This guest blog was co-authored by three staff members at JONAH – Joining Our Neighbors, Advancing Hope a Wisconsin-based partner in the Center’s Building Community Capacity to Shift Health Care Investment funded by the Kresge Foundation

This statement is a motto within grassroots organizing. Slowly but surely, the public narrative around who needs to be part of the solution for social change is shifting. Public input is often taken by human service agencies, but the value of voices of those directly impacted still falls upon deaf ears. Those who are struggling have demonstrated their capacity to advocate for themselves and offer valuable dialogue to implement change. However, institutional changes often are too difficult to penetrate with existing structural and discriminatory barriers.  

JONAH – Joining Our Neighbors, Advancing Hope – is an organization based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin that addresses social justice issues. Our belief is all persons have value and can contribute to address the root cause of injustice issues. Through the power of each person’s story, we learn from those who have been directly impacted. We encourage people to advocate for themselves and support their work to make policy changes to experience a deserved quality of life.   

Eau Claire has a population of approximately 68,000 residents and serves as a hub to surrounding neighboring communities, as well as, expansive rural areas. Eau Claire is beginning to experience big city problems of homelessness, racism and gentrification, but lacks the resources and professional knowledge to address those effectively.

The stories of those who get involved in JONAH demonstrate the value individuals bring to the table. For example, three JONAH members collaborated on this blog post to lend their voices to the work JONAH is doing in several of its programs. Gloria Godchaux embraced civic engagement opportunities at a young age and was a proactive demonstrator in Berkeley, California during the 60s. Now retired, she is attending Metro State University working to get her Masters of Advocacy and Political Leadership. She believes every citizen returning from incarceration has a right to live in a safe supportive community where he or she can thrive. Kyle Brown is a single father whose conviction history continues to be a barrier to providing the life he wants for his children. He is pleased to be working in JONAH and EXPO to be a strong advocate for others similarly struggling. Lynn Buske, project lead for JONAH’s LIFT project (described below), thankfully had her faith as an anchor to cope with her childhood trauma experiences. Now she is a Community Organizer for JONAH working to let the voice of various trauma experiences be heard in order to better address justice issues.

LIFT: Reducing Barriers to Housing for People with Conviction History

JONAH’s beliefs and approaches are reflected throughout the LIFT project that aims to reduce barriers to housing for people with conviction history. Homelessness is on the rise, and JONAH members asked, “with 15 housing programs in the area, how could there still be hundreds of people experiencing homelessness?” Members of EXPO – Ex-Incarcerated Persons Organizing, an ongoing project of JONAH ­– alerted us to the fact that many of these people had conviction histories. So, JONAH and EXPO partnered to create LIFT. 

Through their personal stories, returning citizens helped the community understand the complex and diverse of the lack of affordable housing and how limited community resources are failing to support them. LIFT exposed why homelessness for those with conviction histories is on the rise. This project, made possible by the generosity and flexibility of the Kresge Foundation through Community Catalyst, revealed the importance of how groups can work together to address issues that negatively impact them. 

It was personal stories like the one shared by Chris in this short video, that revealed and affirmed that this population was severely being left behind. Part of the problem is a lack of awareness of services by people advocating for returning citizens, and part of it is that the programs were reactive rather than proactive: 

<p><strong>Grassroots Organizing – Connecting Impacted Residents with the Health Care System</strong></p>
<p>Using grassroots organizing principles, our primary goal was to bring in people with conviction histories and who have struggled to get into programs or find safe, affordable housing. Our end goal was to connect with health care systems to see if their community benefit dollars could make a difference. Additionally, we wanted to connect with people in the community who work directly with people struggling to get housing. Our team is comprised of four people directly impacted, two JONAH members, a health department representative, a director from a non-profit community food program that feeds the homeless, and a library social worker who helps with resources in the community. With the generosity of the funding, we paid those with lived experience to support their active participation. Most of our JONAH grassroots leaders are volunteers. Our team interviewed fifty people who are directly impacted. We gave a monetary thank you for their participation. We analyzed all the housing programs to see what the gaps were and heard perspectives from landlords, police officers and nurses who encounter the issues that arise from homelessness. While COVID delayed some of our conversations with the health care systems, they are now aware of the issue in a new way and are looking at options for how they can add to a solution.</p>
<p><strong>Rejection Leads to Recidivism</strong></p>
<p>We, and our partners working on the housing programs, realized the issue of conviction and housing is an extremely complicated one.  Recovery and reentry are complex and no two individuals’ paths look the same. Case workers and advocates are needed to assist with navigating the varied systems– and no two advocates are the same or accessible to every individual. Often the parameters for entry into programs create larger problems for people in recovery.</p>
<p>Kyle has been extremely grateful for the impact he’s able to make through EXPO and the LIFT project. He shares, “The saying, ‘It takes a village’ really takes on a new meaning when it comes to re-entering the community after incarceration. Oftentimes we hold our heads down and deal with embarrassment when we have to provide explanations to such things as gaps in employment, conviction, eviction history, and even substance abuse history.” Kyle’s story is not uncommon and the relentless rejection of housing often leads to repeating behavior that leads to the cycle of recidivism.<strong> </strong></p>
<p><strong>Moving Forward</strong></p>
<p>Our next goal is to gather our community partners to begin a meaningful discussion to address affordable housing barriers for our returning citizens.  Through a forum of community agencies, we can begin to build awareness of what each agency provides and help guide them through finding solutions. We also intend to continue building awareness and having people who are impacted lead the work. There is more to do, but we are very positive that barriers to housing, and other opportunities, will be lifted for people with conviction histories. We know that this model works.</p>
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<p align=Kyle Brown, Lynn Buske, and Gloria Godchaux, Project JONAH