Get involved. Just do something. This doesn’t mean you need to leave your job and dedicate yourself to homelessness, but there are a lot of ways for you to make an impact whether that impact is time, money or skills. Go volunteer (if you’re able). Donate an item via Purposity or any other way that makes you feel good, or lend your professional expertise by joining a nonprofit board. There are tons of ways to make an impact right in your community.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Jamie Rife, co-Founder of Purposity and Author of Journeys out of Homelessness: The Voices of Lived Experience
Dr. Jamie Rife is co-founder of Purposity, a non-profit platform that connects users to critical, physical needs in their community so they can help their neighbors in need. Prior to Purposity, Rife spent over 15 years in public education. Most recently, she served as the State Coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth at the Colorado Department of Education. Before relocating to Denver, she spent 12 years in a metro-Atlanta school district as a director, school administrator, Homeless Education Liaison, and classroom teacher. Rife conducts research on poverty and homelessness and is the co-author of the recent book Journeys out of Homelessness: The Voices of Lived Experience. She earned her Ed.D. in educational leadership from Liberty University, M.Ed. in educational administration and policy from the University of Georgia and completed her B.A. in Spanish and sociology at the State University of New York College at College.
Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?
The short version? All brothers (I’m a complete tomboy), a single mom who instilled in me the importance of education as her only daughter (thanks, mom), and, sufficed to say, a backstory that gave me the opportunity to build a lot resiliency, grit, and a strong sense of purpose.
Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?
There is. For me, it’s personal. Homelessness is a wide spectrum of experiences and living situations. It’s a spectrum I’ve spent some time on, and I can tell you it’s awful. It’s an experience that cuts deeply, and I want to do everything in my power to ensure others don’t have to endure it.
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?
It’s a combination of a lot of factors, the primary of which is the rising cost of housing in those cities. My hometown, Denver, was just listed #2 in the nation for gentrification (not in a good way), and affordable communities are disappearing overnight. Couple this with stagnate wages, the rising cost of healthcare, disappearing safety nets, the burden of higher education, plus systems that breed racial inequality, and the nation is seeing sharp increases in homelessness in many major cities. Also, this is no longer an urban issue. It’s an everywhere issue. As individuals are displaced outwards from cities into more affordable housing markets, smaller communities have also seen significant growth in their homeless populations. Many of these communities still haven’t recovered from the Great Recession, and with the economic impact of COVID just now beginning to unfold, homelessness in towns across the U.S. will see even more staggering increases unless we take immediate action.
That being said, homelessness has been an issue for a very long time. In some ways, we are just getting better at understanding the breadth and quantifying the crisis as our ability to collect meaningful data improves. In fact, with the right resources, awareness and will, veteran homelessness has actually decreased by 50% in the last 10 years. This is encouraging news for many of us, but we still have a lot of work to do.
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?
There’s not really a “typical” progression. Rather, it’s the combination of a lot of factors, including an economy that only works for some, an unexpected illness, the loss of a job without a safety net, the result of escaping domestic violence or other family conflict, a struggle with mental illness or substance use, and perhaps most importantly, the racial inequities of many of our systems including criminal justice, child welfare, and others that disproportionately affect people of color.
Most of the individuals experiencing homelessness don’t have a safety net or social network capable of helping them through difficult times. This is referred to as network impoverishment and is the reality in which many of those without a home have spent their entire lives. The majority of Americans can’t afford a 400 dollars unexpected cost, and if you don’t have a network to whom you can reach out to in unexpected times, then often the path to losing housing is a straight line.
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 reality is, there is not a single zip code in the U.S. in which minimum wage can support market rent. These places simply do not exist. Plus, if an individual is experiencing housing insecurity, more than likely they do not have the resources to easily move to another city. Additionally, many people have family, friends, employment, and support networks in their current city. Leaving those behind for more affordable housing oftentimes simply trades one set of problems for another. Social networks are incredibly important to all of us, and for those living in unstable situations, a social network can be the difference between surviving and not. For example, what if a parent relies on extended family to care for their children while they work or attend school? Moving to a more affordable city simply means they’ll be trading lower rent for higher childcare costs. The same is true with transportation. In more affordable communities, there often doesn’t exist the infrastructure, such as public transportation, on which so many rely to get to work.
If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?
A lot of people ask me this question. My answer is always the same. Make a decision on what you think is the right way to respond. Ultimately, you have to live with you. My husband and I both work in homelessness and even our responses are often different. Sometimes I carry nonperishable items in my car on with me to hand out. He may carry resource lists and how to contact his agency. One thing we both do — treat people with kindness, dignity, and recognize that this is a human being in front of you. Too often homelessness dehumanizes those it affects and desensitizes the rest of us. Fight that urge.
What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?
There’s not really a “best” way to respond. Here again, I encourage you to decide for yourself what you feel is best and what you’re comfortable with. You have to live with you. I will say this, if you do choose to give someone money, be ok with how that person chooses to spend the it — don’t judge.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?
My work is but a blip in the sea of the larger response to this crisis. There are thousands of people all working together to make homelessness brief, rare and nonrecurring. That’s what we mean when we say we want to end homelessness. They’re the ones on the front lines, the ones seeing and feeling the impact of homelessness first hand. They’re the ones advocating for the rights and the resources needed to make this crisis history. It’s an honor to be able to support them through the work I do, and they’re the ones making the real impact.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?
This has complicated an already complex issue. The full effects of COVID-19 will continue to unfold for years to come. What I can say about COVID is the guidance on remaining safe all rely on one thing — housing. Sheltering in place, socially distancing, practicing good hygiene are all privileges of those that are housed. For those among the homeless community, COVID-19 contributed the dangers and disparities already inherent in their everyday lives. Many of those living without a home are doing so due to some sort of chronic health issue and/or are senior citizens (one of the fastest growing subpopulations of unhoused). This, coupled with their inability to literally follow guidelines to stay healthy, is detrimental to so many experiencing homelessness. Additionally, so many of the nonprofits that work with those experiencing homelessness rely on volunteers to operate, the majority of which are retirees. With COVID-19, we’ve seen drastic decreases in the available number of volunteers to ensure our nonprofits can continue to serve those without homes.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
A lot of the past five years of my life have been spent examining my purpose. Thankfully, I’m at a place in my life where I have the privilege to spend time doing. I’m blessed. One thing that makes me proud is helping provide a platform and megaphone for those that are either experiencing homelessness or those who have. Let’s be real — if you want to know about homelessness, take some time to get to know someone who’s been through it. They’re the real experts.
With that, the writing of Journeys out of Homelessness fills me with a sense of pride and purpose. In the book, nine individuals share their journeys through, and in most cases, out of homelessness. My coauthor, Don Burnes, and I spent nearly two years working with the contributors to help craft and refine their stories along with many of them who also shared how they believe our system can be improved. If you’re truly interested in the topic, give the book a read. All proceeds are being donated to nonprofits that serve those experiencing homelessness, so in reading it, you’re not only expanding your knowledge but doing some good.
Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?
I get a little teary-eyed when I think back to all the amazing people with whom I’ve had the opportunity to share this journey. Perhaps one of my favorite stories was one shared with me by a school social worker. After walking off stage for a keynote at a conference last fall, this school social worker made a beeline towards me, with a very intentional look on her face, stopping me as I made my way to the back of the room. She shared that her school district had recently begun using Purposity and she’d gotten one of her first shipments, a pair of shoes for a sixth-grade boy. She called him to her office to give him the shoes, handing them to him, still in the shoebox in which they had arrived. Bewildered, the boy looked up at her and asked, “Are these for me?” She responded by saying that of course they were for him and that someone in their community had sent them to him at the school. Awestruck, he asked a question that will stick with me forever. “Well, can I keep the box too? I’ve never had a NEW pair of shoes.” She said every time she saw him in the hallways for weeks afterwards, he’d smile at her and show off his new kicks. I think sometimes in the complexity of some of the issues we deal with, it’s easy to forget how big of a deal something really small can be, particularly to a child. It’s hopeful to think that we all can do just one little thing that collectively we can have a large impact.
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?
- Here’s an easy one — start using person-first language. What’s that mean, you ask? Instead of saying “homeless people” (it hurts to even type those words), consider using “people experiencing homelessness” when talking about this issue. Homelessness is an experience. It’s not a defining characteristic. How we talk about this issue matters, and it literally costs nothing to make this change.
- Question your assumptions on homelessness. It’s so much easier, and less vulnerable, to continue to believe the stereotypes on homelessness — that it’s the result of personal choices or bad decisions. It’s a defense mechanism that keeps us distanced from having to realize that it could be any one of us that ends up without a home, but this wall of defense we keep putting up is one of the barriers we’ve erected to solve this issue
- Get involved. Just do something. This doesn’t mean you need to leave your job and dedicate yourself to homelessness, but there are a lot of ways for you to make an impact whether that impact is time, money or skills. Go volunteer (if you’re able). Donate an item via Purposity or any other way that makes you feel good, or lend your professional expertise by joining a nonprofit board. There are tons of ways to make an impact right in your community.
If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
Only three? Well…I guess I’ll need to be precise. It’s so interesting to me. Legislation on homelessness is often done in isolation of its causes, meaning we legislate and appropriate funds to combat homelessness itself as an outcome versus addressing its root causes. Homelessness is the result of systems working together. If we want to end homelessness, we need to shut off the in valve, not just drink from the firehose on the other end. I’d like to see more efforts focused on addressing these systems, instead of just focusing on homelessness. So, if you’re asking which three areas I’d like to see reformed, I’d suggest starting with those systems that feed directly into homelessness like criminal justice, child welfare, and healthcare.
I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?
Large amounts of coffee…and a strong sense of purpose.
Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?
I don’t hope. I know. Several cities have already ended certain forms of homelessness, such as veteran and chronic homelessness. My belief is that if it’s possible in one city, it’s possible everywhere. We just need the collective will to make it happen. Don’t believe me? Check out the amazing work the nonprofit Community Solutions is doing not just in the U.S. but around the world to help communities end homelessness.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Prioritize yourself. This sounds so incredibly counterintuitive to many of us who work in human services. We’ve somehow gotten to a place where we idolize burnout and working long hours. This isn’t healthy. To bring your best to this work, you have to make time for yourself and fill your own tank.
- You can’t win them all. This has been one of the hardest for me, and one of my dearest colleagues gave me this advice early on. You literally can’t save everyone and sometimes have to make some very, very difficult decisions. Give yourself grace in these situations.
- That’s probably my third one — give yourself grace. I think one of the best things therapy taught me was to stop myself when that voice of self-criticism starts creeping out into my thoughts and ask, “Is this something I would say to a friend?” Many of us in this work tend to focus on our perceived shortcomings and it stands in the way of our growth.
- Ask “why”? One of the easiest traps to fall into is not asking why things are done the way they’re done. Question every process, every day and make sure the way you’re doing something is the best way to do it. If not, progress can’t be made.
- With that, seek progress, not perfection. Don’t wait for the perfect answer to do anything, just keep assuring you’re making progress. If you wait for perfection, you’ll never move forward.
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. 🙂
Start by helping your neighbors. If we each begin making an impact close to us, collectively we really can change the world, one corner at a time.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” — Brene Brown
For the longest time, I’ve sought to shut away vulnerability, seeing it as a weakness, particularly as a female leader. When I started to open myself up to vulnerability and reframe it from a weakness to a tool, there was an internal shift. It’s one that has given me peace, a stronger sense of self, and allowed me to lean into my creative side. For me, vulnerability was the birthplace of Purposity and so many of the other amazing things in my life. It’s made my personal relationships healthier, my marriage stronger, and helped develop me into the leader I am today. There’s nothing more exhausting than fear of being vulnerable and trying to lock it away. If you’re still fighting that fight, consider taking some time and doing some work to tackle that demon (start with Brene Brown’s work on the topic). You’ll be happier and healthier for it.
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. 🙂
Hey, hey Brene Brown. Feel free to reach out with some dates and times that work for you. I’ll send out the calendar invite with a Zoom link.
In all seriousness, if you don’t have Brene Brown in your life, you need to get some. Her work on shame and vulnerability (paired with some intensive counseling) have changed my life and allowed me to own my story instead of it owning me. I’ll always be grateful for this gift.
How can our readers follow you online?
If you want to make a difference, don’t follow me. Follow Purposity:
If you prefer dog photos, cat cameos, and an occasional update on homelessness, give me a follow on Instagram or Twitter.