Written by Ashly Frazier

Hello, my name is Ashly Frazier and I am a first year Environmental Science major attending Drake University. This year I have had a wide range of opportunities in which I have been able to take part. One in particular unlocked my mind in a way that none of my previous experiences ever had; becoming a member of the Engaged Citizens Corps. Those involved are being armed with knowledge and understanding in order to combat social injustices. Each member of this cohort was partnered with a nonprofit in the Des Moines, community. I was united with Anawim Housing, which helps low-income members of the community and those currently experiencing homelessness obtain affordable housing. On my first day at Anawim, I was nervous out of my mind; I didn’t think I was going to establish a meaningful connection with my coworkers or those we served. I now realized how irrational this fear was.

This fear disappeared when I met Full Circle. This is a peer mentorship group for tenants who have experienced homelessness that congregates at Anawim every Friday to share a meal and discuss various topics. Frequently there are visitors who discuss various things such as job training or art therapy. Sometimes other nonprofits will visit and talk about some of the services they can provide. On this particular Friday, I was able to experience my first Full Circle discussion. Gathered in a circle under dimmed lights the leader read a poem about home. After, we were asked what home meant to us and how we defined home. The talking stick slowly made its way around the circle. Each person was given the option to voice their thoughts or to internally ponder the question as they listened to others.

Here I was, sitting in a ring with those who had at some point lost what they defined as home. I thought that, because I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be able to relate and that anything I said would detract from the deep meaningful discussion and reflection occurring before me. I have never experienced homelessness, but I was raised by a single mother, and monetary funds were in short supply. Due to my parents’ separation, I grew up always having a bag packed with enough clothes for a few days, always moving back and forth between two places. This continued until I was presented with a scholarship to attend a boarding school. I spent my last three years of high school there and by attending Drake, I am now entirely in a different state. I describe this situation and explained how my constant movement away caused me to limit the roots I planted at a place, and that I wasn’t sure exactly what home was to me in terms of a physical structure. I quickly gave up the speaking stick after I said all of this in a few rushed words. The person who received the stick next opened up herself and her heart to our group.

She talked about how home is more than just a structure. Home is the feeling you get by being in a place or with someone who makes you feel comfortable to be your true self. My down casted eyes met their warm brown eyes and the doubt I felt dissolved in an instant. I realized that while I may not have had the same experiences as those around me, there were similarities at the core of our stories. I understood how it felt to feel displaced and unable to establish myself in a space. As the conversation continued, I learned more about myself and Anawim’s cause. A home can change everything, but first you must determine what a home is for you. Is it the people around you? Is it the place where you grew up? Is it where you currently live?

Now think if you were experiencing homelessness and you were told there was an opportunity for you to get housing, but you weren’t ready to have a home. You would probably be taken aback, confused, and/or even upset. This is something Anawim strongly disagrees with. They believe housing is a right. It is for this reason that they follow the Housing First model. Housing First is the theory and practice that recognizes a person doesn’t have to be “housing ready” before they obtain housing. Utilizing this method, people referred to Anawim programs coming from homelessness are not required to be sober, have a job, good credit, no evictions on their record, or in any other way ready for housing. Housing is a basic human need. Without a safe, stable home, a person cannot begin to address their issues. However, once a person has a permanent roof over their head, an address to receive mail, a safe and stable place to keep their belongings, and to feel safe when they sleep, they will be much more equipped and likely to address their issues and needs. They will be able to focus on improving themselves and thriving, rather than just surviving.

Anawim values the dignity and autonomy of their program participants. One way this is shown is with harm reduction practices. For instance, if a tenant is addicted to a substance, the case manager will not force them to receive treatment for their addiction. Instead, the case manager will encourage the person to seek help, and provide them with information and resources, but also discuss steps they can take to increase their safety until they are ready to address their addiction. Ultimately, they recognize and respect that getting help is the tenant’s choice. While some may say that doing this only encourages the negative habit, I would argue that taking away someone’s choice in a matter eventually leads to resentment and relapse. Choice for one’s self is more powerful and meaningful than being shackled by another’s decisions. Eventually the goal is that the subtle and non-invasive persuasion of the case manager and the tenant’s own opinions align to a path of recovery.

These concepts and ideas of home and who receives the opportunity to have a home are why I appreciate the work Anawim Housing is doing and I am honored to help further these efforts. This organization has taught me to advocate for change in a way that is meaningful, while maintaining autonomy and dignity of those we serve; two things often trampled in the crusade. Every person deserves a home. With every discussion on this issue, we are taking one more step along the long road to prevent, remedy, and one day abolish homelessness. The question is, will you march with us?