Families and Housing: FLE Skills and Passion Unite to Address Poverty Housing and Homelessness

Janeal White, M.S., CFLE
/ CFLE Network, Summer 2018

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Janeal White, M.S., CFLE

No one plans to become homeless. Homelessness is scary, precarious, and tragic. Unfortunately, it is also a reality for more than half a million individuals in the United States according to the most recent Point-In-Time Count conducted annually by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). My interest in addressing housing issues began slowly in 2003 when I was asked to volunteer with my church’s Habitat for Humanity construction team. Over time, my personal and academic interests have aligned to focus on homelessness, studying the relationships found within the homeless community, and prevention of poverty housing and homelessness.

Having become an outspoken advocate for those experiencing homelessness, I have identified four settings in my life where my training in family life education has been invaluable in carrying out my personal mission to advocate, educate, and prevent homelessness. As a case manager for Louisiana’s early childhood intervention (ECI) program, client families and professional colleagues were educated about housing issues, the subsequent impact on family functioning, and available resources for families. When my clients were experiencing difficulties with housing, I often worked with them on prioritizing wants and needs, creating realistic budgets, developing long- and short-term goals for the family, and creating realistic expectations for their child’s transition to the public school system. I also educated families about their rights under the McKinney-Vento Act and connected them with school-board homeless liaisons in preparation for transitions into the school system.

Hosting and facilitating training sessions for case managers throughout my region was an effective method for beginning larger conversations about professional services for families at-risk of homelessness. Representatives from local housing organizations provided information about services available at various points on the housing continuum. It was during my time serving at ECI that I began my involvement as board member of the regional Continuum of Care (CoC) and also serving on the local school board Homeless Support Council. The CoC is part of HUD. The CoC brings together key stakeholders to work together to provide support and services to those living in poverty housing or experiencing homelessness. The continuum begins with homelessness and ends with safe, affordable, sustainable housing. The goal is to help people move from homelessness to securely housed.

Evaluation forms completed by all participants indicated an almost unanimous surprise at the causes of homelessness and the realization that most Americans are only one paycheck away from homelessness.

The second setting for sharing my passion was within religious communities. In 2012, I was approached by a large church with more than 1,000 members to enter into a process of facilitating a dialogue with their members to discern how they could best address their call to serve the homeless. Our relationship began with an hour-long overview presentation about homelessness for their small committee of eight members who felt called to work with the homeless. From that presentation, they engaged in a strategic planning process in which they identified widespread education within their larger membership as the first step in their new ministry. A series of presentations were developed and presented throughout their Sunday school program. The presentations were conducted at the rate of 2 weeks in each of 10 Sunday school classes, eight adult classes, one combined youth group, and one combined children’s group with a total attendance of 376 individuals. The 2-week presentations focused on introducing basic information about homelessness including the steps preceding an episode, the public policies that have an impact on poverty housing, introduction to the four-support resilience model, discussions about how to know if you are a “servant or sucker” when offering assistance and concluded with a generalized Q & A to answer participants’ lingering questions. The sessions were wildly successful. Evaluation forms completed by all participants indicated an almost unanimous surprise at the causes of homelessness and the realization that most Americans are only one paycheck away from homelessness. Participants were also inspired by learning specific tasks to use in daily life in response to their call to action.

The next steps taken by the church were absolutely inspiring. The core membership of the homeless ministry group grew to 30. They began to systematically address the four resilience supports by building on their ongoing outreach efforts and established partnerships with organizations and other churches in the community to establish a neighborhood food pantry, soup kitchen teams, weekly volunteers to provide information and referrals for neighbors in need, GED preparation in the local jail, after-school tutoring at the women and children’s shelter, Habitat for Humanity construction teams, and champion creation of a new housing program for homeless families. In addition, they grew in desire to increase social skills and self-esteem for homeless children at a neighborhood school. This led them to recruit members to serve as mentors through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters Lunch Buddy program. Over the 4 years of growth and development, I served as their consultant and provided ongoing education and support.

The third setting for me to address housing and homelessness was with Habitat for Humanity. After serving as an active volunteer for 10 years, I served on my local affiliate’s staff as the Faith Engagement Coordinator. Within this arena, I experienced opportunities on a daily basis where my knowledge and skills in the FLE content areas allowed me to continue my work of education and advocacy. Regular sessions for community education incorporated illustrations of the impact of poverty housing on local families resulting from changing family demographics and dynamics over time, challenges in accessing available community resources, poverty simulation activities, and brief introductions to the resilience supports. These sessions were conducted with groups throughout the region including various faith communities, philanthropic organizations, professional associations, and youth organizations. Each session always concluded with a call to action to strengthen one or more types of resilience supports for the vulnerable in our community. Working on the construction site with more than 600 volunteers in a year allowed me to provide innumerable mini-sessions of education about the impact of poverty housing on the health of local families and neighborhoods. Our message of prevention of poverty housing was furthered by creating public services announcements, radio interviews, and regular submission of human interest stories to the local newspaper and television stations.

Working on the construction site … allowed me to provide innumerable mini-sessions of education about the impact of poverty housing on the health of local families and neighborhoods.

Recognizing that early education and intervention is necessary to break cycles of poverty, our affiliate actively worked to engage youth as agents to end the cycle of poverty for themselves and others through empathy and service. While partnering with local churches, I served as liaison, subject matter expert, and overall cheerleader for several summer vacation bible schools (VBS), which reached more than 500 youth. Using a curriculum titled “Under Construction,” each VBS tackled the difficult topic of poverty housing using Habitat for Humanity’s ministry as an example of taking action and serving others. I facilitated informational sessions throughout each VBS for youth education and also held adult sessions to prepare parents for upcoming conversations with their children about poverty, poverty housing, and homelessness and offered age-appropriate actions that can be taken to respond. In addition to partnerships for VBS, I also developed a full curriculum for a new program called “Habitat Unplugged.” In this program, we partnered with community youth programs (4-H, scouts, church youth groups) to present a daylong experience in which youth learned about poverty housing including causes, impact on families, poverty simulation activities and resilience factors for families. Additionally, they completed simple construction projects (flower beds, window boxes, toolboxes, birdhouses, etc.) as service for Habitat homeowners. As part of an established reflection process, youth participants were invited to respond to a call to action to strengthen one or more types of resilience supports for the vulnerable in our community.

Lastly, in the academic setting, my graduate studies focused on resource development and program administration. My master’s thesis was a qualitative study on how homeless adults define family. As a doctoral student, I am currently focused on exploring the continuum of housing experiences as the basis of my dissertation. As a part-time university instructor, my passion for ending poverty housing continues to fuel my commitment to educate and empower my students as they prepare to emerge as new human service professionals in a variety of settings.

I will continue my work of building homes, awareness, strong families, and hope. It is my goal that by sharing these experiences, others will be inspired to think creatively and innovatively in the service of families at risk of homelessness.

Janeal M. White, M.S., CFLE, is a visiting lecturer and internship coordinator at McNeese State University and adjunct instructor at Lamar University. She has a bachelor’s degree in applied art and sciences and an M.S. in family and consumer sciences; she is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Social Work at Louisiana State University. Correspondence is welcome at [email protected].