By Whitney Johnson
Foundation for Healthy Generations was proud to be a Hearth Sponsor of the 2017 Conference on Ending Homelessness put on by the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance earlier this year. The conference is a wonderful opportunity for housing advocates and partners to learn from and connect with one another in service of a vision in which all Washington residents have the opportunity to live in safe, healthy, affordable homes and thriving communities. Evan Lemke, Rose Village Coach at the Healthy Living Collaborative of Southwest Washington was kind enough to chat with Healthy Gen’s Whitney Johnson about her experience at the conference and what she’s taken back to her work supporting the efforts of Community Health Workers and the Rose Village community to improve the health and well-being of their family, friends, and neighbors. Many thanks to Evan for sitting down with us, and for all the amazing work of the HLC in support of housing solutions in SW Washington.
Interview of Evan Lemke (Healthy Living Collaborative, Rose Village Coach and Administration) by Whitney Johnson
W: Have you ever attended the Conference on Ending Homelessness before?
E: No, that was my first one.
W: What was your experience and understanding of housing and homelessness issues before the conference?
E: From my experience, I had been working with [another organization] prior to coming to HLC and Healthy Gen, so I had a lot of base knowledge on homelessness, specifically around those who are experiencing mental health issues. So, I had a foundational working experience working with that, but what I didn’t have was the youth and not a lot of support previously from my previous job around what it was like working within that environment, with those who are constantly in a crisis situation, where you’re working daily with someone who is in a crisis. [The conference] had a lot of breakout sessions around that. So, the current work that I do, it pivots a lot on homelessness. I work with community health workers who are reaching out to those who are currently experiencing homelessness. So, there’s a wide range of it. I utilized some of the breakout sessions to both understand how I can support those that I work with, as well as how I can work within my community to continue supporting both the community health workers and the Rose Village Community.
W: Is that what interested you in attending initially?
E: Yes. I would say what interested me in attending initially is that we are experiencing a huge crisis around [homelessness] and I think it affects most of the work that we do. It is really a foundational issue and we can’t address other issues, like mental health problems and financial issues – and poverty is sometimes just a separate issue. We have people that are homeless who have jobs. I felt like it was such a huge issue that we are experiencing in Rose Village, Vancouver, and Clark County, and that the more information we could gain from it the better. More information in the sense of: what are other organizations doing, how could we come together, what can we do to support the current status of where some of these programs are, and how can we develop them in my community, and what can I learn to bring back to the Rose Village community?
W: What in the conference connected to how your work and how you’re seeing the homelessness crisis?
E: We have people who are trying to prevent their neighbors from experiencing homelessness, and I have a variety of direct contact at almost every level, of homelessness that affects our community.
One of the biggest things for me from the conference was one of the breakout sessions centered on youth. That was pretty huge. The numbers that we’re seeing come out of Clark County specifically are staggering. It was something like 40% of the current youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ. I felt like understanding the youth aspect was something I didn’t realize I needed. And that was great because we have two CHW’s going into Mcloughlin Middle School to support homelessness from the ground level and I want to support them and coach them. I’m not their supervisor in that situation but I do work with them in a pretty fluid level, so I think that gaining some of the numbers knowledge was helpful.
One of the other biggest things I learned was at a breakout session called Moving from Thought to Action: An Introduction to Results-Based Facilitation [Presented by Emily Mirra & Sarah Rajski from Building Changes]. That was all about how I can bring the group I’m working with and facilitating, together: from an individual to a group, capitalizing on everybody’s expertise, and bringing it together to create change and create movement. We can get caught up in the conversation and not really get into action, as they were saying. I thought that was something we were doing, but it built up on my current skills and opened my eyes and shed some light on some facilitation skills specifically around sensitive & challenging issues and people who may feel more vulnerable in the group – and how you can be a supportive facilitator in your role and keep the conversation going. So that particular breakout session really touched on allowing people to have those experiences and share them, but continue the conversation and how to do that as a facilitator.
W: Was there anything that was new, surprising, or challenging?
E: I don’t know if I would put it in one of those categories, but the Street Roots presenter did a great job of bringing his perspective as an individual experiencing homelessness. I think I would use the word “surprised” to categorize that. He was one of the main presenters and he brought down the house and brought it down to a foundational level. Someone who is experiencing homelessness is in such a state of crisis at all times that we cannot expect them to address anything else. That is something that I’ve understood, but when you hear it on stage and hear someone presenting it who works with people who are homeless day in and day out in a ground level situation, you hear it a little bit different.
Some of the youth numbers were staggering. It’s just really scary to think that the youth they were referring to were not youth who have parents, but youth that are on their own, that are individuals, and we don’t work with them as much. I thought that was eye-opening.
During Israel Bayer [Executive Director, Street Roots] speech, he talked about the housing budget that was cut in 1979. We’ve been working on the homelessness crisis for some time but we have to deal with these cuts in federal spending that make it extremely hard for us to provide support. I think it was something like, 1979 to 19-eighty-something, we had almost $70 billion cut from the federal housing support.
W: I didn’t know that.
E: I didn’t know that either. When we have these massive cuts and changes and we have an expectation that we are going to change the crisis, that we are going to overturn it, it becomes so much harder when we don’t have the federal support, when we don’t have the overall ability to demand the power, the ability to provide funds in that way to help the Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) Program.
W: What’s that program?
E: It’s a county-based program that provides support for individuals who suffer from mental illness or a physical health crisis, both long term or short term. And that funding is grant based and is often times kind of skimmed back a little bit. We find that in each county it is different and the funds are different and the support is different. It becomes an issue of being able to really provide…these support systems that are set in place are all different. There’s no streamlined effort being made in that situation.
W: What was your biggest take-away from the event?
E: The biggest take-away for me was results-based facilitation and that was a personal take-away, just being the coach for the community health workers. It really helps support building my ability to coach and facilitate a team and how to bring together individuals to work towards a greater good.
I also had a greater, grander takeaway that there are so many people who want to work towards this movement. It feels slow because we don’t have that foundational support. I don’t know if I’m wording that correctly because there is support in place, but we don’t have a strong footing on it yet. I felt like the positive aspect of that was that we were all coming together and all on the same page in that we want to make a difference, and we want to know how, and we want to move towards that. So, this conference really helped bring into place what are the key areas where we can do that, what can we do, here are the efforts we can make. A lot of the keynote speakers really tailored and addressed that specifically.
So, I thought that was a grander, more overarching theme. When I go back to my community health workers and we have our next meeting, that’s what I’m going to be bringing to the table is that overarching aspect of can we do something both small and large and at what scale can we do it?
W: Was there anything you would want others to know who aren’t very familiar with the causes of homelessness or the issues surrounding the housing crisis?
E: I would say there needs to be a separation between homelessness and poverty. We have people who are making what is considered a living wage and still experiencing homelessness. I think that was huge and that needs to be tackled.
There’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen. We need to bring in one big chef and bring in a grander idea: not someone, but an idea. It’s hard because experiences are so individualized, but we need to look at this not like it’s an issue that only one person’s experiences. It’s a community issue. We need to be addressing it from that angle. We all experience homelessness. When your neighbor gets a 20-day notice to move out, that experience isn’t just theirs, it’s a community experience.
Whitney supports Healthy Gen and our partners’ investments in research, analysis, program and community infrastructure development efforts. Her super powers include research, writing, analysis, project & grant management, and program development. She holds a Master’s Degree in Public Health from the Yale School of Public Health.