VISTA to VISTA is a recurring feature where our VISTAs interview each other about their perspectives, experiences, and challenges. Alfreda Baran (Mercy Housing Lakefront) and Ed Luna (Center for Changing Lives) got together on January 18 in Uptown, Chicago, to talk about their thoughts on affordable housing and much more.
ON PERCEPTIONS AND EXPECTATIONS RELATED TO HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS
ED: It seems to me that one of the strengths we have in our relationship is that we think alike. Ideas seem to form as they come out of our mouths.
ALFREDA: It’s very fluid.
ED: Yes. And it’s nice, too, because in our life experiences, we have both seen and done a wide range of things. So we bring a certain knowledge to the table, or dare I say wisdom…the ability to be flexible and absorb new information and apply this whole lifetime of experiences to new situations without becoming heavy-handed, rigid, or thinking we know best. The fluidity of our own conversation then becomes a perfect example of what we do as VISTAs.
ALFREDA: That’s true. For example, with the population that Mercy Housing serves, fluidity is very important, because we can’t have expectations. An experience with a resident may turn out to be totally different than we expect. What I might think would be most helpful to them may not be beneficial to the resident at the time. And that’s where that fluidity is really important.
Some people are looking for a place to live, some people are busy with their lives. They may be employed, or at a point where they are close to homelessness, or were homeless, and now they finally have a structure, a living arrangement where they don’t have to worry about asking themselves things like: “Am I going to have to be outside?” “Where am I going to sleep?” “Am I safe?” When housing is not a question every night, at that point they can begin to work on capacity-building or on some other issue that needs to be dealt with.
ED: This is something that I thought about in my conversations with some of the residents at your facility today. When you are “out there” (i.e. without shelter), you are forced to make decisions about where to sleep tonight, and they’re not the kinds of places you really want to be, they are not ideal, or they’re not clean. This includes shelters, or living under the bridge in a tent, but it also includes other options, like staying with people you don’t want to be with.
Something that has surprised me in my experiences at my agency and elsewhere is the sheer range of reasons someone would end up in a situation of homelessness, which includes my own experiences. I have to now count my time as an itinerant-by-choice as being effectively the same as their experience, because there is not just one way that this happens to a person. If we’re going to call it “homelessness,” a term that puts us in a certain limited frame of mind, we tend to think of it as an either/or situation. But I’m learning that that’s absolutely not the case. There’s a lot of in-between, grey area where people may be semi-housed for part of the year, on their own for part of the year, or maybe they’re out there because they prefer it, or they don’t see any other options.
ALFREDA: In some cases, how they got there is not the stereotype…they could have just lost a job. This is especially true if you’re earning close to the poverty level, and you don’t have resources to afford the time to look for a new job or consider getting new training, and so on. So being judgmental really doesn’t help, because people from all walks of life can end up without housing. And it’s not always through neglect or because they were irresponsible–bad things happen to good people.
ED: This experience has certainly given me more of an opportunity to become more analytical when looking at the bigger picture of why somebody would end up at risk, or in the actual shelter system and emergency services. But both of us work primarily with clients who are one or two steps above that. They’re in the supportive housing, they might have an income, but perhaps not enough. There’s a desire to do better in the face of precariousness of their situation, which might be only one or two paychecks away from disaster. Constantly living on that borderline–which as we’re discussing, is much less clear-cut than most people would guess–in those weird grey areas of say, having income but not having a home, or having a home but not having an income (or any number of other bewildering combinations) diminishes people’s ability to cope. After taking care of the day-to-day, there often aren’t enough mental resources left to imagine another pathway, to describe a vision or to create an action plan that might raise them up three or four steps higher than they are.
ALFREDA: They’re in crisis mode. You have to look at what’s immediate. Once they are able to have housing security, they begin to move on, to start envisioning employment or bettering their employment. They can start to imagine going to school, or doing something they weren’t able to do when they were consumed by a housing crisis.
ON LOOKING PAST CRISIS MODE AND OPENING EYES
ED: One of the real eye-openers for me this past year has been the idea that even in crisis mode, you still have a chance to give yourself the gift of vision. It’s crucial to be able to envision something better for yourself, and take some of that crisis energy to open yourself up to other possibilities, which also builds your self-esteem. It’s almost like you have to give yourself permission to dream, or from our point of view at Center for Changing Lives, it’s about giving clients the space where they can discover what they can do, even in the face of difficulty. They may lack an income, or a home to call their own, or be dealing with other imminent issues like physical/emotional pain–any of those things that might take away our ability to see what’s ahead–yet they can still dream.
They can also connect with that outside eye, the person who can help them make that dream more feasible and realistic. In our agency, that would be the role of the coach. But it happens in small ways all the time. I saw it happen with some of your residents, in fact. That opportunity to swap stories, and see that’s it’s not just “my life” that’s at stake, really helped someone see that they were not alone.
ALFREDA: When someone else, in a non-judgmental way, is able to say, “Have you ever thought about this…?” or “Have you ever thought about how this could be better?” It’s kind of like telling the person “I believe in you.” Even if I don’t know the person that well, it’s telling them, “I really believe that you’re capable of more…let’s look at life beyond this crisis.”
ED: It’s about nurturing those inner resources as well as connecting people to supportive outer resources. [Realizing that] was another important pivot for me in this process. When I came to my agency, and eventually said “yes” to the VISTA experience without entirely knowing what I was getting myself into, I had a number of moments that proved to me that even though I had this experience of living on the fringe, and judging myself harshly for not being able to make it work better, I still knew that I had something to offer. But I actually had to have someone (a coach at CCL) sit me down and get me to answer that question: “what are those things I have to offer?” I had to start naming them, and bringing them out into the real world. I realized that I had to have a way to help others in order to remember what kind of help I really needed, which was to feel useful, like I was contributing something.
So now, for me to be offered a year to further condense that realization into the little actionable projects I’m doing at CCL–like our monthly Financial Club where we host presenters and community members from the outside, or by doing financial workshops or otherwise spreading the word about what we do to other places (like we did today), I feel like I get to combine many of those skills.
I also find it interesting that in much of the VISTA materials that we receive, it’s not generally framed in this way (as self-improvement through public service), but it’s couched more in the language of social services. Even so, I’m starting to notice that the more I value my own strengths, and start from them, the more natural it feels to share what I’m doing. It’s also made it easier for me to cope with the complexity of what we do, and the stories involved.
ALFREDA: To hear the stories of people who have lived through some very extreme, difficult situations also builds my belief in human nature, the human experience. But it’s easy to be negative.
ED: I’ve found that negativity, defined in its own terms, doesn’t really make anything. It erodes, corrodes, and destroys. Even so, it also has the possibility of doing something, like those little black beetles that come along to clean up the skeletons.
We have to have the vision to imagine what we can do in that space…”well, now it’s an empty lot, so what do we build here?” If all we do is spend our time lamenting the loss of the house got torn down, we don’t make plans to build a new one.
It’s about us learning to lead as VISTAs in the small ways we can lead in our organizations and our communities, and to provide our work as an example. In fact, in my case, it was really crucial for me to build my story into it: “Hey guys, I used to live in my car and take photos in various places. I didn’t know what I was doing–and I still don’t really know what I’m doing–but now I’m doing this (i.e. my work as a VISTA), and I’m sharing it with you.”
ON CHOOSING TO BECOME A VISTA
ALFREDA: I was a tutor for a year at a charter school in Chicago, on the West Side, but the school was having financial difficulties, so they weren’t really able to keep everyone. So I applied for this position through Housing Action Illinois.
I’ve always been interested in housing, I think it’s a basic step to fulfill everything else. If you don’t have housing, you can’t really go forward. Also, I majored in anthropology, so from a community perspective, I think it’s important to consider what people experience, that they can be a product of their community [in a bad way], but that community can also be an uplifting experience. So I was in the right place and the right time to be able to do that. And that’s how I got involved with VISTA.
Would I have done it even ten years ago? Probably not. But for me, it was an opportunity for growth, and these two years have been very life-changing. We often have a certain perception of ourselves, so it’s not always a bad thing to be rattled a little bit, like “this is what you believe, but is this how you really want to be?”
ED: Yes. VISTA is a good opportunity to test your assumptions about the world…
ALFREDA: Yeah, and you don’t always get a chance to go out there and try to do something, to try to be helpful. So I’m really fortunate that I’ve been able to do that. Some people have other responsibilities, whether it’s family or whatever, and it kind of passes them by.
ED: And also, it might be worth saying that both of us have other resources to draw from, so that inevitable feeling of living on the same precarious level of income as the people we work with is softened.
ALFREDA: But it’s also part of the experience, because when you have less resources, you very quickly realize how a person of low income experiences things and the choices they have to make. It’s a very revealing experience. Do I buy food, or do I take care of a light bill?
ED: Let alone, how do you orient those limited resources towards a bigger goal like a certification, or a tool that might help you move up the ladder (a computer, or a car for example). If one thing goes wrong in this complicated equation, the whole plan goes out the window.
ALFREDA: It’s like you said, it takes a lot of energy to live precariously, day-to-day. Where are you going to find your shelter, or your food, or safety. What about health? The energy level you have to have to live that kind of life, you almost don’t have time for anything else.
ED: Or worse: how do we access resources we don’t even know about?
ALFREDA: Just like how now, almost every single job, to even apply, it’s all online. What if you don’t have access to a computer, or you don’t have the computer skills, what if you have access at a library but it closes at a certain time? You’re cut off almost from the beginning.
ED: [And] there’s the shame of talking about how hard it is to pay your bills, how hard it is to be dealing with imminent homelessness, or worse. So for me, this was a big component of the trauma I went through. Here I was, a photographer at the time, doing a lot of my work for free, because I didn’t know the best practices to start a business, and maybe I didn’t want it to become about that. For me it was about the joy of taking lovely pictures of friends, people, and places I was visiting.
ALFREDA: It seems like we’re headed towards a more blatant distinction between the “haves” and “have-nots.” There used to be more of a middle class, a grey area. People to come out of high school, and get some kind of job for 30-40 years, and that’s not realistic anymore. We don’t have a social safety net anymore. When people lose their job, or get hurt, or something else happens, they just fall. And these are the people we’re seeing in our work.
ED: And the irony is that, if we did an informal poll of the residents of the tent city here in Uptown, I would guess that a fair number of them have phones, many of them smartphones. And as the homeless population gets younger, or the younger generation who grew up with this gets older, this will only grow. People find a way to get a pay-as-you-go phone, or stay on a family plan, or some other way to stay connected. It’s an odd paradox that even as the haves and have-nots are becoming more extreme, the have-nots also have some degree of access. But this also gives the people in those upper echelons of society the excuse to look down and say: “Well, you’re just not capitalizing on your opportunities! Find a way to make money on your smartphone!”
ALFREDA: Well, for every person who has successfully made money online through blogs or whatever, there are a lot of people who have had ideas, and maybe tried them, but they didn’t work out.
ED: It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention, and I agree, but also, having a certain amount of stability is necessary to experiment on those kinds of ideas, to try things and see what works. That’s also a proven way.
ALFREDA: Otherwise, people can’t take risks.
ED: That goes to the heart of the VISTA experience, too. When we talk about capacity-building, and nurturing those inner strengths, people who might not believe themselves capable of much, we want to try to get them to realize that yes, they can, while at the same time, we connect them to the bigger constellation of government, state, or local services, and the wider conversations that are happening in communities and society. And in that sense, it’s about weaving together two of the biggest strains of American culture: the individualist strain of self-reliance, independence, and talk about pulling ourselves up by our mythical “bootstraps,” versus the more communitarian strain of interdependence, a mentality of “we’re in this together,” which emphasizes the common good. Unfortunately, one of those is very much at risk right now…
ALFREDA: Well, we live in an interconnected society. It’s not like say, 200 years ago, when somebody could go out West, chop down some trees, put up a house, then farm, hunt, or fish as a means to support themselves. We’re globally interconnected. If something happens in say China, it might affect us. If there’s a grain crisis in some other part of the world, it might raise prices. And that affects all of us. If you want people to raise themselves up by their bootstraps, that’s fine, but you have to offer people some opportunities. We’re so interconnected globally that you can’t live like a hermit.
ED: And anyway, the thought of hundreds of thousands of people choosing to live off the land, or like hermits, seems unlikely to me. For all the problems the city brings, we clearly like to cluster together in tribes. Some of us like to be within a tribe of people just like us, while some of us like the intermingling of tribes. It seems like we all have our preferences there. But I certainly feel that the more time I spend in other tribes, when I am the guest elsewhere, outside of what I know, I always come back stronger.
ALFREDA: I think it’s good to come out of your point of reference, whether it’s by gender, race, economics…I think it’s important because it makes you a stronger, more inclusive person, which helps us change things for the better. Being judgmental doesn’t help. People complain about government subsidies, asking why people aren’t doing better, that kind of thing.
ED: It’s a cognitive bias, too. The first step may be to admit that these things exist, that human perception is actually quite poor when it comes to assessing reality.
ALFREDA People are biased about everything.
ED: Like, when you’re at a certain level of income, you feel like you’re more “deserving” of it because you already have it, which is like weirdly tautological.
ALFREDA Like “I earned it,” even when you were born into a higher socioeconomic position where say, you could go to college without having to work. When we have those options, we generally will do better.
ED: My VISTA year has been a year to get more specific about my values, not just to talk about them but to actually enact them. And I’m finding that this is itself one of my core values: the idea that values mean nothing unless they are demonstrated in the world. We can talk about the things we value, but if we’re not out there doing it, then they aren’t really values.
So I’m really grateful for the year length of time to do this service, because as I approach the seven month mark, I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to sit in that question for that time, and I still have the luxury of five more months to share it, and complete the circle of learning, sharing, incorporating new information, sharing, and so on. I’m much more at peace with what I can do in the time I have left.
ALFREDA: It takes people out of their comfort zone, which is sometimes a good way to self-knowledge.
ON CONNECTING AND GOING FORWARD
ALFREDA: In closing, I’m very glad I’ve been able to connect with you, because sometimes VISTAs are so busy with their year of service that they don’t have the chance to work with others. You were able to come out and provide a partnership with our agency which is spectacular. An agency like ours, that is dealing with housing is kind of unique–it’s a specific kind of social service. So I want to thank you for that.
ED: Likewise, thank you for the opportunity!
So the question I want to close with is, what are we doing, and how do we frame the idea of passing this on? What are we doing to enable the next VISTA, or how does our work outlive our time as VISTAs?
ALFREDA: Well, in part it’s through networking, workshops, presentations that someone can step into. It’s also all the people we come into contact with. I’d like to have a specific program in place–like what we’re doing with your agency–to strengthen the bonds to specific services like housing or financial coaching. These bonds can serve as a legacy.
ED: I agree…[and] I hope my legacy, beyond the specifics of leaving certain opportunities and tools for the next person (and the other sustainability ideas we talk about within the VISTA framework), is more about this idea of leading by example, in our own individual way, towards the higher goal.
ALFREDA: Hopefully, we come into contact with people, and they are changed by the experience of being with people who may not be like them. Maybe they need someone to tell them “I think you can do this!” or “Let’s do your resume.” It gives people a different path. It changes expectations, which is good.
ED: The implications of a lot of what we’ve talked about today is that the VISTA experience has its own momentum. It is embodied in a different way by each VISTA, yet we still come back to the same overall mission. That’s another reason I’m grateful for our conversations and collaboration, is that we’re able to come back to that.
ALFREDA: Yes, we’re living it, but we don’t get to put things like this into words very often.
ED: At the end of the day, I think it has to do with emphasizing the “yes,” the inherent possibilities, and the steps we can take to make them real. It’s also about getting out of the jargon and the theoretical frameworks, or getting too caught up worrying about the new regime. It’s about attending more closely to the ground-level reality, without losing sight of those higher ideals and the bigger forces at play.
ALFREDA: To change the world one life at a time. Just reach one or two people, and that builds the momentum.
ED: And often it starts right at home.
ALFREDA: It does, it always does.