10:55 AM

Putting a Face to ‘Homelessness’

How a Community Engagement Grant Helps Connect People


By Ashley Kilday

Steven_VillanoCommunity engagement and making connections among people and organizations is in Steven Villano’s blood.  The Director of UHD’s Center for Public Service & Community Research in the College of Public Service, Villano joined UHD after moving to Texas, following earning a Master of Education at the College of New Jersey and a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Adelphi University on Long Island. His goal? To create connections. It isn’t surprising that Villano is currently working with The Beacon, a nonprofit organization that serves individuals experiencing homelessness, where he is building the most important connection of all, the human kind. 

The Beacon is a special place where people come to wash their clothes, eat a hot homemade meal, and receive legal aid, counseling, mentoring, housing, and case-management services. Ultimately, The Beacon seeks to link unhoused individuals with appropriate supportive housing while placing a strong emphasis on treating all with dignity and respect.

Villano noticed many of the individuals, while waiting for services, were simply seated at tables with nothing to keep them occupied. “I shared with the executive director (Rebeca Landes) an idea of incorporating UHD students to socialize with their clients by playing games and conversing with them,” Villano recalled. “Not only would this provide a way to pass the time, it would also provide these individuals a way to connect and feel more human.”

The Beacon2To make this a reality, Villano applied for the Staff-Led Community Engagement Grant through UHD’s Center for Community & Service Learning, knowing that his concept could have a positive impact on the community at The Beacon. He was awarded a $1,500 grant for “Games: The Link to Connection.”

Villano and his Social Work Field Study student Devina Vaillancourt collaborated with people at The Beacon to get suggestions for games. He also partnered with Dr. Angela Goins, Assistant Professor of Social Work and Founder and Director of Service, Teaching, Aging, and Research (S.T.A.R.) Lab, and his newly founded student volunteer group Commerce Connects. The goal of this collaboration is to create opportunities for UHD students who are interested in volunteering at The Beacon.

Villano hopes this endeavor will help those who come for services at The Beacon to feel less isolated and more connected. He also wants students, through volunteerism, to put a face to the term “homeless” and understand the unique needs of each individual person.

“We all need to see how homelessness affects all types of people in all stages of life,” he said. “People need varying degrees of help. I want us all to see the human element of the homelessness crisis.”

Interested in impacting our communities? The deadline to submit a grant proposal for a Staff-Led Community Engagement Grant is March 15. Visit the CCESL website to learn more.

About the University of Houston-Downtown

The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.