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home : commentary : actnow July 24, 2017

Beyond making sandwiches
ActNow: Want to end homelessness? Try listening - and asking for what's needed
Kathy Magnuson, above.

"Anytime anybody cares, it bolsters those of us who are in this day-to-day. It gives us hope."
- Monica Nilsson

by Kathy Magnuson

"We all want to belong somewhere, whether that is a community, a school, a church or a neighborhood. Those are all places you belong," says Monica Nilsson, director of community engagement at St. Stephen's Human Services in Minneapolis, an organization that helps thousands of people get housing and support each year.

"For people who don't have a home, that sense of belonging could be found in the group under the bridge or in a shelter or a library," Nilsson says.

"With a home, you belong in a place every day," Nilsson says. "You belong on a block or in a building or a neighborhood or a city. Those are all identifiers and stabilizing factors. Who am I if I don't have a job or a house or if I don't belong somewhere?"

People who are homeless often lack transportation, too. When your world is limited to how far you can walk - usually about three miles - "How do you understand that the world is bigger than you think it is?" Nilsson asks. "How we grow and realize possibility is exposure to other places."

"Helping" can be a hot-button topic in the homeless community. Usually people think of offering charity, but Nilsson says charity is only one part of addressing the issue. It would be like standing on one foot only. The other needed component, or foot, is social-justice advocacy. "Yes, we do need charitable acts, but how long can you stand on one foot?" Nilsson asks.

"Really, more and more, your learning [about homelessness] is of service to us. Before you decide that your family will volunteer to make sandwiches, ask what you would be willing to learn. We are trying to connect people with those who have experienced homelessness."

One way for that learning to happen is to engage with St. Stephen's zAmya Theater Project, which brings together homeless and housed individuals to create a theatrical production that puts a face on homelessness.

You could attend a performance (which includes a "talk-back" session), or invite zAmya to perform for your faith group, school or community center.

You could participate in "A Day in the Life" tour, guided by trained educators who have experienced homelessness. Participants walk to shelters and drop-in centers, hear from the experts - those who are homeless - and engage in discussion about how and why people are homeless.

You could ask what is needed. It might not be sandwiches. A woman's group in a third-ring suburb wanted to do a collection drive. To their surprise they were asked to collect bras, which can be a luxury to women in poverty and are rarely donated to free stores. Feminine hygiene products are also in demand.


Along with learning is advocacy - that second foot. Nilsson is quick to point out that when Republicans and Democrats worked together to end homelessness among veterans, big progress was made legislatively. She asks,

"Would you be willing to advocate [for change], whatever party you are in? Find something you have a passion for and make a phone call or vote or send an email. Those are all acts that provide the other stabilizing foot."

"Anytime anybody cares," Nilsson says, "it bolsters those of us who are in this day-to-day. It gives us hope."

FFI: www.ststephensmpls.org/programs/zamya

Where do you see women connecting and making change in your world? Send me your story, magnuson@womenspress.com

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