Phone: 612-624-5551
unews@umn.edu
24-hr number: 612-293-0831

Advanced Search

Feature

Broadway Community School student with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

A student at Broadway Community School shows Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak the plan she and other young mothers made for future housing and living.

Wanted: shelter, safety, and happiness

Young women strive to change their lives

By Jamie Proulx

Published on June 5, 2004

Tiffany, a 21-year-old mother of a special-needs child, is a warm and vivacious woman. You would never know she was homeless for two and a half years and forced to move from shelter to shelter with her daughter. Earlier this spring she received temporary housing, but that will only last for two years.

Tiffany's story of homelessness, desperation, and survival is unfortunately too common. Many young parents are precariously housed, at best. Others have been rejected or abused by their families. But Tiffany and her peers have chosen to be part of the solution and break the cycle. In a Family Studies class offered at Broadway Community School, an alternative school in Minneapolis, Tiffany and about 30 other women, many of whom are homeless and caring for up to three children, spent 10 weeks analyzing not only their housing needs but also their personal lives. The end goal was to provide policy makers and opinion leaders with better information on the housing needs of their community.

One by one, the women shared their stories, and one by one they repeated the same basic desires: to have a home, to feel safe, to live a normal life, and to provide for their child.

To help them understand space and design, the class reached out to professors Ann Forsyth and Dan Marckel in the Design Center at the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (CALA) at the University. For two and a half weeks, Forsyth and Marckel worked with the women to map out their neighborhoods and develop model living environments. The young women were forced to make choices and decisions they had never been asked to make before.

"The purpose of the class was to learn there are choices these women can make for themselves and their children related to housing," says Elizabeth "Zib" Hinz, district liaison for homeless and highly mobile students in Minneapolis Public Schools. "Their experiences are very narrow and really intense, so the idea of choice for these kids is completely unknown to them." The class culminated in a presentation at the University on what the students learned and what they believe can be done to help others in their situation. The attendees included CALA dean Tom Fisher and Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak.

The students created displays with personal statements about their lives accompanied by hand drawn pictures of their dream homes and communities. One by one, the women shared their stories, and one by one they repeated the same basic desires: to have a home, to feel safe, to live a normal life, and to provide for their child.

When Rybak asked them what they need, the answers were unanimous. They need higher quality apartment buildings where the rooms are clean and the weeds aren't overgrown. They need buildings that are located in safer neighborhoods for the sake of their children (one girl acknowledging that if she could take her child to the park and be safe, she'd be happy). They need a corner grocery store, because traveling to buy groceries and diapers is difficult without transportation. One young woman plainly said, "We need your help. Please help us." Most touching were the "luxury items" they called out for in their displays: a nice sandbox for the kids, a tree to sit under and rest, and nice neighbors.

One participant said she was originally afraid to come to the University because she thought "the professors would not want to listen to me and they don't really care about [people like me]." But she now realizes the community is there to help, and she even hopes to attend college someday.

Fisher, who has worked on design issues related to affordable housing, stressed that housing is really just one piece of the puzzle and asked the women about other needs such as transportation, a job, day care, and community support. The participants nodded their agreement, acknowledging that the big picture calls for all of these to come together.

Many students expressed being overwhelmed with this process. And it was clear they were surprised by the amount of community leaders and professionals who wanted to hear what they had to say. One participant said she was originally afraid to come to the University because she thought "the professors would not want to listen to me and they don't really care about [people like me]." But she now realizes the community is there to help, and she even hopes to attend college someday.

The young women are realistic and know it will be a challenge to relieve homelessness and provide enough housing. But Tiffany gave those in attendance--especially Mayor Rybak--marching orders as she said, "You can all say you hear us, but you now need to run with what we've said. We need you."

Related Links