How the events of Kenya's life aligned to make her a powerful ally for her homeless clients.
By Marianna Moles
Since she was young, Kenya has tried to make the choice to be empowered, rather than beaten down, by life’s troubles. Today, in turn, she empowers others because she knows it’s her personal experiences that make her a powerful ally to her clients.
“I normalize their struggle,” said Kenya, who is constantly evaluating how she can relate to her clients, because sharing her personal experiences lends credibility and validity to the information she shares. She also harnesses a spectrum of skills and a passionate attitude to match. She’s straightforward and realistic, and doesn’t back down from a challenge. Perhaps more importantly, she understands the power of meeting each client at eye level.
“I can meet people where they’re at. You cannot judge people. You don’t know peoples’ story. You don’t know what they’ve been through,” said Kenya. “I use my story to connect. I say because XYZ happened to you, you can’t do XYZ? You can!”
She knows they can, because she did.
Kenya was 10 years old when she lost her mother to a preexisting illness that was inflated by injuries sustained from a tragic car accident. Now 34 years old, the same age her mother was when she passed, Kenya still looks back on that day feeling sure she could have prevented it.
Her intuition was telling her that her mother should drive instead of her dad, but she said, “I didn’t say anything.” On the way to school her father suffered an epileptic seizure likely caused by the stress of just getting laid off from his job. He lost control of the car and they crashed.
Her mother’s death thrust her and her father together, forcing them to build a relationship that was nearly nonexistent. This bond didn’t adhere easily or smoothly, although Kenya says it’s better today.
There came a point as a teenage where her anger and frustration mounted; she felt like she didn’t have control over any part of her life. She wasn’t getting along with her father or her step-mother, and would escape her reality by spending hours in the garage reading psychology text books. She also let out her frustrations by rebelling, a stark contrast to her good grades and merit as a student. She was involved in extracurricular activities, such as the Black Student Union where she recruited the girls for her step team, a purposefully defiant response to her father’s wishes that she became a cheerleader.
With the formation of her step team, Kenya became a leader to the girls and used the group to continue her rebellious streak, which played out in a series of bad decisions that eventually led to the denial of her inter-district transfer. She was expelled from high school, put on probation and transferred back to her district’s high school – where she did not want to be. Like other barriers in her life, she took this as a challenge to rise up. “It was a major wake-up call and extremely traumatic, and it happened on my birthday,” she said.
There she met the counselor who convinced her to apply to San Jose State University (SJSU) despite her expulsion record. “It changed the course of my life. I honestly don’t know what would have happened.” Years later, she bumped into him and was able to share these powerful sentiments. “I could see it in his eyes just how much it meant to him to hear this.”
By choosing to listen to her new counselor rather than her father and the counselor at the other high school, who both told her she couldn’t succeed in college, she rebelled in her own favor and told her father, “I’m doing this with or without you.” And that was that. At 17 years old Kenya put together a budget, and secured a job and a place to live so she could attend SJSU where she double-majored in Behavioral Science and Sociology.
This wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last time, she faced the choice to keep moving forward despite seemingly negative circumstances. There was the day Norteno gang members ransacked her home; when she adopted her cousin at 24 years old, so she wouldn’t end up in foster care; and when she became a single mother after her divorce.
To all of these experiences she exclaims, “The struggle is real. This is real life. Getting a divorce and being a single mom taught me you cannot plan your life, you are not in control of it.”
This couldn’t be truer for her clients, and the first family she housed is a perfect example. The father, illiterate, and the mother, dying of cancer, were living in a trailer with their three young children. Kenya secured their housing through a Permanent Housing Subsidy (PSH) provided by County of Santa Clara Office of Supportive Housing (OSH). Four years later, a generous donor bought them a house, and Kenya says the mother passed away just as soon as her family was taken care of.
At the funeral, “The woman’s son walked up to me and said, ‘You’re Kenya? I didn’t know you were real.’ I realized I made a real impact on this family.” Kenya knew then that not only did she enjoy helping people, she was good at it.
Even on days when she isn’t able tell clients what they want to hear the most, which is that they received housing, at the very least she gives them hope and empowers them to keep moving forward. “If they left my office with more info, I did my job. They would leave smiling. Give hope to the hopeless, even if it just means a clean shower and some damn food.”
Today she works as a Housing Services Coordinator for the nonprofit Abode Services, which secures permanent homes for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. She firmly believes, and is living proof, that we can either sit with our circumstances or we can keep moving. “It doesn’t matter what I do, I can change my life. Clients have so much burden, guilt…I’m always going back to, ‘it doesn’t matter, you can change now.’”
She cannot force her clients to make decisions, so instead she arms them with the information and hopes they make good decisions. “I’m a life coach. My job is to educate and empower. I really feel like I’ve found my purpose in life,” said Kenya, whose career direction was likely influenced by her mother’s knack for taking care of others, even though unbeknownst to Kenya her family was broke.
“She helped so many people…threw block parties, cooked pizza from scratch. She would say, ‘don’t slam my fridge door, my bread gonna fall.’ I’m my mother’s child,” said Kenya, laughing. “The more I educate my clients, the more they feel empowered. Now they feel motivated to have short and long term goals. They challenge themselves.”
Kenya understands that one missed paycheck can result in homelessness. However, while it’s fairly easy to become homeless, exiting is complex. It’s these very complexities that the County is working hard to resolve, and it begins with understanding peoples’ unique needs.
“I have two degrees and even I can barely afford to live here. But the County is onto something great right now…major people in major positions, who have been in close proximity to clients. When you have that proximity, you understand, the minute you get close enough you feel the human struggle,” said Kenya.
She is referring to the current leadership at all levels, including homeless service nonprofits, cities and the County, who began working with clients at ground level as case managers and social service providers years ago, before Destination: Home formulated a countywide Community Plan to End Homelessness. “The pendulum is swinging in the County. It takes a collective to do this, the system is set up that way.”
Solving homelessness for even one individual, truly does take a village. For example, Abode is one of 80 partners OSH is working with to resolve housing barriers throughout the county. One of the ways Abode is breaking ground is by seizing properties and transforming them into supportive housing, which provides rental assistance, intensive case management, health care and access to benefits – a strategy that has been proven to work in this county.
Through government grants and funding provided by OSH, Abode provides rental subsidies, such as Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH), Tenant Based Rental Assistance (TBRA) and Rapid Rehousing (RRH), to its clients. Providing temporary or long term rental assistance to families and individuals with varying needs has been proven to effectively keep them from becoming homeless again.
“The lease is in the client’s name with Rapid Rehousing Housing subsidies, so they have a sense of ownership,” said Kenya. “We create. The empowerment is theirs. We’re just here to help. They create that relationship with the landlord.” Kenya can attest that it’s an important step for people to be able to reclaim ownership over at least one part of their life.
Looking towards the future, Kenya’s long term goal is to own a property so she can rent to people just like her clients. “The minute people think it could never happen, that’s where it ends. People want to tackle [homelessness] too harshly,” said Kenya. “It’s one individual at a time; it’s one family at a time.”
And don’t forget, empowerment.