Jen McDonald and her family found themselves homeless after a job loss created a “snowball effect,” a common scenario in Denver. For Jen McDonald, the excitement of moving to Denver for a new job quickly turned to panic for her young family. She describes it is a “snowball effect.” Her new job fell through and the housing they were promised went to another renter. Even as she and her boyfriend landed new jobs, it took nearly every dollar they earned to keep a motel roof over their heads.
Jen found herself with an identity she never expected: homeless. Her’s was now one of the families with children that make up nearly half of the people experiencing homelessness in Metro Denver.
Despite the ever-present headlines about homelessness on the streets of Denver, much of the experience of homelessness is unseen and largely unknown. Most families and individuals without a stable, safe place to live transition among different settings, including short-stay motels, doubling-up with friends or family members, sleeping in cars, or in transitional housing or shelters. Only 18 percent of people experiencing homelessness live on the streets.
A public opinion poll commissioned by The Denver Foundation showed that residents incorrectly believe homelessness mainly happens in Denver, not in other Metro communities. Most residents also were not aware that families, children, youth, women, and seniors are significantly impacted by homelessness. Nor did they know the leading causes of homelessness: skyrocketing housing costs, job loss or underemployment (including low wages), serious illnesses and changing family circumstances like divorce, the death of a family member or domestic violence. Losing a home can happen to anyone. "Skyrocketing housing costs, job loss or underemployment, serious illnesses, and changing family circumstances are among the leading causes of homelessness."
A Foundation listening tour also revealed that in community after community, residents are having a tough time meeting their basic needs, and they believed few others were aware of their plight.
Recognizing that it’s tough to gain public support for solutions if most people don’t have a clear understanding of the problem, The Denver Foundation developed Close To Home, a five-year citizen engagement campaign that is shining a bright light on the broad reach of homelessness. In addition to building awareness, the goal of Close to Home is to mobilize citizens to take action and support solutions. Since Close to Home launched, more than 700 people have signed a pledge to participate in solving the problem of homelessness in our community.
An especially inspiring component of Close To Home is the campaign’s commitment to authentically engage people who have personally experienced homelessness. Enter the Storytellers Network, nearly two dozen men and women in the network share their personal stories of homelessness with groups in community centers, libraries, and places of faith and service across Metro Denver. By putting a human face to the issue of homelessness, they help people understand and connect with the circumstances that led them to lose their housing, and what it took for them to move back to safe, stable housing.
The Storytellers are credible, powerful messengers who help challenge stereotypes about what homelessness is and who experiences it. In addition to changing public attitudes, they say the real value in telling their stories lies in helping others who have faced or are facing, similarly daunting circumstances view themselves as valuable members of our community.
“It was motivating to hear my own story and realize I survived homelessness,” says Jen. “In hearing others’ experiences that were different than mine, it humanized the experience. It helps me to know there are others who have been through this situation.”
Today, Jen, her fiancé, and their two young children are housed and have grown to love Colorado. She works at the Community College of Denver, where she’s completing her computer science degree. She makes time to provide support to help other students navigate housing challenges. Jen is also a member of the Storytellers Network.
“A quote by author J. Michael Straczynski hits home for me when thinking of the experience of homelessness: ‘Our greatest cruelty is our casual blindness to the despair of others,’” she says. “We need to see others – really see them, speak out about the cruelties of homelessness, and lend a hand to prevent more suffering.”
National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week is November 11-19. Visit www.CloseToHomeCO.org to learn more about what actions you can take to help make homelessness history during the week and all year long.
Close to Home is a Denver Foundation-led campaign to increase understanding and civic engagement in addressing homelessness. To learn more about the campaign and its Storytellers Network, visit closetohomeco.org
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