In the Spotlight – Our House

 

PHOTO: Volunteers spend time with babies at Our House, which offers care to children of all ages as part of its effective, holistic program.

 

Upon hearing about my travels to high-need areas in every state, a sociology major in Rhode Island, a business major in Mississippi and a music major in Oklahoma asked me the same question: “How do you keep it from getting you down?”

Actually, it’s very encouraging to see good hearts being mobilized to address social ills, and my trip’s purpose is to showcase how that happens in every sort of community and for every sort of cause.

Rarely will you find an initiative as holistic and innovative as Our House, which serves “the working homeless” through a highly structured, well-supported set of programs in Little Rock, Ark. I came across the group while volunteering alongside some of their team at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service event staged by City Year Little Rock/North Little Rock, and we arranged a formal visit.

Our House is located on a campus with four buildings, where it has 120 beds for homeless men, women and children. Rather than being a traditional shelter, though, Our House is a demanding program with 57 rules and an expectation of employment. Residents have 16 days to secure employment, but they are far from alone in the process.

Our House provides myriad services ranging from food and shelter to job training and computer literacy to adult education and GED programs to child care; they have separate facilities for families (including provisions for single fathers and their children), and even a transitional housing space where residents pay rent and have increased autonomy.

I spent time with Grace Depper (who handles material donations) and Jessica Suitor (housing and alumni relations), both of whom originally joined as AmeriCorps volunteers. We also linked up on a call with Matt King from Sacred Heart Community Services, a similarly dynamic organization I worked with in San Jose.

Jessica’s work with alumni of the program is particularly inspiring, as it helps prevent future homelessness – Our House now supports a case worker who helps keep families stable and in a home – and it builds lasting community.

Alumni are among the many groups of regular volunteers who serve dinner to residents. And an emphasis on service is carried over into the childcare program, which supports newborns through teens daily throughout the year and especially in summer. Last year their free, seven-week summer program included 75 children, including many youngsters who used to live at Our House.

“The ultimate goal is to get them to understand a lot of people help them,” says Dominique Rutledge, Youth Programs Coordinator, “and to develop a want to give back.”

The sense of camaraderie and ubuntu among all the staff, alumni and residents goes a long way to making the program successful.

“It definitely creates more of a positive atmosphere,” says Suitor. “When you’re coming into this environment (life is) really chaotic and stressful. You’ve got a multitude of things going on. If you’ve got that positive sense of community it really helps people to stay on track and stay on the right path. If people are supporting one another they’ll want to stay longer and achieve more.”

“A lot of people may have become homeless because of not having that community to fall back on,” adds Depper. “That can really make a difference for the issues we address.”

As I traveled through the east coast during the latest election, it seemed the most charged topic of all was the empowerment/entitlement debate around poverty and welfare. Our House is clearly an everybody-wins program that, as the organization itself asserts, is “a hand up, not a handout.”

our house2This focus on motivation, combined with a 25-year track record as an organization, allows Our House to frame poverty in a whole new light. When the playing field is somewhat leveled and the support of others afforded, people thrive.

“One person came in from living in a drug house and tested at a third-grade reading level,” recalls Depper. “She left with a high school diploma, $13,000 in savings, got a full-time job and moved into a house. Her kids are honors students.”

As with many of its counterparts, the structured nature of Our House means it is not suited to every person who could use the help. But let’s also be clear – Our House is not roping in some magical, free market-ready homeless population. Adults regularly leave the Pulaski County Jail just up the road and “walk right on down to Our House,” Depper notes.

“Homelessness and poverty are way more complicated than laziness,” she says. “I think it’s easier for people to assume that’s it.”

It may not be easier, but if Americans can continue to cultivate our penchant for community, desire for justice and entrepreneurial spirit, that Dream of ours just might be realized.

 

 

 

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