Suzanne Wenzel has devoted much of her career to interdisciplinary research that seeks to understand and address health-related needs of vulnerable populations, particularly individuals experiencing homelessness in urban communities.
Wenzel has served as the principal investigator on ten grants from the National Institutes of Health. Funding for these projects from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse has totaled more than $15 million. Her research involving homeless persons has included an investigation of the social context of risk for substance use and HIV/AIDS among homeless men, women and youth; examination of the relationship of trauma to substance use and HIV/AIDS risk among women; and adaption of evidence-based programs to address HIV risk, victimization by violence, and post-traumatic stress among women. She is investigating the process of transitioning to permanent supportive housing among individuals experiencing chronic homelessness, and associated changes in personal relationships, behavioral health and risks, health service use, and quality of life. She organized a Los Angeles County-wide forum on the topic of integrated care and housing for homeless persons, and has participated in several regional and national efforts to prevent and end homelessness. Wenzel has also conducted research on substance abuse treatment quality, and organizational linkages among treatment courts for drug-involved offenders and community-based providers of behavioral health services.
After completing her doctoral studies in community psychology, Wenzel was awarded a National Institute of Mental Health post-doctoral fellowship in the Rutgers/Princeton program in mental health research. Prior to her appointment at USC in 2009, she was a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif., and was responsible for research quality assurance in the RAND Health program.
Rutgers/Princeton Program in Mental Health Research and UCLA Department of Sociology: Postdoctoral Fellowship, Mental Health Research 1993
University of Texas at Austin: PhD, Community Psychology 1990
Texas State University: BA, Geography and Urban/Regional Planning 1985
Areas of Expertise (6)
Industry Expertise (8)
Leadership Institute Award (professional)
Awarded by the University of Southern California, Higher Education Resource Services (HERS)
- Rand Corporation
Media Appearances (5)
‘Wild’ ideas about how to end homelessness unveiled at USC event
The event was sponsored by the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work’s Department of Adults and Healthy Aging chaired by Suzanne Wenzel...
San Bernardino County first in nation with plan for homeless women
San Bernadino County Sun
One of the primary researchers, pointed to by both Mangano and Herrera, is Suzanne Wenzel, a professor at USC. Wholeheartedly endorsing the focus on unaccompanied women, Wenzel is also quick to add that any effort to help one group of homeless people helps others — and society.
“The majority of people experiencing homelessness don’t come from somewhere else, and they don’t become homeless because of supportive strategies,” Wenzel said, pushing back against the so-called magnet effect, or the theory that offering services brings homeless people from surrounding areas. “It’s absolutely to no one’s benefit to allow any member of this group to remain homeless. It ends up costing society and our public purse far more to allow persons to persist in this state. And it’s the humane thing to do.”...
Social work academy taps Trojan to lead national effort against homelessness
As the second author on the original position paper that began the Grand Challenge to End Homelessness, Suzanne Wenzel, the Richard M. and Ann L. Thor Professor in Urban Social Development and a recently appointed member of the committee on homelessness and housing for the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, understands there is much work to be done, but she’s confident that social work can achieve it.
“I believe there is no profession more worthy or capable of taking up this charge, given our training and capacities for leadership, service, bridge building, and interdisciplinary and community collaboration,” she said. “The Grand Challenge to End Homelessness puts the profession of social work at the vanguard as we move forward now and in the future to meet this significant goal...
New data reveal crisis of women living on L.A.’s Skid Row
“This report serves to emphasize what many providers of services to homeless women already know to be true, and is a strong argument for focused attention from policymakers. It is to no one’s benefit to allow homeless women to languish,” said USC Professor Suzanne Wenzel, lead investigator...
Social work professor recruited for national mentoring program
Suzanne Wenzel, the Richard M. and Ann L. Thor Professor in Urban Social Development at the USC School of Social Work, has been selected by the American Psychological Association to participate in its Cyber Mentors program. The project is designed to prepare doctoral-level behavioral and social scientists for an independent research career focused on HIV/AIDS among vulnerable populations, including racial and ethnic minority communities.
“I see this initiative as critical because persons of color are disproportionately burdened by the AIDS epidemic, as are gay and bisexual men and people living in poverty and homelessness,” Wenzel said. “This overrepresentation among people of color has persisted since the early 1980s; they make up the majority of people living with and dying from AIDS.”...
Research Reports & Projects (3)
Pilot Test of an Adapted, Evidence-Based HIV Sexual Risk Reduction Intervention for Homeless Women
Abstract Women experiencing homelessness are at heightened risk for HIV, yet risk reduction interventions specifically designed for this population are lacking. This study reports on a pilot efficacy trial of a brief evidence-based intervention, Sister To Sister (STS), that we specifically adapted for homeless women in the temporary/emergency settings where they
typically seek services. Seventy-nine women, recruited from three service sites in Los Angeles County, were assigned to the 40-min adapted STS intervention or an information-only control group. At 30-day follow-up, intervention participants reported significantly greater condom use, intentions to use condoms, and sexual impulse control (as well as marginally higher positive condom beliefs and condom self-efficacy) compared to control participants. Results provide preliminary
evidence that HIV risk reduction can be achieved for homeless women through a brief skill-based intervention. A randomized controlled trial employing a longer follow-up period to monitor outcomes will be necessary to determine efficacy of the adapted intervention.
HIV Risk Behavior and Access to Services: What Predicts HIV Testing among Heterosexually Active Homeless Men?
HIV is a serious epidemic among homeless persons, where rates of infection are estimated to be three times higher than in the general population. HIV testing is an effective tool for reducing HIV transmission and for
combating poor HIV/AIDS health outcomes that disproportionately affect homeless persons, however, little is known about the HIV testing behavior of homeless men. This study examined the association between individual (HIV risk) and structural (service access) factors and past year HIV testing.
Participants were a representative sample of 305 heterosexually active homeless men interviewed from meal programs in the Skid Row region of Los Angeles. Logistic regression examined the association between past year HIV testing and demographic characteristics, HIV risk behavior, and access to other services in the Skid Row area in the past 30 days. Despite high rates of past year HIV testing, study participants also reported high rates of HIV risk behavior, suggesting there is still significant unmet need for HIV prevention among homeless men. Having recently used medical/dental services in the Skid Row area (OR: 1.91; CI: 1.09, 3.35), and being a military veteran (OR: 2.10; CI: 1.01–4.37) were significantly associated with HIV testing service utilization. HIV testing was not associated with HIV risk behavior, but rather with access to services and veteran status, the latter of which prior research has linked to increased service access. We suggest that programs encouraging general medical service access may be important for disseminating HIV testing services to this high-risk, vulnerable population.
The HIV Risk Reduction Needs of Homeless Women in Los Angeles
Background: Substance use, housing instability, and transactional sex all contribute to HIV risk engagement among homeless women. Because of the increased risk of HIV among homeless women, this study sought to understand the context of sexual behaviors and condom use among homeless women and elucidate modifiable factors that can be targeted by interventions.
Methods: Homeless women (n ¼ 45) participated in focus groups (n ¼ 6) at shelters throughout Los Angeles County. Thematic analyses revealed that similar to other high-risk women, homeless women engage in sex with multiple types of partners (steady, casual, and transactional).
Findings: Our findings indicate that, similar to use among other high-risk women, condom use by homeless women
varied by type of partner. Substance use also contributed to condom non-use. In a departure from previous research, homeless women reported overarching feelings of hopelessness. Participants spoke of hopelessness contributing to risk engagement, specifically the number of ongoing stressors experienced because of homelessness contributing to despair. Without acknowledgement of this unique quality of homelessness, women felt their risk reduction needs would never truly be understood.
Conclusions: Interventions involving homeless women should include self-esteem building, acknowledgment and use of inherent resilience qualities gained during homelessness, respect for current knowledge and skills, and an exploration of when women choose to trust their partners and how they make safer sex choices.
Research Grants (1)
HIV Risk, Drug Use, Social Networks: Homeless Persons Transitioned to Housing
National Institute on Drug Abuse
As local, state, and federal officials continue to invest in permanent supportive housing to address issues of chronic homelessness, mental health, and substance use, research is needed to explore how the transition to housing affects homeless individuals. Using a socioecological model and a longitudinal design, this study will examine HIV risk and prevention behaviors in a sample of chronically homeless, predominately African American men and women as they transition to housing. Evidence from a pilot project has suggested that the transition process may increase rather than decrease certain risk behaviors over time. The specific aims of the study are to examine changes in those risk behaviors, how the social networks of housed individuals change over time, and how the transition to permanent supportive housing affects drug use and mental health symptoms. The research team also plans to assess whether and how housing providers promote HIV prevention and will use findings to inform specific strategies to reduce the risk of HIV transmission. Interviews will be conducted with approximately 405 individuals receiving housing before the transition and at 3, 6, and 12 months after entering housing. Researchers will also interview supervisory employees and conduct focus groups with frontline staff members of housing providers.
Articles & Publications (4)
Objective: Research on women with histories of homelessness shows both higher rates of incarceration and higher rates of HIV-risk behaviors. However, understanding homeless women’s experiences with the criminal justice system is hampered by the dearth of social network research with this population. To fill this gap and in an effort to enhance HIV-risk reduction among women with histories of homelessness, we examine whether incarceration history contributes to HIV-risk behaviors, and explore whether personal networks mediate the potential association between incarceration and HIV-risk behaviors. Method: This study uses a sample of 445 women with histories of homelessness. Women self-reported lifetime experience of incarceration and recent 6-month participation in 3 risk behaviors: multiple sex partnership, sex trade, and crack/cocaine use. Personal network characteristics included number of network members who had risky sexual behaviors and network members who had ever been incarcerated. Path analysis is used to answer whether incarceration is associated with the 3 risk behaviors and if risky personal networks mediate those relationships. Results: Findings indicate that incarceration is directly and indirectly (through personal networks) associated with all 3 risk behaviors. Though limited by the temporal structure of the data, the associations between incarceration, personal networks, and risk behaviors suggest incarceration can be a standalone correlate of HIV risk. Conclusion: This study validates a need to intervene earlier in the criminal justice process and to incorporate personal network composition into interventions for women with histories of homelessness and incarceration.
This study used a stage-based approach to understand condom use behavior in a representative sample of 309 sexually active homeless youth recruited from shelters, drop-in centers, and street sites in Los Angeles County. Focusing on the youth's most recent sexual event, the three stages of condom use examined were: (1) whether the partners decided prior to the event about using condoms; (2) whether a condom was available at the event; and (3) whether a condom was used at the event. Logistic regression analysis was used to identify attitudinal, relationship, and contextual correlates of each of these three stages. Deciding ahead of time about condom use was associated with being Hispanic, level of education, condom attitudes, and various relationship characteristics (e.g., partner type, monogamy, relationship abuse), with the nature of these associations varying depending on the type of decision (i.e., deciding to use, deciding to not use). Condom availability was more likely to be reported by males, if the event was described as being special in some way, or if the event lacked privacy. Condom use was more likely among youth with more positive condom attitudes and among youth who decide ahead of time to use a condom, but less likely among those in monogamous relationships or when hard drugs were used prior to sex. Whether sexual intercourse is protected or unprotected is the end result of a series of decisions and actions by sexual partners. Results from this study illustrate how condom use can be better understood by unpacking the stages and identifying influential factors at each stage. Each stage may, in and of itself, be an important target for intervention with homeless youth.
Homeless people are among the most marginalized individuals in the United States and experience significant rates of morbidity and mortality. Los Angeles County, California, has the highest concentration of homeless individuals in the nation, and although it features the largest health and social services system available to homeless people, it faces significant challenges to provide cost-effective integrated care. Housing and highly coordinated or integrated care represents an efficient and effective way to serve homeless individuals. Based on content analysis of symposium proceedings that included multiple stakeholders who engaged in a daylong structured conversation about challenges and opportunities related to the development of a fully integrated system of care, this manuscript presents insights about the state of service integration in the largest county in the United States. We discuss implications for the health and social services system, including a call for developing an strategic plan to vertically integrate care to address issues of homelessness.
This systematic review explores empirical research published between 2002 and 2012 regarding the effectiveness of prevention programs for intimate partner violence. To assess whether and to what extent programs might be applicable to implementation with a homeless youth population, we categorize studies as being tested with the general youth population or with at-risk youth populations. Quality of the research is assessed by comparing participant selection, study design, assessment instruments, and program outcomes. Applicability to homeless youth is assessed by examining setting, participants, curriculum, duration of intervention, target outcomes, measures and instruments, and results. After retrieving abstracts from various databases using search words that reflected our research questions, we identified 14 studies that met the review inclusion criteria. Of the 14 programs reviewed, 7 were implemented with the general youth population and 7 programs were implemented with “at-risk” youth. Although some programs show sufficient promise to warrant further research (e.g., efficacy and effectiveness trials), whether these programs can be adapted to fit the needs of homeless youth remains unclear. Therefore, preventing intimate partner violence among homeless youth might require efforts to develop a new intervention that not only meets the needs of homeless youth but also meets the needs of those providing services for homeless youth.