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2021 Urban@UW Spark Grants awardees announced

Published on September 7, 2021

Downtown Seattle with a view of the Space Needle.
Downtown Seattle, WA. Image Credit: Pixabay

Urban@UW is excited to announce awardees for the second round of funding through our Spark Grants program. The two projects selected address critical urban challenges, with a focus on transdisciplinary scholarship and engagement with vulnerable populations. 


Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Among Vehicle Residents: A Case Study of the Seattle Public Utilities’ Recreational Vehicle Wastewater Pump Out Pilot Program 

People experiencing homelessness and housing instability in urban America have insufficient access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services, and the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has exacerbated these inadequacies. Lacking sanitation access can necessitate open defecation or unsafe disposal of wastewater, the latter particularly among those residing in vehicles who use their bathroom facilities. Practices such as these increase the risks of enteric pathogen transmission and infection in densely populated cities. In response to this public health concern, in 2020 the city piloted a first-of-its-kind program to collect vehicle waste free-of-charge. The pilot program reported a 70% reduction in vehicle wastewater dumping compared to 2019 levels. Given the novelty and success of the program, this project seeks to document its operation to examine the impact in Seattle and consider it as a model for the improvement of WASH services for vehicle residents in other cities. The team is led by Karen Levy, Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences and Jessica Kaminsky, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. They will use semi-structured interviews (1) to characterize WASH access and associated behaviors of people living in vehicles and (2) to describe the government-/policy-level oversight and outreach work with vehicle residency and wastewater-based surveillance (3) to identify key enteric pathogens found in vehicle resident wastewater. This study represents a necessary first step in understanding the implications of inadequate WASH access among vehicle residents and to continuing research and funding of equitable WASH services in US cities.

Project Team Members:

The cross-disciplinary research team has extensive experience with the topic and methods of the project, and the findings will be shared with city officials and will be important for helping to spark further scholarship on and inform programs for vehicle residents in the City of Seattle and elsewhere.


Improving the enumeration of individuals experiencing homelessness in the U.S. using anonymous cell phone location data

Enumerating homelessness has been a recurring challenge for jurisdictions responsible for mobilizing services for individuals living outdoors, in vehicles or poorly sheltered. The current “One Night” or “Point in Time” (PIT) count approach to enumerating homelessness is inadequate. The Government Accountability Office completed a review of the PIT count in 2020, determining that it undercounts the total number of people living unhoused, fluctuates greatly between years, and that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was not holding Continuums of Care responsible for high quality counting methodologies. Because many critical policy choices depend on accurately measuring the growing, yet fluctuating, U.S. homeless population, a better approach to enumerating homeless individuals is necessary. The team, led by Amy Hagopian Professor of Health Systems and Population Health and Global Health, will devise a process for estimating homeless populations using the location data generated by apps on smartphones carried by individuals experiencing homelessness. This innovative approach will count people in locations that would not be populated overnight other than by individuals without better alternatives. This idea should work in any location and holds promise to revolutionize homeless enumeration. The team has been interviewing organizations that provide both raw and aggregated cell phone location and movement datasets, as well as performing field investigations to count and geolocate tents on city streets, in parks, and under freeway bridges in Seattle, Oakland, and San Diego. They plan to demonstrate proof of concept by exploring both historical (January 2019) and current data. 

Project Team Members:

The organizational home for this cross-disciplinary project is the CHIPS Housing & Health Working Group. CHIPS is organized along three pillars: Health Systems, Social Determinants of Health, School of Public Health and State Health Policy, while centering health equity. The team also intends to explore partnerships with academics in other cities interested in partnering on a larger grant proposal based on this pilot project.

We are excited to learn with the research teams, and to share their progress with the community! Learn more about Urban@UW’s Research Spark Grants program here.

Originally written for Urban@UW. 
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