Sometimes, I look back and reflect on the time when I started my career at a local nonprofit in the Twin Cities as an AmeriCorps member. My title was “Income Supports Navigator,” which meant I helped people navigate complex systems so they could get the support they needed. This ranged from employment help to food support to toys for their kids during the holidays.
Often, I would call case managers at the county to confirm a client’s income or translate letters from landlords for Spanish-speaking clients or help my clients (many of whom were undocumented) file their taxes. I was fresh out of college, just 22 years old, from a tiny but wealthy town in Wisconsin. I had never struggled to find support the way my clients did. Meetings were often stressful for them and for me, but when we were able to move towards a goal together, it was immensely rewarding.
One day I’ll never forget is the day Marissa walked into my office. She’d been a participant in some of my financial literacy classes and liked to good-naturedly give me a hard time by making fun of my less-than-perfect Spanish. But when Marissa walked in that day, her demeanor was totally different – friendly Marissa was gone, and there was an anxious woman in her place.
Marissa told me she and her kids were being evicted because she was having trouble paying rent, and she had nowhere to go. Together, we called several affordable housing agencies that day, none of whom had vacancies. We tried to access emergency assistance, so she could receive help and stay in the apartment, but without a notice from the county, we couldn’t proceed. Marissa ended up leaving my office without any more support than when she came in. She was able to stay with her sister for a while, but we both knew it wasn’t a long-term solution.
I believe our community needs to do better for people like Marissa and when it comes to systems change, it will take all of us.
During the last survey, Wilder Research counted more than 9,300 people experiencing homelessness in the state of Minnesota—and of that number, 4,700 are youth.* Many people think people experiencing homelessness have done something to “deserve it” or choose to live this way. Nothing could be further from the truth—though someone’s ideal housing situation might look different than yours or mine, no one would choose to be evicted, overstay their welcome with a friend or family member, or stay in an encampment if there were better options available that met their needs. For example, Marissa would have preferred to stay in her apartment than face the prospect of homelessness, but rising rent, low income, and lack of support meant she had few choices.
Our reality today is sad—but here’s the thing that keeps me doing this work every day: Homelessness is a solvable problem.
Unlike illness or natural disasters, homelessness is manmade—we have created the problem, and we have the capacity to solve it. It is possible to create a system of support and compassion so crises like losing your job or having an unexpected car repair don’t lead to losing your housing. Or, if something does happen, we can ensure everyone has a safe, warm, stable place to go while they figure out next steps. In a region as prosperous as ours, there’s absolutely no reason why any individual or family should have to wait for housing. By coming together, I believe we can end homelessness in our community.
But…how exactly do we create a system to achieve this?
The legislative session begins in January, and we can all call upon our state senators and representatives to support and fund the Homes for All agenda, which is created by people on the ground who are working to end homelessness.
We can promote local policies to help keep low-income families in their homes and make it easier for them to access housing. We can talk to our neighbors about inviting affordable housing projects to our neighborhoods. You can spread the word to landlords to work with one of Greater Twin Cities United Way’s many programs to rent to a person or family exiting homelessness.
No one person, organization, or government will end homelessness alone. It will take all of us donating, volunteering, and joining our voices together to ask for more support, better systems, and more compassion. We can end homelessness in our community, but only if we do it together.
*Source: Wilder Research, 2015
Sam Blackwell oversees United Way’s Housing Stability goal area, including the work of the Arise Project. Sam is a graduate of the University of Minnesota and has lived in the Twin Cities for a decade; he has a strong commitment to improving our community and to helping build pathways out of poverty in our community.