Thursday, September 1, 2016


I am always thinking about water -- not because it's hot outside, or because I forgot to water my plants (yeah, they're dead already), but because I know so many with a lack of it. 

You can spot them easily. Hair looks unwashed; clothes are stained; there's an aura of smell, sure. But mostly they look exhausted. They are, of course, dehydrated, but I'm betting they're equally exasperated and frustrated with a system that seems to work against them.

Like residents of many countries, citizens in the United States pay for water through local public utilities and water companies. In some areas, the charge is minor and most people can pay with just a few falling behind on their bills. In other areas, the charges can be high, and a major proportion of the population falls in arrears. Take Detroit for example. Last year, 1 in 9 city accounts were shut off last year. Over 10%!

I don't know the rate of shut-offs in the Jefferson City area, but I've been seeing enough to make me question our system. Should we provide water to everyone as a free public service?

On our recent trip to Ireland, I asked some of our new friends how their country handled water. Little did I know that water had been a heated argument for the last few years on the Emerald Isle. Until a new law took effect in 2015, water had been provided free to every citizen as a public service. For the last year and a half, however, everyone was having to pay a yearly amount (with a cap based on adults in the household). Water was still relatively cheap by European standards, but the new law has been so contentious that the country has suspended it for a period of nine months to review its practice. The government argued that the fees were needed to pay for a dilapidated system and replace lead pipes. The people said water was a basic right and should be provided to all.

I have to admit, I see a water shut-off as one of the most degrading events a family can suffer, especially when children are in the home. Water is a necessity. How do you reconcile the public need to maintain services through imposed fees with the basic human right of access to clean water? (Interestingly, under the new Irish law, families are never disconnected for a lack of payment on a bill. Rather, debts are tallied and court proceedings initiate only at a minimum debt level of 500 euros, with the legal enforcement being a reduction of payroll or social welfare payments. I've had clients who have been disconnected here for a late payment on a $15 bill.)

I don't know what the solution is. Certainly we could increase local taxes and wrap it into our public system. Because we are such an anti-tax culture, however, I fear that the service would be underfunded and fall into the same disrepair as Irish plumbing. Maybe we should initiate alternative solutions to non-payment like the example above, or create social safety nets that ensure water is provided despite inability to pay.

Or, as is the growing case in our cities, what we really need to do is address some deep-seated systemic problems that prevent even the hard-working families among us from paying for basic necessities: low wages, a lack of affordable housing, and gaps in health insurance coverage. As the Detroit-area CEO of United Way says, it's time to "question[] the American dream, and if we're setting up families to acheive it."

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


We humans can't help it. We judge. It's ingrained into our deepest selves. We've evolved to make decisions (sometimes life-saving) after a split-second of internal debate: Does this water look safe to drink? Can I get through the intersection before the light turns red? This food truck hot dog looks great, but will I regret eating it five minutes later? Does this person walking behind me in the dark mean me harm? And so on... (yep, I should not have eaten that hot dog...).

We've become so good at judgment, it's sometimes hard to turn off.

I certainly find that true at Common Ground. In fact, sometimes I feel that I am expected to sit in judgment of others. As a donor-dependent organization, we feel a responsibility to use our benevolence funds as wisely, fairly and judiciously as possible. We carefully track client services; we abide by strict rules regarding returning clients; we verify information as thoroughly as possible without invading privacy. We encourage personal responsibility and goal-setting.

And yet, if we let judgment rule the day here, we would miss a lot of the truth. Judgment only opens a window. It doesn't buy us a ticket into someone's true story.

Peter is a good example of when judgment can fail. Peter visited us recently to ask for help with his
rent. Like some of our clients, Peter was neatly dressed and groomed. Some would say he didn't play the part of "person in poverty." Why is he here? He doesn't look like he needs help...

Peter explained that he came to Jefferson City from another state with a good job waiting for him. The company even paid moving expenses. He worked that job for four years making a good salary, but was fired because he did not meet company quotas for performance. He suddenly had no income. (Like half of Americans, he was unable to save enough for an emergency. See the Atlantic article here). He had applied at numerous other businesses since losing the job, but found it difficult to get a job with his qualifications, because a default on his student loans was preventing him from accessing his transcript. He was currently doing the only job he could find -- part-time janitorial work -- but it wasn't enough to pay all the bills.

Peter's story is not unique. We see numerous middle-class individuals and families who hit a snag and suddenly find themselves in trouble. On the outside, they don't look the part. But inside, they are hurting. They are embarrassed to be here. We've also had low-income individuals who don't fit the role description: Coach handbags can be bought at yard sales; nice cars are sometimes hand-me-downs from relatives who want to help; cell phones are provided free of charge to food stamp recipients (because cell phones are a lifeline to jobs...ask one of our clients who lost a job because he didn't have online access to a work schedule).

And, judgment can fool us the other way around. I'll never forget a conversation I had with a gentleman in a homeless shelter during my college days. He looked like a "typical" homeless individual -- bags in tow, unkempt hair and beard, layer upon layer of unwashed clothing. I asked him about his past, and he spoke eloquently about serving in the armed forces during Vietnam and later, teaching English at a university.

We can spend all of our time asking the judgment questions. Does he really need our help? How can she afford that phone? Why is his car even nicer than mine? The questions are easy. The prepackaged answers are even easier.

Listening and a slow discernment of the overall story is much harder and requires compassion. We need to save quick judgment for those important moments when our life is at risk (learn from that last hot dog, girlfriend!).

Simply put, the life of someone else may depend on you turning judgment off until you see the whole play.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


Because of my involvement in projects aimed toward people experiencing homelessness, I think people see me as a kind of advisor, or expert, in the area.  Let me say straight out -- I am far from it! In fact, I hold more guilt and shame surrounding my encounters with people in this condition than I do for most other interactions. Why? Because homelessness is messy. It's complicated. It's different for everyone experiencing it, and there are currently no easy solutions. Just when you think you have a situation figured out, it explodes in your face and people suffer for it.

This past year, I worked hard to help a particular person escape homelessness. This person was homeless because of an exacerbation of mental health issues that sent him into a spiral of distrust and withdrawal. Plus, the very condition that caused him to pull away from people also led him to believe he had no mental health disorder. He refused to seek treatment or medication. Therefore, without a definitive diagnosis, it was impossible to access the small number of services available to him through mental health providers.

So, I decided our community center and churches needed to step in. He had applied for Section 8 rental assistance. We would pay his rent until the voucher came through. It was a long waiting list (five years in our area), but I determined we could manage it as part of a new transitional housing initiative.  He also had a small part-time job which could help toward utilities, providing he could keep the job in the midst of the deepening darkness. 

I called around to a few landlords with my plan and explained our commitment to help this person until his Section 8 was approved. The first few said "no." Undaunted, I kept calling.  More "nos." One yes, but this landlord casually mentioned he would be selling the property soon and could not guarantee a long-term residence. He just wanted some easy cash for a few months. More "nos." Finally, one maybe. I spoke with this landlord at length, but as it became clear they would be housing someone who was homeless for many months prior, they backed out as well.  "We've had homeless individuals move in before. It never works out."

Desperation and bewilderment set in. We were willing to provide rent for an extended period of time, but no landlords were willing to take on the risk of housing a homeless individual in cooperation with a church. What was I doing wrong? 

I was willing to keep trying, but weeks had passed in the effort, and my friend started to distrust me. I felt I had kept his trust longer than most, but because of the repeated denials, our relationship began to sour. I was just one more let-down in a long string of let-downs. Reluctantly, and in consultation with friends in the area who help others in similar situations, I decided I needed to back off. It was undeniable. Everyone agreed he needed professional help. Without treatment, he would continue to quit jobs, break leases, cut off others. But I felt -and continue to feel - like pond scum, and he no longer speaks to me. 

We are still trying to move a family into our transitional housing program, but we are now working in connection with a local shelter who can identify a family ready to move forward and can provide the much-needed support the family needs after they move in to their new home. I learn from my mistakes.

I'm asked all the time, "How can I help someone who is homeless?" By this question, I've discovered most people mean, "What stuff can I give a homeless person to help them out?" Socks? A warm meal? A tent or blankets? Hand warmers? Batteries? A hug and a prayer?

All of these things are wonderful expressions of unconditional love, but none of these get someone off the street. If our society truly wishes to end homelessness, we need to work toward providing the one thing that works: a home. It's not the easy answer, and I can't do it alone. A few well-meaning churches can't do it alone. We all must decide together that no one needs to live outside like an animal because of mental health battles, physical ailments, PTSD, or even poor financial choices. 

Then we need to put our money where our hope is. Support increased funding for mental health services. Support transitional housing programs facilitated by experts in housing. Support increased funding to local shelters so they can add the staff they need to provide thorough case management. In other words, support solutions that offer lasting results.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Four Months Ago (a Guest Post by Sophia Silva)

(Common Ground is sad to say good-bye to a very special young woman who has been with us the past few months. Sophia Silva, a senior Mizzou social work student, has been an enormous help with both Common Ground and Fresh Start Market, as well as our neighbor, HALO. We will miss her! We asked her to sum up her experiences in a guest blog post.  She gives a great perspective on what she has seen and heard while here.  And no, Kristen did not pay her money to say all the nice things at the end...but she should have! She is worth every penny! Good luck as a future social worker, Sophia! You'll be awesome!)

Four months ago…

Four months ago I had never heard of Common Ground or been to Jefferson City. I thought social service agencies were gloomy and filled with hopelessness: that the clients would be angry, frustrated with a system that has let them down; that I would not be able to connect with people living in poverty, because we are from such different backgrounds even with all the knowledge and education form the social work program I have. Four months ago I believed that poverty was so complex that I wouldn’t be able to make a difference in a client’s life, because I am just a practicum student, what could I do for them?

Four months ago I started a new learning and life journey as a practicum student at Common Ground working under Kristen. Here I am now at the end of my journey, and I can say that I have seen first hand how much courage, passion and resilience exists in this agency. Frequently I would hear about situations from clients that I could never imagine making it out of. However, not once did I see a client hopeless or angry. Courageously every client came, and opened up some of their darkest facets of life, hopeful of any assistance they could receive. Four months later I saw prospect in every client. Each and every one of them with strength they could identify and be proud of. To me that is social work in its sincerest form.

Four months ago I thought it would be hard to connect with clients at Common Ground. Now I recognize clients by name outside of the building and feel genuinely excited to have the opportunity to talk with them. One client in particular, she is my new favorite acquaintance: the woman who changed it all for me, who taught me a lesson I thought I’d never understand – the reality of how hard it is to rise above situations where you just cannot get ahead. No lecture or poverty stimulation could do what her story did for me. I don’t know what it is about her story in particular that made such an impact on me. I was able to feel the highest level of empathy. It didn’t matter she had just been released from prison with a past some may consider unforgiveable. All I could feel was a need to understand and help her. We connected.  

Four months ago I thought I would not be able to help that many people, I doubted all that I could actually do to provide change in people’s lives. Was I wrong! Four months later I have done so much. Things I did not think four months ago I could do: personally assist over one hundred homeless individuals; provide assistance to clients in an assessment that I led myself; and sign up close to one hundred clients for a market! Never did I think I would be able to do all these things and feel so much compassion doing them. Along with how grateful I am that I was given the opportunity to do so.

Lastly four months ago I did not know who Kristen Hilty was. I could probably write another entire blog on her alone so I am going to try and capture all that she does quickly. This is the best example I can think of… Project Homeless Connect was right around the corner (planning it while already being the director at Common Ground). As well as taking ownership in handling the (extremely large and complicated) grant, she still did little things like run to Walmart to pick up nametags and pens for the event! While we were at the store doing these last minute tasks, she stopped to grab supplies for her daughters birthday, and remembered to make sure to pick up her favorite cookies, and in the right frosting color! Because nothing is worse than you Mother grabbing the wrong cookies for your class birthday treat! She does the big things, and the little things! I also forgot to mention how on our car ride to Walmart this remarkably smart woman, director, mother, wife and my teacher discussed with me the most important complexities of assisting people in poverty and how programs and assistance should be provided. Her ideas and values are ones that can truly make a difference and be the change we need in dealing with these issues. Saying that I feel honored to have worked and learned under her would be an understatement. I do not know how else to say it besides, thank you! For taking the time to mentor me and teaching me lessons I will have forever! 

Friday, October 30, 2015

Big Girls Don't Cry

When you work with people experiencing poverty, you hear many stories that make you want to go home, curl up into a ball, hug your nearest pillow or teddy bear and cry your brains out. But you don't cry in the office. It's a rule. As a trained social worker, I hold it right up there with sharing too much personal information. You just don't do it.

Well...I don't always comply with the rules...

Sometimes something strikes you as so horribly unfair that you can't help but cry. Last week, a woman and her husband came asking for help with a deposit for a new apartment. They had been homeless for several months after the husband lost his construction job. He just got hired at a local factory and was now making some income, but the family was struggling to get together enough money to make a deposit and first month's rent payment.  They were living in a tent, with a few scatterings of hotel nights paid for by family.

And did I mention the wife had terminal cancer? And no insurance?

Homeless with cancer.

I was still holding it together at this point until the husband started crying. He was crying because he was unable to provide for his wife. He was crying because he didn't have a comfortable bed for her to lie in, to ease the deep pain she always felt. He was crying because he was ashamed to ask for help. He was crying...and by then, I was also.

We were able to allocate them funds for a deposit and with a friend's help, the couple got enough money together for the first month's rent. I called the landlord to make a strong case for them in the hopes he would work quickly. We also talked about Medicaid, applying under the compassionate allowance for disability, and other resources.

After they left S, my BSW intern, sat in my office to decompress. Like usual, I had let her sit in on the conversation to observe how to assess and intervene in these types of situations. She had been stronger than me and remained stoic during the interview, but now started to cry herself.

"I feel so bad. I feel guilty," S said.

"Guilty because you feel...lucky?" I asked, making sure I understood the source of sadness.

"Yes...I feel like it's not fair that it's so hard for them. I've never experienced anything like that."

I understood her feelings. I reassured her that it was normal to feel that way, but also okay to know that she was not to blame or responsible for what's happened to them or what's not happened to her.

However, I continued, we are responsible for being their advocate. Our main job is to know their story. When others disbelieve that life can be so unfair; when others think that it's just a matter of good living or hard work that keeps you from homelessness; when others think there is plenty of shelter out there if you currently have and I will know better.

My student has heard stories and witnessed hardships that she has never experienced before. These stories are making powerful images for her that she will carry with her for a lifetime of service and gratitude. I'm humbled to be present in these moments.

And by the way S, it's okay to cry every now and then.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Stop and Listen

Life just gets too darn busy, right? We can get so caught up in a swirl of activities, that we block out all other distractions. Sometimes it takes a quiet voice calling for help to bring us back...

After a relatively calm summer and (finally!) a long vacation with my family unmarred by serious illness or unexpected auto repair, I returned to work full steam. Two major projects coming in October and of course, the work of Common Ground, demanded my immediate attention. Requests for utility assistance alone kept the phones ringing nearly every minute we were open in August.

Because of the high volume of calls, our volunteers weren't making follow up calls as frequently. (We try to reach everyone we assist with at least one follow up call. It's not the favorite activity for our volunteers. It takes time, a willingness to leave lots of messages, and a free phone line!) The stack of follow ups was so high last week, I decided it was time for me to take a turn and make a dent in the pile. 

So I stayed after work one day, and one by one made some calls. I got a few answering messages and a few unreachable numbers. (Getting "disconnected" numbers is very common -- minutes are added to phone lines only when money is available.) Thankfully, I reached a couple of clients who were doing okay and appreciative of the check-in.  Then I got Cindy on the phone.

"I have a job now." 

"Great! Last time I met with you, you were out of work. How's it going?"  

"It's okay. It's only part-time at a hotel, but it's money coming in."

"Okay, great. Let's hope your hours will increase. How's your little one? I remember your adorable toddler. I even wrote here in my notes, 'very cute kid!'"

"He's good."

At this point -- a hitch in her voice. "Is something else going on?"

Cindy started crying. "I just found out I'm pregnant again. I'm so worried. I'm worried about my finances. I'm so scared."

My heart cracked. "I know you're a good Mom. I remember how well you handled your son. I know you'll be a good Mom to this one, too." We talked a little more about her support systems, then I offered her a referral to our church's toiletry and necessity pantry, knowing she could use the diapers soon. She felt a little better, and I told her to stay in touch. 

It was the last phone call I made that afternoon. I couldn't bear to make another. I needed Cindy's voice to sink into my busy life and create a space -- a space reserved being open to another. A space to stop and listen.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Underneath the Surface of Poverty

Poverty has one particularly damaging power: the ability to strip layers of your identity away, until you are merely a label.

Ezekial's story illustrates this point well. He came into my office with his youngest son asking for assistance with rent. A few months of unemployment had spiraled his family into debt.  The couple and four children were short on food, behind on every bill and wondering if I had any laundry detergent.

If we stop here, we might see a typical narrative: job loss, debt, a request for charity. Voila! Welcome to poverty! But if we dig deeper...

Ezekial told me he had been working for a well-known manufacturer in town for almost a year.  He reported long days, overtime with no complaint, and pleased-as-punch supervisors. But when the year was over, his temp agency did not renew his contract.  He was let go without warning, and unlike a lucky few, the manufacturer overlooked him for direct hire -- a move that would have guaranteed steady pay and benefits.  (An alarming 42% of temporary work is now light industrial or warehouse work.  Jobs that used to guarantee a middle class stability are now "tightrope" jobs without a safety net. Click here for a good article describing this trend.)

Fortunately for Ezekial, he was able to find another job relatively quickly.  His wife had also started a job the same week.  I expressed joy at this news, but his face didn't reflect the same happiness.  He had promised her she could pursue her education full time while he supported the family. He didn't want her to work yet. "She has had such a hard life. I wanted to give her a chance to be educated. I hope she doesn't give up."

Impressed with the way he supported his family, I asked Ezekial about his own past. He immigrated 10 years ago from Nigeria with his parents to escape the violence there.

"What did you do before you came here?" I asked.

"I was a pilot."

At this point in our conversation, Ezekial's young 18 month-old had had enough.  He started squirming and slipped out of the chair. Crying ensued. Ezekial patiently picked him up. "Tut-tut...I told you to sit still." He tenderly wiped the child's face. "I work at night and watch him during the day while the other children are at school and my wife is at work."

"When do you sleep?" I asked. (At this point, I was more than a little impressed with this quiet, unassuming man.)

"When he does," Ezekial said, giving his son a squeeze. "But I don't mind.  His smile keeps me going and makes me feel like it's all worth it."

I certainly want to believe that it is all worth it for Ezekial's sake. I want to believe that he can peel away the stress and havoc that poverty can cause, because underneath the label is a beautiful human being -- a patient father, a supportive husband, a trained pilot, a dedicated worker. I am honored to know him.