Be an active member of your neighborhood. Don’t move with the demographic trends; get to know your neighbors so you know how to support each other if things go badly for yourself or your neighbor. These friendships are what future mutual aid organizations and other helpful models are built on. Also remember that a constructive member of your community means being supportive — often, neighborhood organizing models are based on policing and criminalization, which only worsens homelessness and public safety!
As a part of my series about “Heroes of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Brandi Grayson.
Brandi Grayson is the proud mother of 3 daughters 26, 26, and 20, and one 4-year-old son. Ms. Grayson has worn many hats over the last 20 years including Treatment Foster Parent, Advocate, Activist, Comedian, Radio Talk Show Host, CEO, Business Manager & Realtor to name a few. She’s known for her bold, authentic and unstoppable approach as a leader in the Black Lives Matter Movement standing for transformational justice and Black liberation as co-Founder of Young Gifted and Black Coalition and as the Founder & CEO of Urban Triage, Inc. Ms. Grayson embodies that in which she stands for: transformational education, justice, integrity, and Black excellence.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?
I was born on the Southside of Chicago to a mother who struggled with addiction and was a victim of abuse. Leading to a chaotic and traumatic childhood. I was left unprotected, unguided and uncared for. Leading to unsafe environments, dangerous situations and teen pregnancy at the age of 13. We moved to Madison when I was approximately 10. The thing I remember the most is coming across John Nolan and being breathless because of the green grass, parks and the calmness and peace that Madison had to offer. I spent my childhood in and out of foster care until I found permanency with my foster mom Rita Adair. She took me in shortly after becoming pregnant I believe I was seven months pregnant and I lived with her until I graduated from high school and went on to attend UW Madison. I struggled with intimate relationships and friendships because I had no reference point for trust, intimacy, vulnerability, or healthy relationships. I thought abuse was healthy. I had no idea that vulnerability was the key to my liberation which took me years to figure out. I wore many hats over the years in my journey to discover myself and my passion. As soon found myself in a situation in which I was advocating for the lease of us. I had no idea at that time that that would become my path. Or my life mission statement. And yet here I am rooting for and creating pathways and opportunities for Black people Black families in Black communities. It’s often said a leader is known by the fruit they bear. It is my vision to empower and inspire leadership in Black people and within our Black communities leading to the development and methodology of Urban Triage Inc of transformational education.
Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?
I wouldn’t say there was one particular incident — there were many incidents in my life. Incidents that left me feeling hopeless, desperate unloved and unsure if I would survive. My work is based on my experience, my journey to healing and transformational living. My work is based on the experience of many in my community. I found myself many times not sure if I would make it. And each time I found myself making it. I found that I had all that I needed within me. I just didn’t know it at the time. I also found that I wasn’t alone. More times than I could count, I didn’t know how I was going to get to the next level in my life or the place I wanted to be in my life — I often heard a voice within that told me to keep going. So, I did. And everything eventually fell into place. Not without trials and tribulations of course. I stumbled across books, videos, lectures, spiritual podcasts, personal leadership and personal change training and I sucked it all up. As much as I could. I prayed. I cried. I grieved. I took a 2-year sabbatical after giving birth to my 4-year-old son to heal my heart, my spirit and my body. And to present with him as much as I could. Shortly after my 2-year break from the world, I was invited by a friend of mine to enroll in the Landmark Curriculum for living around 2018. Enrolling in Landmark changed my understanding in terms of how to frame my work and my own transformational journey. It gave me a reference point in understanding how conversations and communication are the bedrock of transformation and healing. I am forever grateful for the curriculum of living offered through Landmark. I took the distinctions, language and framework and applied to my life and to my work. Enrolling others into the possibility of creating and redefining humanness from outside of contextual constraints given to us through our conditioning and the mechanics of our minds. Leading to a newfound freedom and power — grounded in being fully self-expressed and authentic.
Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?
Our housing market has always reflected capitalism which grounded in racism. Prices on property, and thus rent, is impacted by the demographics of the residents. When middle-class white people move into a working-class neighborhood, they price the community out through higher taxes and higher rent. Of course, for the purpose of “generating” revenue increasing “safety”. When working-class, specifically Black & Brown people move into a neighborhood, middle class — often white people, flee to escape what they believe will be decreasing property values due to criminality of Black people representing those who are considered undeserving. Criminality by the way is a tool used by systems to maintain itself. Itself being white supremacy racism. Criminality of Black youth and Black people gives justification for mass incarceration, disproportionality of arrest, redlining and gentrification — maintaining the power equation of whites over nonwhite people. This process maintains racial and socioeconomic segregation long after we supposedly got rid of Jim Crow laws. This crisis, inherently, is rooted I white supremacy racism and the inability of a free market to provide services and supports for the people by the people — including housing, access to mental wellness services, healthcare and education rooted in the psychology of those being educated. All which by the way are human rights and should be readily available and accessible for all residents. It doesn’t cost more to provide impactful support services and resources including affordable housing, then it does condos or hotels and yet we invest in condos, dog parks and hotels. The private market incentivizes people to cater to the rich and the professional class and ignore the needs of the working class and poor. Leading to higher rate of poverty, decrease in middle class and increase in the funds controlled by 10% of our society. In other words, the average family is getting poorer and the rich is getting richer.
For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?
The typical progression isn’t typical at all. Everyone’s stories are different. Everyone’s environmental factors are different including mental health and physical health. Despite differences there are similarities. Housing instability can happen to anyone, though it’s also important to remember those that have been born into housing instability and have been in a cycle of housing instability. Often our country focuses on those with the easiest-to-solve problems or the most sympathetic story, but we need to recognize everyone’s right to housing, regardless of their past and past actions.
That being said, the current pandemic is a great example of how someone can go from stable to homeless. During this pandemic and its associated economic downturn, millions of people lost their source of income. With wages stagnating but cost of living increasing, few people — even middle class — have enough money saved to cover a job loss, especially when there are very few jobs hiring that offer living wages. It does not take long from missing rent or mortgage payment to being homeless. Remember that being forced to double up, crashing a friend’s couch, or living in a car are forms of homelessness as well — the problem is much deeper than those we see on the street. Most people don’t have access to generational wealth — -in the form of family support or nepotism.
A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?
The most obvious answer is it costs money to move. If you have a car, it costs gas money. If you need a moving truck, that costs money. If you need a bus ticket, that costs money. Additionally, the city someone is comfortable with may have other benefits, such as social connections, support systems, and relative safety. And, frankly, housing prices across the nation are too high for our lowest-income community members. There often is no city with housing cheap enough to be worth it. Madison, we love to build affordable housing that isn’t affordable at all for most people. Let’s be real, housing cost has gone up across the nation considerably while our wages have gone down. At the age of 14 I worked for Nicolet Biomedical and made $14/hr. 25 years later people are expected to feed their families and cover their rent — for $14/hr — how does that work? Its inhumane and is symbolic of the issue. Prices up. Wages go down. Condos up. Leading to homelessness and home insecurities.
If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?
Acknowledge them. We often treat people who are homeless as invisible — this is a form of dehumanization. Each person is an expert in what they need. If you end up in a conversation with them, you may learn what they need in the form of support. Ask them — how can I support you? And do it. Don’t judge. Don’t worry about what if they spend the money or something other than. We have to learn to detach from paternalistic ways that say we know best — when actually folks who are most vulnerable know what they need and know what is best for them.
What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?
If you’re able to, give money. If not, acknowledge them and say you are unable to give so that their humanity is recognized.
People often worry about the money being misused, but keep in mind — who is truly mishandling money in large sums, those that are homeless or, say, politicians and CEOs? Additionally, many of the vices people associate with the homeless are often vices many of us have challenges with — and chances are, people find it harder to quit vices when they’re unhoused. At the end of the day, giving money when asked is the best way to respond and once that money is in their hands, unless this person is someone you have a prior connection with, it’s no longer your business.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?
Our Homeless Outreach Program is designed to be the initial contact point for many experiencing homelessness and/or housing insecurity in the City of Madison and the Dane County area. We employ a team of 6 Outreach Specialists who go out into the community three times per week to locate, identify, and build relationships with those who are experiencing homelessness and/or housing insecurity to engage them for the purpose of providing immediate support, intervention, and connections with homeless assistance programs and/or mainstream social services and housing programs, and help guide them through the housing process. Because of our analysis of trauma and racism on an interpersonal, cultural, and systemic level, we are uniquely positioned to build relationships with people experiencing homelessness that may be a struggle to connect with for other organizations. Our outreach work, like all our programming is grounded in transformational education. Providing through case management a path to empowerment and freedom. We enroll those experiencing homelessness into the possibility of having all their needs met. We don’t judge. We don’t make them wrong. We reflect back to them their own humanity and their own competency. Providing pathways and resources for them to reach their goals. Encouraging them along the way to start with the results they desire to see.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?
The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened and exacerbated existing needs, gaps, and inequities within marginalized communities. This is impacting employment, income security, housing security, family basic needs, mental health, healthcare access, and safety. We have witnessed an immediate increase in the number of persons requesting financial assistance and emergency funds to prevent eviction due to economic hardship, job loss, and displacement. We are also witnessing an elevated and urgent need for mental health and crisis support as isolation and economic insecurity heighten anxiety, depression, and the risk of substance abuse. Fundamentally, our work hasn’t changed. While we need more safety precautions, the work of outreach is done in the community, not on a Zoom. That is why we rely on a team of outreach specialists. Our Community Outreach Program distributes personal care/hygiene packs, meals, transportation, housing entry cost coverage, and case management.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
I’m proud of our focus on non-conforming, non-white community members. Too often, non-profits focus on “easy” cases or those most sympathetic to the middle class. We want to focus on people who face racism, are differently-abled, are LGBTQIA, or otherwise face additional barriers due to their identity. Homeless service providers must be well-versed in intersectionality because our clients deal with intersectionality as it relates to oppression every day. Its challenging for me to think of one story. Its not one story that makes me proud its all our work. The work of meeting people where they’re at. The conversation and their response to us seeing them and not judging them. It is their appreciation and their acknowledgement of how we show up for them. There isn’t one story. Only one method — treat people as people. See past our own stories and conversations of who we think they are. And reflect to them who we know they are — human beings.
Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?
There are so many stories I’m not sure where to start…I guess the one that comes to mind is the story of a family who was facing homelessness and called our office and said they had been evicted and were living in their car. The husband was going to work every day, but they couldn’t seem to save enough money for security deposit and first month’s rent. Every time they did, they would have to spend it on hotels because no one would rent to them because their monthly income wasn’t 3X the amount of rent. They had two small children 9 months and 3 years old. We were able to provide rental support for them to cover their first month’s rent and we were able to work with a private landlord to get them housed. It was humbling because the mother was so excited about what we were able to do for her that for a whole week she would stop by and bring whatever gift that she had including food and a wallet. We accepted it with pride and love. Because we understand that if someone is surviving poverty and we look out for them, they often want to give back in whatever way they can, and it is our responsibility to receive what they are giving in love. We have many stories but this one is the one that sticks out in my mind at the moment.
Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?
- As a society, we need to be comfortable with housing that is not profitable — the government can and should help with building new units, maintenance costs, and eliminating evictions and foreclosures. Banks often keep the heating on in foreclosed homes to prevent pipes from bursting in the winter. How is that pipe worth more than the family made homeless in the cold?
- Investigate housing cooperatives, especially for those currently homeless. A cooperative model where tenants share ownership and responsibility can reduce rent, help combat our socioeconomic inequality, and build community among those struggling with shared experiences as housing unstable.
- Be an active member of your neighborhood. Don’t move with the demographic trends; get to know your neighbors so you know how to support each other if things go badly for yourself or your neighbor. These friendships are what future mutual aid organizations and other helpful models are built on. Also, remember that a constructive member of your community means being supportive — often, neighborhood organizing models are based on policing and criminalization, which only worsens homelessness and public safety!
If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
- Set a minimum wage that is actually a livable wage.
- Define affordable housing as having rent no more than 30% of a full-time minimum wage earner’s income so no matter how badly the job pays, housing is affordable.
- Create tenant protection laws that make it easier for tenants to form unions against landlords — the way workers need a check on bad management, tenants deserve a check on bad landlords.
I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?
My community. My family, My supporters. I couldn’t do this without them. Madison, WI may be the number one worst place to live in the nation for Black people and it’s also filled with people who want to see, and who are active change-makers. It is because of them that I have, and we have been able to do what we do so impactfully and effectively. The impact of our work and the reputation that we’ve created as an organization keeps me humbled and keeps me moving. Knowing that our work is literally changing lives — makes it all worth it. Because again, our work is not the same as a “normal” outreach program. We’re grounded and founded in transformational education and beingness — leading to change in people and within systems.
Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?
Absolutely — I wouldn’t do this work if I didn’t think we could win. The housing crisis is a crisis of political will, not resources. There are more vacant homes than homeless people in the United States, and this is true in nearly every city. If we truly treat housing as a non-negotiable right, we can come up with solutions to keep everyone housed.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
That is okay to be me. It’s okay to be fully self-expressed. To be 100% authentic; that’s okay to be unreasonable. It’s okay to push the envelope. That it’s okay to make people uncomfortable. That it’s okay to demand better of our elected officials and to demand better of our and for our community. That it’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to share my heart. It’s okay to be me. I wish someone would have told me that my work would be most impactful when it’s authentic and rooted in transformation.
I started off my work angry. Resentful of elected politicians and appointed leadership in our community. I wasn’t sure how to express my anger, so it came out in violent ways through my words and my actions. Not physically violent I’ve never been physically violent but when I say violent — -I mean through my words. I mean name-calling and talking at people and making people wrong versus creating a conversation or getting into communication with people from a place of humanness. I wasn’t able to do that until I was able to access my own vulnerability and become aware of my own language, baggage, demons and devils. When I became more in tune with who I was versus who I wanted to be, I was able to be compassionate with myself and offer love to myself making room for me to do the same for others as we play and participate in this thing called life. If someone would have told me a long time ago that change starts with self and self-starts with vulnerability and self-awareness I probably would be in a different place by now. But I have no regrets. It is what it is, and I am in full acceptance of my journey in life and where it has brought me. With the understanding that everything was necessary for me to be where I’m at today and I’m okay with where I’m at today. Actually, I’m super grateful and excited for the trajectory of my life and the possibilities of our organization. I know this is only the beginning of what we’re causing and creating in the world and the more that I stand in infinite possibilities the more vulnerable I become and the more healing I experience. I desire the same thing for everyone in the world — -transformational love — which starts with us.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
White supremacist patriarchal capitalism needs to end now. The assault on Black bodies, Black people Black families in Black communities need to stop. In order for us to get there we must get into listening and communication of the root cause of it all. Everyone globally has been socialized to internalize negative beliefs about Black people because of this country’s history. White people, non-Black people of color, Black people even. It is the tool that those with money and power use to convince people to fight against their own interests. It is the tool that is used to prevent people from believing in real change. When a good chunk of the country views poverty as a racial issue, they make assumptions about “deserving” and “undeserving” instead of seeing that everyone deserves socioeconomic security and housing, regardless of their past. It is my hope and vision of a world where humans are redefined. That the prototype of humanness is no longer an exclusive club that only white people belong to. That the prototype of humanness no longer is founded and grounded in biological characteristics, but the nature & psychology of human beings rooted in love, compassion and beingness.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The surest way to lose self-worth is trying to find it through the eyes of others. — Becca Lee
Because of my own personal trauma and abandonment issues with growing up a ward of the state and not having family I’ve always tried to be who others wanted and needed me to be and I always resented them and myself. Living that way pushed me further and further away from myself. I didn’t know who I was. My self-worth has always depended on others. How happy they were with me. I now know that self-worth has to come from within. That it’s directly connected to self-love. And self-awareness. Knowing thyself and mastering thyself. Once I figured that out, I became powerful beyond belief. I begin to cause and create in my world without a delay. I started to say chair and chair falls. Because I now know who I am. And I know where I’m going. It’s the most liberating and freeing way to be in the world.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Oprah Winfrey. I’ve been visualizing my first meeting with her since I was a little girl. She shares part of my story. She’s always been this powerful, causing and creating transformative being in a Black woman’s body. I just want to be in her presence. I want to touch her hand and experience her vibrational frequency. She has never allowed what is — -to stop her from causing & creating — -experiencing herself fully, authentically and apologetically. When you know her story and see where she is today — how can you not want to be in the presence of a person that transcends all odds? I love me so Oprah. When I sit in front of Oprah — I will know for a fact I’m walking in the highest grandest version of myself and I too am unstoppable and living outside of this small world that most of us have been conditioned to accept as IT — is all that exists. I’m ready to scale up and beyond Madison WI to a nationwide and international platform. I’m ready to walk in the highest grandest version of myself. Mind you, whoever sits with Oprah becomes international.
How can our readers follow you online?
The most important step is to visit our website and find ways to support the work of Urban Triage. https://urbantriage.org. I’m also running for local office — please follow my campaign at www.BrandiForMadison.com and my personal Facebook at Brandi Grayson, Madison WI. You’ll know its been from my chocolate skin and head wrap.