It would be easy to circle the wagons and focus inward on the health and wealth of ourselves and our families during what’s turned out to be a pretty scary year. But if there was ever a time to find creative and resourceful ways to extend support to our neighbors this must be it. By leaning into anxiety and fear – as opposed to keeping their distance – the volunteers at the Housing Advocate Network recognize this irony and continue to work tirelessly to help marginalized community members stay connected to important housing resources.
Permanent and stable housing is complicated ends for these volunteers, but the means is actually simple: Building relationships.
Providing friendship to mothers who opt to pack up their children and head out into the night, leaving behind not only an abusive relationship but also a paycheck and stability. Providing a listening ear to young adults who leave the foster care system only to find they lack the credit and co-signers needed to rent an apartment. Providing compassion and forgiveness to men and women who return from incarceration with new vigor only to find landlords aren’t sold entirely on the concept that people can change. Sometimes, it turns out, just providing stability and support to those in crisis is enough.
Every day individuals and families call me, desperate for help in navigating Missoula’s tough rental market. Thanks to the Housing Advocate Network there’s always another human being ready to respond and accompany them on their journey. These volunteers aren’t housing experts; they’re merely willing to sit with folks in the muck. They’re the anti-thesis to social distancing: While the rest of us use technology to stay connected to our loved ones, print out and email important forms and buy our holiday presents online, these volunteers help fill out applications, follow up with landlords and work to ensure professional service providers do what they’re being paid to do. It’s a radical concept, everyday people helping neighbors in need – but is it?
In April, at the height of Missoula’s lock-down, I got a call from a local care provider who said she just didn’t know how she could support a mother and her adult daughter who were forced to move into their vehicle after they could no longer afford to pay rent. One of my volunteers, Katie, agreed to answer the call. For months Katie was limited in helping this family, which not only lacked income but also access to technology – not to mention rental availability at functional zero. How could they continue to pay steep application fees to property management companies with whom they couldn’t even visit in person? Katie continued to visit them, meet them for coffee, help problem solve daily crises. She got them on all the wait lists, she helped them get driver’s licenses and other documents required for housing. She ensured they had food to eat.
A few weeks ago, their names finally came up on one of the wait lists. Katie helped them get the proper documentation filed at Missoula Housing Authority and joined them at the required inspection. She then sat with them when they signed the lease and celebrated with them as they moved in to their new home – two days before Thanksgiving. This mother-daughter team slept in their vehicle last Christmas; this year, thanks to Katie’s support, they’ll enjoy the warmth of their new home.
This family represents one of almost 50 that were able to move into new homes this year with the support of a volunteer from the Housing Advocate Network. That number could double in 2021 with the opening of the new family housing center, the Meadowlark, which will provide emergency housing to as many as 31 families at a time. The Housing Advocate Network will also provide a volunteer for every man and woman that arrives at Crosswinds Transitional Living after time in jail, prison or treatment centers. Volunteers also continue to work with individuals and families that aren’t being served by these institutions – those who fall between the cracks of eligibility requirements, housing discrimination and ever-growing waitlists. But this program can’t function on volunteer support alone; like all community work, it takes a lot of time and a lot of funding to keep the doors open, the lights on and the ball rolling. As we close out this really scary year and look to more hopeful days ahead, I ask that you help me and these volunteers as we continue to push back against what’s easy and instead lean into the challenges of relational support in a time of social distancing.
Join me on December 18th as we highlight the Housing Advocate Network and the other important programs of Missoula Interfaith Collaborative at “Stay At Home”. We can wait for policymakers and agency partners to chip away at issues related to homelessness, job loss and increased social isolation. We can turn inward and make sure that ourselves, spouses, children and grandchildren stay safe and healthy through the pandemic. We can do all of those important things, yes, but we can also roll up our sleeves and get to work recognizing not all our neighbors have the choice to wait. Let’s make Missoula the type of place that leaves no one out – not just except during a crisis, but especially during a crisis. RSVP for the Stay At Home Event today www.micmt.org/stayathome
Zeke Campfield, MSW
Director, Housing Advocate Network
Missoula Interfaith Collaborative
406-207-8228, ext 5