissa Espinoza Pursues a Career Researching Housing and Homelessness

Submitted by Nell Gross on

Researching homelessness, social control, and encampments in Seattle, last month UW Geography and Comparative History of Ideas alum Melissa Espinoza finished project managing the point-in-time count for All Home King County, while conducting fieldwork for a Ph.D. at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. In this role, Espinoza worked "across King County with different community members, city workers, policy writers, people with lived homelessness experience and non-profits to carry out the count as racially equitable as possible... My research and my role at All Home both aim to better understand homelessness by involving people with lived experience, in more than just a tokenizing way. The biggest overlap [with my Ph.D. program research] is working with and for people who are currently experiencing homelessness. The difference in my work and my research comes down to the flexibility I have in the approach and execution and how many people have to be involved in the decision making. Academia involves a certain level of accountability and standard that working for the local government doesn’t always have. Academia also offers a lot of room for cross-disciplinary partnership that doesn’t always happen when working in government silos." In the discussion that follows, Espinoza describes her pathway from her hometown of Yakima, WA, to her current residence in Edinburgh, Scotland.

On the impact of studying geography at UW: "My undergrad studies did a great job of opening me up to other perspectives, environments, and lived truths. I went to places where I was forced to learn a new language and where parts of my identity were challenged. Undergrad prepared me to deal with the people who never show up to group projects and yet love to talk in class as if they did."

On setting career goals: "I did not have any master plans. I have goals and try to remain flexible and open to how I get there. I was lucky that All Home has asked me to work on two different projects. They have supported my research in trying to better understand what can be done differently and what about the status quo can be challenged. I would like to write an academic article on the point-in-time count methodology. 

I would like to do a post-doc using a social control typology (Johnsen, Fitzpatrick, and Watts 2018) that seeks to understand the accommodation choices and experiences of unsheltered people in Seattle compared to a UK city. I am open to where I land after my Ph.D. I love research. There is always room to find out what other places are doing and why it works there, and why it does not. I would like to eventually be a professor who builds bridges among academia, practitioners, and people with lived homeless experience. If people are constantly learning more, research what works, and are inform and responsive to those most impacted, they can develop programs/systems for the future while also attending to the immediate need."

On the upsides and downsides of the workplace: "I am most moved by those who continue to be kind in such a passionately debated topic across our county. I also really love my department and colleagues. I love showing up every day and being surrounded by people who love what I love, who are actively doing their best to change what we can. My department is small, inclusive, supportive, and challenging.

I least like having to deal with people’s egos, especially when they are not helpful. Some people think they know what’s best and that they hold the most valuable experience and knowledge. When the reality is that a lot of people hold valuable information and experiences however, it is the positionality of our knowledge that is sometimes more relevant. I deal with it by reminding myself of perspective and context. When someone is being challenging to work with, and I try and understand why they are being challenging so I can better understand how I can best communicate with them."

On growing up first-generation in Yakima, the only person in the family to attend university: "It was not until much later in life that I realized how lucky I am to have grown up in the community that I did, and to have a family who functions off of humor and love.

It was not until I was applying for FAFSA and scholarships that I realized where my family’s income sat in proximity to the poverty line. I grew up in a home of people who were always working, and could provide for whatever I needed. I learned at an early age what the difference was between a want and a need. I grew up witnessing people work hard, laborious jobs in harsh conditions. Until this day, the smell of pesticides reminds me of my father and my community.

We moved around the Yakima Valley in my childhood. I did not know this then, but moving around prepared me later in life to be flexible and adaptive. I learned to be comfortable in different spaces.  Even though we moved around, I always had a community. I had a community that extended beyond my biological family. I had teachers who looked out for me, who kept me challenged and my parents engaged. I had an older brother who called me 'doctor' growing up, to let me know I could be one someday, while also calling me 'ewok' to keep me humble.

I realized that my community and my family dynamic and support has been crucial for me. It has been what has ultimately allowed me to compete with people who had the financial means to pay for the resources and other privileges to succeed. I realized a privilege I hold is that I am unconditionally supported by so many in my community and my family. I have so many people in my life who instilled in me that I am worthy, that I can do it, that they have my back when I make mistakes, that I am allowed to make mistakes.

This has shaped my ability to dive into jobs and internships with confidence. I am not saying I never have imposter syndrome (I especially do in academia). However, the more I have worked in my field the more I realize who the actual imposters are. I have volunteered and worked in the homelessness sector for over 10 years. I first started volunteering with different homelessness programs after taking a CHID course at UW.

I had also participated in five different study abroad opportunities at UW. Those opportunities were from CHID and the geography department. In my first interview after undergrad, the hiring manager thought I could be adaptable in any situation given the experience I had volunteering and being able to live in different places. My first job after undergrad was at the Crisis Clinic 211 line. I was able to learn about every resource by zip code in King County. The knowledge I held, and the interests I was able to explore in that job, paved my way [into a career in] housing/homelessness. I found what lit a fire in me.

I worked in different homelessness focused programs and non-profits. Later, I was noticed by funders (King County, City of Seattle, and Building Changes) because of the rate and amount of families I was able to help move into permanent housing. I was even asked to meet with the mayor. I was given a platform that I shared and often gave to the families who were experiencing homelessness to speak from.

I was later offered a position with King County to help start training other case managers in this pilot program. It is now an integrated part of King County’s homelessness response. The transition in those jobs was not always smooth. I had managers who did not support me and made my job difficult. I never gave up on my job because I loved and believed in the program I was working in. I believe in doing the right thing. I believe in being a “doer”. I kept doing my job despite all the barriers. Eventually, the funders from my program became my mentors.  I once again leaned on those who believed in me and supported me."

On deciding to attend graduate school in Europe and conduct fieldwork in Seattle: "I did my Master's in Glasgow, Scotland. I stayed in the U.K. because it is cheaper and faster to finish my Ph.D. I have 2 years left, and have been in the U.K. a little over 2 years. I chose Scotland because I wanted to study housing and homelessness. The U.K. has very specific Housing Studies programs, and Scotland’s housing policies are bit more progressive than the rest of the U.K. and is much cheaper to live in comparison to London. Master's degrees take one year. I knew I would want to get my Ph.D. and thought now or never as I was finishing my Master’s degree. I pitched my Ph.D. topic (which always took place in Seattle) and was accepted to a couple programs. I chose the one that had a tie to the U.S., and where my research was most aligned to a department. I don’t regret my choice. My department is small and incredibly supportive and aims to influence U.K. legislation through research. 

It has been rewarding to be able to bring an international perspective to my work in King County and my studies in the U.K. My international experience in academia started with all the study abroad programs I did ... in my undergrad... I have to say life has been treating me well and I am grateful for all the opportunities I have worked for and ran with. I can’t complain."

On advice for geography students: "Be a 'doer' in whatever capacity you can. The 'doers,' the people who deliver actual results, the people who complain and come up with alternative suggestions when they do. Your kindness will always be remembered, but will only take you so far unless you are also a doer. Make sure to give the platform to those most marginalized by whatever you are working towards. Make sure when you working towards 'helping' a population it is not for the fame, glory, or social media likes, it is because 'your humanity is bound to theirs.' It will always be obvious to those who are most impacted by your 'cause' how genuine you are and those are the people who matter most."