The housing crisis is our opportunity
After working for more than a decade with Catholic Charities of Kansas City and St. Joseph, Executive Director of Housing Services Jarrod Sanderson has seen one constant need across all service areas: housing security. In this follow-up to our popular series on the four factors that most often contribute to housing insecurity, Sanderson expands on some of the issues that compound inability to secure stable housing, plus some of the ways Catholic Charities offers unique hope to the homeless.QJarrod, it appears the political establishment in Kansas City has suddenly discovered we have a housing issue, but at Catholic Charities, we’ve lived it for quite some time. In fact, one of the themes that seems to keep raising its head throughout our series on housing instability is that we are facing a “silent crisis” when it comes to housing and homelessness. This issue appears to be pervasive throughout all areas of Catholic Charities’ mission. Is that correct? AAlong my 11-year journey to directing Housing Services, I worked in every service area Catholic Charities covers. I got my start in foster care, worked with young women experiencing crisis pregnancies, served some time working in our senior-care ministries. I can tell you, without a doubt, in every single one of those areas, housing was a core issue for all the people I worked with. On the foster care side, it was families struggling to maintain housing, usually for more than one of the four reasons we’ve talked about in this series. In some of the situations, lack of housing actually led to their children be taken from them. On the senior side, housing is a huge issue right now, one that’s only going to intensify as the population ages and as we saw a lot of those elderly people lose a large portion of their life savings in the previous housing crash and recession. Housing instability is basic to every one of those core need areas, and one we must fundamentally address if we are going to succeed in serving and lifting. QYou have spoken before about how, often, poverty and housing instability build on one another, not just in cause-and-effect, but in a cycle in which one feeds upon another, over and over. Explain that a little better. AExactly. For the people whom we are charged with serving and lifting out of poverty, so often being homeless or not homeless comes down to blind luck. And a lot of the people who don’t get lucky, who don’t find a landlord or rental property manager willing to give them a second chance, housing insecurity ends up throwing their whole life off-kilter. Let’s say they’ve been incarcerated and they just got released; the odds of them reoffending start to increase the longer they go without any housing. Stress over housing insecurity can actually lead to recidivism. Or, let’s say they’re struggling with employment; we know it’s not easy to get a good job if you don’t have a residence. Yet, if you don’t have a residence, you usually don’t have an address you can give an employer in order to interview for a better job. Round and round it goes, as their lives spiral downward.
Housing insecurity just causes everything else to come off the rails, which then turns around and contributes to housing insecurity. I find it’s rare that we at Catholic Charities work with someone who is experiencing only one of those four contributors to housing instability—conviction, eviction, low income and disability. More often than not, more than one is present, and they do play off each other. If you have a criminal conviction and you’re released from incarceration, then you have to find a job in order to get housing. But that criminal conviction makes it exponentially harder to find either a job or housing. And as I just said, not having a home makes it hard to find a job, and vice-versa. Before too long, low income is right there at the door, because you can’t find work, or the job you can manage to get isn’t paying enough to support your rent. Then suddenly you get evicted. And just like that, you’ve got three of the four strikes against you: conviction, eviction and low income. And for some, the struggle to deal with it creates so much stress and anxiety it eventually turns into a mental health disability—No. 4 on the list. It can be a cycle that, once it starts, becomes really difficult to extract from.QSo, that all means that even though some people may not feel the Church should be a landlord and, in fact, a lot of our own supporters don’t realize how intimately Catholic Charities is involved in the housing market, in fact, there’s a great deal we can do to help lift people from this misery? AAbsolutely. To the average person looking in from the outside, even those who faithfully support the mission of Catholic Charities, they see low mortgage interest rates and a seller’s market in which the housing market is strong and growing, and it kind of blinds them to the pain that other people may be going through. Here in Kansas City we have a housing market that’s doing really well. For the most part, property values are going up for everybody. But as we’ve pointed out, that growing market can actually create a struggle for people whose income isn’t going up and who are already struggling with affordability. It really is an emergency in slow motion, one that is forcing people to make the agonizing choice between vital parts of their lives. Are they going to pay the rent or feed their children? Are they going to pay the rent or make the next payment on a car they probably need to maintain their job? We believe that, very realistically, somewhere between three to four out of every 10 people in the Kansas City metro are cost burdened by housing costs alone. QWhen you shut off the light at the end of the workday and go home, how do you not find that all so…what? …discouraging?
AQuite the contrary, as a matter of fact. I think it puts a bright focus on where our mission lies and the opportunity we have, not just in serving people’s physical needs but in meeting the needs of the spirit, as well. Among the crowd of charitable agencies working in the metro to attack poverty and homelessness, that is uniquely why we exist, isn’t it? Yes, we are exploring ways we can improve the affordability of housing. Yes, we believe we have found ways to be a financially sustainable alternative to the traditional housing market for those who are excluded from it. But more importantly, we are the source to help people return to human dignity by helping them turn past experiences into something that makes them stronger. We serve their physical needs for housing while we introduce them to the embodiment of the Catholic faith’s concept of reconciliation—the opportunity for a person to find and understand their purpose, to learn from past experiences in a way that makes them stronger for tomorrow, and to close the distance from their true potential that hardships have created in their lives. In my experience, the vast majority of the people we work with are ready to be good renters, the kind of human beings the traditional housing market would love to have if only we had a way to identify them. We have that unique opportunity to blend our financial expertise with our spiritual calling to make a real impact on more than just a person’s ability to meet the past-due light bill before the end of the month, but in their lives and their journey toward something bigger than themselves. That’s what makes us all want to come to work in the morning.