United Way eager to address homelessness

Published 9:51 am Friday, November 21, 2014

Live United, by Ann Austin

We are in the middle of national Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. It’s always the week before Thanksgiving, which makes the message even more impactful when you think of how many people are going hungry out in the cold this time of year.

Ann Austin

Ann Austin

People often respond by giving food to a local food bank or helping at a meal site. This is certainly needed and appreciated. But the reasons why people are hungry or homeless reach far deeper; and we must also reach deeper.

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According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the top five causes of homelessness are: Lack of affordable housing, lack of a livable wage, medical issues/conditions, domestic violence and mental illness. Many of these causes can only be addressed through expansive community efforts and real systems change.

It is a big issue. This year 3.5 million Americans will find themselves homeless; 1.5 million of them will be children.

The question we need to ask ourselves is, can we accept this reality, or will we pledge to make a difference where we can?

Our community had the great honor to host a woman named Katherine Wagner this past week through the Lift One, Lift All: Freeborn County, Beyond Poverty effort. Lift One, Lift All is a local offshoot of the Blandin Leaders Partnering to End Poverty program.

Wagner is leading the Prosperity for All Campaign and her organization is working to ensure policies are in place to help people be successful with getting out of poverty.

A fact people may not realize is that assistance for many programs and Minnesota Family Investment Program participants, in particular, hasn’t increased since 1986.

Katherine said homelessness is a symptom of a larger issue and the safety net we have put in place isn’t working for people the way it could. She didn’t suggest we throw everything out and start over, but she did encourage creative solutions.

In the last legislative session they were able to have an additional provision passed to allow MFIP participants to count education towards their requirements. They have been required to job search at least 30 hours a week in order to retain benefits.

This can be challenging in communities where there few employers, but even more challenging if you are trying to juggle an education with caring for children. This opportunity allows people to improve their employability and increase their earning potential. It was a bipartisan supported bill, which is phenomenal.

We all want to see people’s lives improve. We certainly don’t want to see conditions worsen. But that is what has happened since 2009. In our nation homelessness has increased by 18 percent.

We don’t have a specific measure for homelessness in our community since the homeless people here live with family or friends or out of their cars. However, according to MNCompass.org, poverty in Freeborn County has increased from 8 percent to 11.3 percent.

This is a fact we can’t ignore and I believe it’s a reason why so many people are engaged in LPEP and our local Lift One, Lift All effort. They want to make a difference because they see how greatly poverty is affecting the health of our community.

We have been happy to see an increase in participation since efforts started in September and invite you to join us. You can be part of the steering committee (meets Dec. 9) or join with the capacity building sessions, which are helping to build leadership to resolve local issues. The next capacity building session will be from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Jan. 13. All meetings take place at the Freeborn County Historical Museum. Contact the United Way, 373-8670, and we will help get you involved.

You may also choose to participate in different community events held throughout 2015. We are planning to have A Minnesota Without Poverty come down at the end of January to talk about their goal to end poverty by 2020.

For more information, visit its website: www.mnwithoutpoverty.org.

We are also hoping to have Jodi Pfarr (Bridges Without Poverty) return to present about “isms” and how they have an impact on a community’s ability to thrive and grow.

There is so much good happening in our community and so much each of us can do. Poverty, hunger and homelessness are not going to be easy to solve, but by taking small steps we can start to have a greater impact.

Live united!

Albert Lea resident Ann Austin is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.