Correspondent Emily Cohen speaks with three experts on unhoused population issues. Wren Fialka, Miranda Twitchell, and Eva Thibaudeau-Graczyk.
Paul Ingles: Emily, how did you see this conversation about homelessness or unhoused populations as a matter of concern in our program about peacemaking and nonviolent conflict resolution?
Emily Cohen: Well look, homelessness is so present in the U.S., and it has been growing in recent years. We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world and yet we have this huge inequality. This contrast between immense wealth and extreme poverty is ultimately about conflict. Where there is conflict, whether it’s between people, populations or within ourselves, there is an opportunity for peacemaking.
Paul Ingles: Right and I know that from personal experience, when I see unhoused people on the streets where I live, I am in conflict immediately because I want to help but I’ve heard people say, “Don’t give them money. Support the shelters in town.” What to do, feeling safe doing it, there are a lot of things at work just from a personal standpoint.
Emily Cohen: Yes, it’s hard to see human suffering. It stirs up a lot of those feelings you mentioned, frustration, “Why is this happening? Why is there this inequality?” sadness, anger, guilt. My goal with this episode is to humanize the crisis and the people experiencing it.
Paul Ingles: Who do you have lined up today and how do you hope to have them help?
Emily Cohen: I spoke with Eva Thibaudeau-Graczyk who runs an organization that provides supportive housing to people facing long term chronic homelessness in Houston. It follows what is known as the Housing First Model. It gives people housing without the usual prerequisites such as addiction treatment or employment. It’s a model as touted as having some of the most success in reducing chronic homelessness.
I also spoke with Miranda Twitchell who has lived on the streets in Salt Lake City on and off for the past decade. She is a leader in her community. Getting to hear from someone experiencing homelessness firsthand is something many people are often curious about.
First, we’re going to hear from Wren Fialka who runs a nonprofit that distributes personal care, clothing and hygiene supplies to unhoused people. She said, “Human beings need love like plants need water.” Eye contact and “good morning,” those things can go a long way. Fialka started her nonprofit nearly a decade ago after a conversation with a man living on the streets in San Francisco.
Wren Fialka: I had started out that day going downtown to lend my voice to the Ferguson Protests. That day was a pivotal day in my life. It changed my life. I had a very informative conversation with an elderly gentleman who was living on the streets.
We were surrounded by people who were protesting for human rights. Ironically, what we were watching was a bunch of people who really truly believed in the cause but were very unaware of their immediate surroundings which were a street corner where a lot of people who were experiencing homelessness actually considered their home. It had been completely turned into an area where everyone was riled up. The police had come in. A place that was their only sanctuary all of a sudden became a place with a lot of negative energy. A lot of the police that came in were actually more focused on the street residents there than some of the protestors who were acting out in ways that were not helpful to anyone.
I sat with this man for over an hour, almost two hours and just spoke about life, his experiences on the street, human nature in general, the protests, racism, theology, philosophy. At the end of it, when I got up and left, I had a really familiar melancholy feeling, that helplessness that you feel when you bond with someone and know that they’re going back to something that is really unpleasant. You don’t know what you’re equipped to do to help them in any kind of sustainable way.
Instead of just walking away with that feeling, I turned around and asked him if there was a small bag of things that I could bring him the next day that would make his day to day easier, what would be in it? He just lit up and laughed and said, “No one has ever asked me that.” He proceeded to give me the list that we use today in Spread the Love Commission. They are things that common sense dictates people who are living on the streets need that housed people would never occur to even think about, what people might be missing when they don’t have a home.
Emily Cohen: What is on that list?
Wren Fialka: Well, it depends on where we are. That list has grown since the day that I’m speaking of. There are things like new underwear, socks, long johns, a P-38 can opener is quite helpful for people. It’s an army surplus can opener. Hand sanitizer can be used not just for cleaning your hands, but it can also be used as fuel. Tuna is huge and it helps to have a P-38 can opener. Handwarmers are essential, emergency blankets.
Emily Cohen: You started this nonprofit from this conversation?
Wren Fialka: Yes.
Emily Cohen: What do you say to people who see unhoused people on the street but don’t know how to help?
Wren Fialka: It’s one of the huge elephants in the room, that sense of helplessness, which I was experiencing that day too.
The first thing, the reason we call it “Spread the Love” is because love is the first thing that anybody needs. I always say, “Human beings need love like plants need water.” It’s essential. The first thing that anybody really truly needs is to be acknowledged.
Of course, you need to recognize, like you would with anyone else that you are interacting with, that this is someone you’ve never met before. You don’t know their history. The stigma that people experiencing homelessness have had to face and deal with every day. A housed person usually has some kind of distrust, fear and reticence about approaching an unhoused person at all. There have been studies done where people who see someone experiencing homelessness, actually their brain sees them as an object instead of a person. I think the dehumanization of homelessness has been the biggest problem from the beginning.
The first thing that you should do if you want to engage with someone who is experiencing homelessness is to use common sense just as you would with anyone. Check out the situation. Feel the vibe with them. Just even a smile, eye contact, a “good morning,” that’s a great place to start. If it’s someone you pass every day, let the relationship bloom naturally like any other relationship. If someone is out there with a sign, take a minute to read the sign.
Don’t immediately go to whatever horror story you’ve heard from someone else or a negative experience you’ve had yourself. Everyone is an individual. That population is as widely varied as any other population we have in the United States.
We’ve now been doing this for over nine years and no matter what we bring out to the streets including tents and sleeping bags, the feedback we always get from them is, “The thing that you brought out here today that was the most valuable was that you stayed with us and heard our stories. You gave us a hug. You said, ‘hello.’ You respected what we had to say. You gave us time. You treated us like equals.” That’s the biggest gift you can give anyone.
It’s not always going to be well-received. People have PTSD, they’re not treated well, some are dealing with mental illness or addiction, or they just have no trust. You can give them that too, they are allowed to feel that way, but don’t make that person the posterchild of every other homeless person that you could have an interaction with. Respect their space. If they shy away, the next day, give them a smile. If they really don’t want to be engaged with, give them that. That’s respectful.
Emily Cohen: What about in situations where you see someone asking for money. I know a lot of people are conflicted about that. Do you give that person money?
Wren Fialka: Okay, so I love this question. I struggle with it a lot too. First of all, a lot of common-sense things. We don’t carry money with us when we are on outreach. What I recommend people do if they want to be helpful in the day to day and offer something more than a smile or a “hello,” is to get something like a meal. What you’re looking for with a meal card is you’re looking for a place like Starbucks, Subway, McDonald’s. I know it’s not always healthy, but you are not their parent, and it is hot, delicious food. If it's something in that area that they could easily walk to, you’re not just giving them a meal, you’re also giving them access to a restroom and indoors. They are a paying customer.
The very people that need access to running water and bathrooms are not allowed to go into most established person like a housed person can. If you look like you’re experiencing homelessness, you might not even get in the front door.
If you’re giving someone a meal card, a very easy thing to carry, $10 or $15, they can share it with a friend or use it multiple times, you’re giving them access to indoors, possibly a bathroom and food.
Miranda Twitchell: I’m 45. I live in Salt Lake City Utah, and I live in a tent. Right now, I’m working for Advantage Services. The people who work there were housing-challenged. They have been in our situation, so they help us to get back up on our feet.
Emily Cohen: Are you from the Salt Lake area?
Miranda Twitchell: I got stuck here in 2012. I stopped her for gas and was never able to get out of here.
Emily Cohen: How long have you been unhoused?
Miranda Twitchell: Of the 11 years that I’ve been here, I’ve only been housed four. I’ve been at shelters the rest of the time.
Emily Cohen: What term should we be using? Which term do you prefer, housing-challenged, unhoused, homeless.
Miranda Twitchell: Someone said, “unconventionally housed” and I thought that was fitting because I do have a home. It’s just a tent. Sometimes it’s a structure made out of tarps and wood, but I do have a place to call home.
Emily Cohen: And you’re living outside in a tent community?
Miranda Twitchell: Yes, right now I am. They come through and do sweeps on a regular basis and they throw away everything you own. Then basically you have to start all over again. The problem is that there is not enough shelter space and there is not enough affordable housing for us.
Emily Cohen: How do you stay warm?
Miranda Twitchell: It’s all a matter of how you insulate your tent. You have to put insulation on the bottom because the ground will suck the heat out of you. You put insulation on the outside like sheets, blankets, tarps. [inaudible 12:12] because tarps are important, [inaudible] screen is not.
You try to trap it in there, but then you have to have some kind of heater. [inaudible 12:17]. We do propane a lot, but you have to be careful with propane because you have to vent it or you can suffocate yourself. If there’s a leak, you can actually burn your tent down. If you knock it over, it will spill.
We use Sterno hand warmers in our blankets. We try to pack a bunch of people in one tent when it’s really, really cold. A lot of people get animals to cuddle with them at night and keep them warm. It’s a constant battle.
There are emergency shelters. There’s one open right now because we are in the teens and single digits, so they open up where they have all night movie nights, technically not a shelter. You can stay there from 8:00 pm to 8:00 am.
Emily Cohen: Are you completely outside right now or are you in some sort of shelter at the moment?
Miranda Twitchell: Right now, I’m in the greenhouse shelter at the community garden farm for the Green Phoenix Program. I graduated the program and came here because it’s a nice quiet space. I figured my tent would be too dark and being outside would be too bright and too cold.
Emily Cohen: When housed people encounter people who are unhoused or housing-challenged on the street, a lot of people wonder what to do. People feel conflicted. Do I give this person money? How can I help? What would you say to someone who is wondering these things?
Miranda Twitchell: The number one thing, don’t treat us differently than anybody else. Say “hello.” If we say “hello,” say “hello” back. Don’t cross the street. Don’t act like we’re diseased.
I’m not unhoused because I want to be unhoused. I’m unhoused because of a situation I couldn’t control. Trying to keep a job when you’re homeless is really hard because there is nowhere to charge your phone. I’m not big on panhandling because I’m an able-bodied person and I should be working, but sometimes it’s a matter of eating.
That’s up to your own discretion, but if it’s cold, come out with hot chocolate, come out with a blanket, handwarmers, things like that mean a lot because it shows us that we’re human just like you. We’re all the same. When it comes straight down to it at the end of the day, when we go to [inaudible 14:07] we’re all going to take the same thing with us, only ourselves.
It hurts a lot when people look down at you or mistreat you or they don’t say “hi” back to you or they cross the street. You start to feel like a leper. We’re just people.
Emily Cohen: So you say that there’s not really training for how to be part of society again. What sort of assistance would be the most helpful? What sort of training do you need?
Miranda Twitchell: Okay, so when you don’t have a schedule, okay, you’re not used to getting up at a certain time. We have a problem where there’s no place to really charge out devices. Anywhere we’d go to charge, they end up putting locks on them. All the restaurants have taken out their plugs. You go and [inaudible 14:47] you should be able to plug in and charge your stuff. Well, there are [inaudible 14:49] to that. You have to have someplace to charge so we can get up on time.
The Green Phoenix program helped me with that because there were times when I woke up late and it wasn’t immediately “you’re fired.” They would talk to me and coach me and say, “What can we do?” They got me an alarm clock that had batteries. They made sure that I had batteries in my alarm clock so that if I couldn’t charge my phone, then I had that. I was able to charge at work. I was able to charge at volunteer. My portable [inaudible 15:13] tried to make sure I had that.
But even interacting with people, there is a stigma on the homeless. People treat us a certain way. We’re constantly on guard. When you go to your workplace, you still have that guard up because those are the people that have been ridiculing or hurting you, so it’s hard for you to interact with them properly. The biggest thing is that when you’re treated different, you act different. When you’re treated the same, you act the same.
Programs like the Green Phoenix Program or Advantage Services, places like that that are not a center situation. If you don’t understand the true inner person and [inaudible 15:49] person, you can’t help it. We’re all just people that have suffered a loss, sometimes a fire. There are people out here because their house caught on fire and they lost everything because they had no savings. Some people have gotten sick and ended up homeless. You have to treat us like individual humans and not like the stereotype.
By working with us individually, we can integrate back into society better because we don’t have that guard up. As long as we keep that guard up and we have that stigmatism, judgement either way, we’re not going to be able to integrate back. People have to understand that we’re just like them. We just need a hand up not a handout. Giving us money is great. That will feed us for a day, but if you have work, even working in your garden, little things like that. “We’ll pick you up at eight o’clock and you’re going to come work in my garden.”
Try to help us integrate easily because we’re not always going to be on time at first because we’re not used to it. We have to get a schedule and a routine down. If we’re having issues, talk to us. Say, “Listen, what things do you need to do in the morning before you come to work? Let’s make a timeframe.” Work with us. Talk to us. People give up on us way too easy and then we give up on ourselves.
Emily Cohen: Is there anything else that you want people to know about homelessness and what people are experiencing or your experience?
MT: If you want to help somebody, find out what they need. Say, “What do you need right now?” I need a tarp. I need [inaudible 17:24]. Get them that, so you know the money is going to what you want them to go to.
There are a lot of mentally ill on the streets. Don’t yell at them. Don’t throw things at them. Don’t honk your horn in the middle of the night when you go by a camp. Don’t shoot off guns. Don’t shoot bb’s at us. We’ve had bb’s shot at us. A lot of us are struggling to just try to get up off our feet.
People go to Labor Ready, and they don’t work. When you don’t have an address, people don’t want to hire you. We don’t always have phones to get jobs. We’re trying, okay? Just know that a lot of us are trying to get out of where we’re at and just treat us like normal human beings. If you want to help us, talk to us.
Out of all the times that I’ve been homeless, only one time has a group come to our camp to help and actually sat down and broke bread with us. It was the Mennonites. They actually came up and didn’t just give us a meal, they had a meal with us. They sat down, they ate, they talked, they made us a part of their community.
As long as we feel part of something, we’re going to act like it. If we don’t feel part of something, we’re not going to act – we just want to belong again. We just want to be part of the community again.
Eva Thibaudeau-Graczyk: You can see our learnings in our buildings. Our first building, when you walk in, there is a lobby and corridors, rather traditional multifamily housing. In our second building, we realized that we needed more offices for case managers, case workers and also that we needed more common space.
In the building that we’re building right now, we have lots of office space for supportive services. We have five times as much common space. That common space can be segmented in different ways. It can also be opened up to each other.
When you look at the design of our buildings, the need for there to be a place to come together and break bread and eat and share in food and mealtimes, but also in yoga and art classes, in meditation, in silence, a place for reading, a place to be part of a community where you can still be yourself and find yourself.
I would say that a lot of our learnings have stayed deeply, deeply rooted in housing first and not making sobriety or medication adherence a requirement of housing and what we have learned is the importance of community and the importance of bringing people together in order to really heal them and help them heal themselves through community and connection.
Emily Cohen: One criticism about the Housing First Model has been that people are not required to be sober or to have all their issues addressed before getting housing. Housing First flips that on its head.
Eva Thibaudeau-Graczyk: Yes. Let me ask you a question. Do you have neighbors who utilize substances such as alcohol or smoking? Why should we hold people who are experiencing ongoing trauma and crises of living in homelessness to standards that are higher than what we hold ourselves to and our neighbors to? That’s always my basic answer
Beyond that, I would argue, and time and effort have shown, that housing itself is a powerful healing intervention. To ask someone who is in a state of crises, trauma and feeling unsafe, often times experiencing deep, emotional trauma to heal unhoused not knowing if they are going to eat, not knowing where their next meal will come from, not feeling any sense of physical safety, to get sober, do mental health counseling and self-actualizing is not realistic.
Emily Cohen: From what I understand, Houston’s Housing First Model is more successful than it has been in other cities. Why do you think that is?
ETC: Really, when we undertook changing our system work, when we went from being housing ready to housing first as a system, we started really early. We had incredibly motivated political leadership at both our city and county levels.
We also had new leadership within our Public Housing Authority. For the first time ever in the Greater Houston Area our Housing Authority saw that they had a place in ending homelessness, so they brought vouchers to the table which allowed us to leverage other resources and use them more effectively so that we could expand housing in this Housing First Model.
We put together a governance board called the COC (Continuity of Care) Steering Committee and that steering committee does have provider representatives on it who represent providers, however it is mostly made up of the folks who have the resources, private philanthropists, the Veterans Administration, our Housing Authority directors, our Housing and Economic Community Development Department directors, those are the folks who are at the table really making the decisions about the policies and how we should work as a system.
Emily Cohen: So you’re saying it’s the collaboration that has made this work and other cities, agencies and nonprofits are working against each other.
Eva Thibaudeau-Graczyk: They are and in a lot of areas too, you’ll have different jurisdictions within a homeless response region and those jurisdictions won’t even work together. For us, our city, our county and three other entitlement jurisdictions all came together and came up with common policies, common rules and we make funding decisions as a group so that we’re getting the biggest effect and the most efficiency for the dollars that are available across our region.
Emily Cohen: Can you describe what housing looks like in this system? You get a voucher and then what kind of apartment comes next?
Eva Thibaudeau-Graczyk: At Temenos, the units that we own and operate are all micro efficiencies. They do have a kitchen, their own bathroom and furniture. The common space is where you have your most living area.
In those cases, we work directly with the Housing Authority. We have vouchers on each of the rooms. We help people do their applications. When we have folks who are going to be living out in the community, we go and do landlord engagement. We talk with them and explain how the rent will be paid, whether it’s directly by Temenos with HUD funds or whether it’s through a voucher. We really try to take that burden off of the client who is trying to get houses.
We’re there every step of the way to help make sure they have all their documents for move in, to do all the paperwork. It can be incredibly overwhelming when you’re looking at an 80-page application for a housing voucher and intimidating to talk to landlords. You don’t know what to ask all the time or how you’re going to be received and perceived, so we go with folks to do that.
Then we’re there with them on the day of move in to walk through and see that everything is in good condition and then talk about how the appliances work. Let’s make sure that you understand how to do this. Let’s check out the laundry room.
Emily Cohen: Can you talk briefly about how the unhoused population in Houston has changed since the House First Model became the norm?
Eva Thibaudeau-Graczyk: Since 2011 when we embraced Housing First and shifted our entire system from housing ready to Housing First, we’ve reduced homelessness by 63%. You have to remember that homelessness is not a one and done. It’s always a dynamic picture. All of the upstream systems that are extremely broken, racist, inadequate and so on are still driving people into homelessness. There has been a constant churn to keep people housed and to keep on housing.
Year over year for the most part, we have continued to reduce those numbers. We had a slight bump up during COVID, but it was fairly negligible. How many people are sleeping unsheltered? We stay at around 1,500 and that is down from 8,000.