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Preventing Homelessness in Our Community Starts with Trust

11/2/18 by Nona Ferguson

I have been working to help families experiencing homelessness stabilize for more than two decades and I’ve heard it all before. The stereotypes, the explanations, the rationale for why we develop certain support systems and why they are or aren’t effective. 

I’ve also heard from families about how they were able to overcome homelessness. I have heard how parents have struggled to get their children to school and daycare and still make it to work on time without reliable transportation. I have heard young people talk about leaving home as the only option to keep themselves safe. I have listened to families who are homeless describe what they want, and they are the same things I want: good schools, opportunities to work and provide for a family, and a place to call home.

There is nothing new about any of these stories. What is new is that we are finally beginning to listen and support programming that values the wisdom of families.

In the past several years I have noticed a shift toward listening and trusting people experiencing homelessness to know what they need for themselves. This has taken many forms in different sectors: involving families in designing programs that may benefit them, stepping back so people without stable housing can advocate for themselves at the legislature, and adapting our work to put people and families before systems and structures.

Supporting Families to Reach Independence by Themselves

Take for example the Family Independence Initiative. This approach organizes families into cohorts who define and work toward the goals they set for themselves. Families do all the work. They share community resources and advice, support one another, and even recruit other families to join the initiative. Now in 12 cities across the country, including the Twin Cities, results from FII are impressive. Families have increased their incomes, started businesses and have helped improve their neighborhoods. Not only do FII families share their stories, they also record data about their lives that is used to understand how people lift themselves out of poverty and into prosperity.

Trusting Families to Know What They Need

At Wilder, we are working to provide low-income families with housing assistance to help them stabilize. The money freed up for families receiving this assistance provides them with a basic amount of financial flexibility. We trust families to know what they need at any given time, be it a car repair or paying off a loan. This effort is new and we are still gathering data about the difference it has made, but we have heard from families that it has been a critical support. For many it has been the lifeline they needed to avoid an episode of homelessness. One participant noted, “It helped our family get by through some hard times. We had car troubles, dentist costs, and too many bills to keep up with. Now we are able to meet all our expenses and have started trying to save some money.”

Continuing to Prevent Homelessness with Innovative Solutions

What we have learned is that a one size fits all solution does not support families in leading and changing their lives. The community will continue to need a continuum of housing options, choices and means to get to housing stability. The challenge before us is to hold the current housing structure in place while creating new and innovative options for families before they fall into homelessness.

These examples and the many others happening in other sectors and other parts of the nation are just the beginning. We have much more work to do to prevent homelessness in our community, but it starts with trust. We must push ourselves to look past the stereotypes and skewed images of who is homeless to trust that people in this situation know what they need and have the initiative to change the trajectory of their lives.