Tributes to the Contributions of Michael Sosin

An influential scholar helped Chicago house the homeless

(This article appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of SSA Magazine.)

Michael SosinMichael Sosin's insights on homelessness allowed him to provide critical evaluation of Chicago's 10-year Plan to End Homelessness and ultimately helped lead to dramatic reductions in the number of people in the city living without shelter.

That contribution, as well as work that shaped treatment for drug addiction and examined the workings of nonprofit social service agencies, are parts of Sosin's continued influence on issues he cared about. Sosin, the Emily Klein Gidwitz Professor at SSA, died Nov. 25, 2014. Former students and colleagues remembered his work at a tribute conference in May 2015.

Sosin, who created a significant body of work on homelessness, was one of the first researchers to look deeply into the multiple causes of homelessness, rather than adopt the more common view that homelessness was the result of "personal failings," said Nancy Radner, AM '93.

Radner, the chief executive officer of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness from 2000 to 2012, told people at the gathering how Sosin was the perfect choice to lead a two-year critical evaluation of Chicago’s Plan to End Homelessness.

"Mike was a puzzle solver. He wanted to know if what we did worked, if it moved people out of homelessness faster. He was able to use his hugely impressive quantitative research skills to give us real answers."

Sosin's evaluation was completed in partnership with Christine George, Associate Research Professor at Loyola University Chicago's Center for Urban Research and Learning, and Susan Grossman, PhD, '91, Associate Dean and Professor at Loyola University Chicago.

Impressive results ensued. "Before the Great Recession, we were able to cut street homelessness by 57 percent," Radner said. Sosin's evaluation continues to inform Chicago's work around ending homelessness, including a renewed focus on youth homelessness and improvement in street outreach, said Radner, now Chief Operating Officer at the Primo Center for Women and Children.

Speakers at the event pointed out how rigorous Sosin's work was and how much they learned from him about setting high standards, which was evident in his work aseditor of the Social Service Review, which began in 1999 and continued to 2012, when Associate Professor Susan Lambert became interim editor.

"He was interested in publishing articles on a broad range of issues from diverse theoretical perspectives. His work raised the quality of intellectual discourse in the journal," said Lambert, an organizer of the tribute and current editor.

In addition to homelessness, Sosin studied substance abuse. Maria Bruni, PhD ’97, spoke of working with him from 1990 to 1996 on a study of people with substance abuse and homelessness funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

While other scholars had maintained that substance abuse and homelessness were the results of a lack of social bonds, Sosin’s work showed that "individuals with homeless experience and substance abuse problems are rational actors. Offers of treatment and case management services were options that were considered and weighed against all the other options they had," said Bruni, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Human Services, Division of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse.

Bruni worked with Sosin on a publication called the "Red Book," published in 1994 from the NIAAA study.

"These measures help us monitor the performance of individual providers and the system as a whole. Michael's thoughts on  engagement and retention were that it was the program's responsibility to demonstrate the benefits of the services they were offering so that the rational decision making process would lean the client toward the choices of accepting treatment and remaining in treatment," she explained.

The NIAAA study called the intervention "First Things First." "That now seems a precursor to 'Housing First,' or the model that people cannot begin to focus on their recovery from substance abuse disorders if their tangible needs are not met first," she said.

Co-author Steven Rathgeb Smith, executive director, American Political Science Association, praised Sosin for his understanding of social service agencies and their relationships to clients and their communities. Moreover, Sosin understood important organizational challenges affecting the effective delivery of services including the fragmentation of services. "Michael was concerned throughout his life with the most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens," Smith said.

— William Harms