by Isabel McDevitt, Bridge House CEO
I cringe when I hear people say “The Homeless”.
If homelessness is circumstance caused – and exacerbated – by failed systems of health care, education, criminal justice; lack of access to good paying jobs and affordable housing. How can all people experiencing homelessness be the same?
Ask yourself – and anyone you know – if you personally know someone who has experienced homelessness. The answer will invariably be “yes”. “Oh yeah – Uncle Joe was an addict and disappeared to the street;” or “my sister is bi-polar and my parents just couldn’t support her;” or “my co-worker slept in her car and still managed to come to work each day;” or “there is a boy in my son’s class who couch surfs after his mother left his abusive father….” Sound familiar?
Yet we, as a society, like to label and like to compartmentalize. It is easier to accept our country’s failed efforts to create a safety net of support that would prevent homelessness if we can see its victims as other than us. As a homogeneous group of people – “The Homeless” – who are in another part of town… with another set of characteristics… or, let’s be honest, as failures. However, they’re not.
How do we acknowledge that the forces that drive people to the streets are “us” issues not “them” issues. How can we see people who experience homelessness for who they are – people who are simply without a place to call home?
We need to start addressing homelessness from a place of inclusion rather than exclusion.
If people, of any kind, are going to thrive they need to be integrated. They need to be appreciated for who they are – as individuals with diverse backgrounds, unique qualities, and valuable abilities. They also need to be acknowledged as members of the community with significant contributions to make. Why are people experiencing homelessness any different?
There is no doubt we, as a nation, need to work upstream to fix the systems that cause and perpetuate homelessness.
We don’t need to wait. In our day to day efforts to work with people experiencing homelessness, we must provide the social and practical supports to integrate people. It is within our power to offer tangible opportunities that integrate people into the fabric of our local economies, community-based institutions and social networks.
Now for the good news!
Bridge House, through our dynamic mix of programs, has developed meaningful and lasting partnerships with a diverse contingent of community stakeholders – businesses, non-profit organizations, and landlords. These partners see the win/win of integrating our clients into their own business or institution. They see beyond charity and see the value of integrating people experiencing homelessness to not only help people help themselves but to further their own goals.
Here are just three examples of many –
- Boulder Community Health (BCH) has a mission to “create the healthiest community in the nation”. They run excellent medical facilities and are leader in innovative medical and wellness services in the community. Since 2018 BCH has demonstrated a truly integrated partnership with Bridge House founded on a classic win/win relationship. It is smart business. BCH provides outreach nursing at our basic needs location – Path to Home – to help triage patients to help solve medical issues among people experiencing homelessness before they go to the ER. BCH has hired Ready to Work graduates to be lab techs, receptionists and food service employees taking advantage of the screened, reliable candidates in a job market that makes it nearly impossible for employers to find talent. BCH has hired Bridge House’s Community Table Kitchen catering business for numerous events because, not only does CTK provide excellent food and service, but the guests of BCH appreciate the social mission of our model. BCH is getting real value through their partnership with Bridge House – accessing vulnerable people in the community who need health care; hiring great employees; and a top notch caterer. And Bridge House is benefiting from significant opportunities to fulfill our mission to integrate our clients – people experiencing homelessness – into the community.
- Danconias Truffle Brownies has a premier product. A recipe that often receives raves of “this is the best brownie I have ever tasted” even from self-proclaimed chocolate snobs. In 2017 when seeking a co-packer to launch their business, Danconias needed partner. They visited and interviewed a number of production kitchens and landed on Bridge House’s Community Table Kitchen to produce their product because of the quality and professionalism of the operation. Since then Community Table Kitchen has produced over 10,000 boxes of high-end brownies and more than 20 trainees from the Ready to Work program who are employed and are learning food service skills at Community Table Kitchen have participated in the effort. Danconias has made a splash in the gourmet gift market because of their tasty product and excellent service but also because they have leveraged themselves in the social impact market because of their commitment to partner with Community Table Kitchen. Another win/win!
- Congregation Har HaShem (HHS), a local synagogue in Boulder, has provided more than 30,000 nights of emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness over 10 years. In 2018, HHS wanted to do more and leverage the housing assets they own – two single family homes with six dwelling units – to create permanent housing for people transitioning out of homelessness. They needed a partner to help screen and support tenants to help them achieve their goal. Now, through creative partnership, six formerly homeless graduates of Bridge House’s Ready to Work program are tenants at the HHS houses. HHS now has reliable, respectful, paying tenants and these individuals are now permanently housed all because of the opportunities provided by Ready to Work and because a landlord was not afraid to give them a chance. Together HHS and Bridge House have demonstrated a way to create a net gain of housing through smart partnership.
Are you ready to take action? Are you ready to integrate?
This approach can work anywhere. At Bridge House, our philosophy is founded on the core principle and steadfast belief that people experiencing homeless can and should be integrated. We begin the process with our own programs to help people stabilize through employment and housing with our Ready to Work program and, then, leverage our partnerships to create more integration opportunities beyond graduation.
We change minds. We de-stigmatize. We empower both our trainees to see their own potential and our community stakeholders to see their potential as well.
These partnerships are effective only because they are mutually beneficial. We follow the principle that when problem solving enlightened self-interest for all parties is always best. The businesses who hire our graduates get fantastic employees, the brands that hire our Community Table Kitchen social enterprise for co-packing or catering get superior products and service; the landlords who lease their units to our graduates get reliable tenants.
We can forge these partnerships only because we have used our program interventions to help people to take the first step re-integrate from a community that, for the most part, has shunned them during their homelessness. We, at Bridge House, have done the opposite. We have employed them, trusted them, we gave them a boost through access to opportunity.
We need our partners, like you, like BCH, Danconias and HHS, to take the next step and integrate our graduates into your networks – to give opportunities beyond graduation from our programs.
We treat people who experience homelessness as we would a brother or a niece or a friend because they easily could have been. We hope you will do the same.
Homelessness is an “us” problem not a “them” problem. It is ours to solve.