Homelessness has been increasing since even before the Covid-19 pandemic. We may pass by a person living on the streets and feel discomfort and uneasy about what to do. There are many myths and stereotypes about homelessness, leading to stigmatization of an already marginalized population. I caught up with Mireya Fouche, founder of One Heart One Soul, an organization that supports youth experiencing homelessness through art, about what we can do about this social issue.
One Heart One Soul is focused on helping homeless youth. There are many misconceptions about the homeless—people are homeless because they are lazy and don't want to work. Share your story and what you think are the causes of homelessness.
Myths About Homelessness
I work with youth experiencing homelessness, and the reasons they are homeless are usually out of their control. Because they are adolescents and under-age, many enter the foster care system. Unfortunately, while they're in the care of others, they aren't taught basic life skills such as building credit, maintaining a job, or showing up on time—things that many of us are taught at a young age.
For some other youth I worked with, their parents were incarcerated, and they didn't have someone to take care of them. So they would enter the system or be in and out of it or have to find a way to maintain themselves.
I've had individuals who were kicked out of the house by their parents for identifying as LGBTQ. They would have to fend for themselves and end up in shelters until they found their community of support as they transition and navigate through life while experiencing the heartache of their family turning their back on them. Some others are young moms, and their parents kicked them out because they got pregnant.
So there are different reasons why homelessness happens, and the trend with social issues highly impacts the causes of homelessness. There's no one reason why individuals experience homelessness, so there's also not one solution to ending homelessness. But for the demographic I work with, the causes are usually related to elements outside of their control.
I know you said there's no one solution. But if you had a magic wand...?
That's a great question because it's a huge conversation about how much housing is needed in this world. This is a part of the solution to end homelessness, but it's not the solution. I think the community is the most effective solution. It's a combination of housing, managing a budget, and keeping a job… If there was a magic pill, community support would be vital.
We can achieve so much more if we come together and see each other as individual human beings.
One Heart One Soul empowers youth through art, using art's power to heal. Could you share a story about the healing power of art?
Myths About Art
When we first started the program eleven years ago, we connected with an individual who was going through depression and had been in and out of the ward for attempting suicide many times. One of the times that they had attempted suicide, their only request was for us to drop off art supplies.
You're very limited to the type of items that you could have in the house, so we were able to bring was paper and pens. The individual was in the house for two weeks and used the materials for journaling, sketching, and color expression—choose a color to reflect how you're feeling today and how you want to feel tomorrow.
That story was the most powerful reflection of how art could impact lives and how we could shift the mindset of an individual trying to pass this trauma. It validates the work that I've committed my life to, and I was like, "You know what, if it helps one person, let's keep doing it and see if it can help one more person and one more person".
Many individuals have found their voice through their own creativity; all they need is a moment to just process.
Some people think that creating a profit or making money is wrong when helping others. Could you talk about the partnership with Monarch Thrift Shop and why the partnership is important for both organizations?
Myths About Making Money
There is this belief that non-profits should live a particular lifestyle or not obtain x amount of dollars. But really, a non-profit is a business model that focuses on people over profits, not that the team should live in a deficit mindset. Non-profits should be able to profit off of their skills. And we choose to push this profit to impact the lives of others.
Monarch Thrift Shop opened six years ago to provide employment for men coming out of survival prostitution. These men had difficulty gaining employment even when they were looking for a new life because of their background—they had no training and were not ready to work. The business plan for Monarch had to be reworked. At the same time, One Heart One Soul was looking for a social enterprise to provide job training and employment so that the people we work with could have financial stability.
So two and a half years ago, Monarch and One Heart One Soul partnered and combined resources to better impact the lives of others. Proceeds from the Monarch Thrift Shop support the retail training for homeless youth via One Heart One Soul.
We launched our retail training with the Rise Up certification under the National Retail Federation. Upon completing the certificate, participants get plugged into big-box retailers such as Home Depot, Macy's, and Lowes. Our training program teaches logistics, customer service, and money management, similar to the curriculum under the National Retail Federation.
The difference with One Heart One Soul's program is that we pay our youth to learn and complete the training and incentivize them to start looking for employment. We pay them an hourly rate to gain knowledge, graduate, and launch into the workforce.
That's great! When is the next session?
Our next session starts the last week of January, and we have eight individuals who are ready to start with us. Monarch moved into a 4000-square foot space shared with One Heart One Soul, of which a quarter is reserved for classroom space. So there is ample space for individuals to interact as safely as possible.
When we see a homeless person, we may feel guilty, discomforted, or helpless, not knowing what to do. What is one thing that we can do today to educate ourselves and help with the homelessness problem?
Myths About Making a Difference
One thing I'd say is to change your mindset and change your perspective.
Often, when we get into an environment where we feel uncomfortable, we try to understand how they got there, to begin with. I don't think it's our job to figure out why the individual is homeless. Unless you are a social worker, case manager, or therapist, it is not our job to figure out why somebody is there.
Our role as humans is to be present and be of service, not enter the space with a savior mentality. Savoir and service are two different things. Enter into the space and be willing to serve.
I've worked with volunteers who walked away disappointed because they could not save the individual. We do a lot of training around this as well. Our role isn't to save anyone; our role is to serve.
If someone needs something, what can we do and provide access to—for example, something very simple like handing out a gift card to a restaurant or a cup of coffee. My team and I carry small Ziploc bags filled with hygiene products and snack bars. During the winter season, having a restaurant gift card or this care bag and some gloves, scarves, hats, and hats can be very helpful. It's very simple and very small steps. We don't all need large solutions.
What advice do you have for the busy person to include art in their lives?
A few things that I do is I have a small journal at the side of my bed and a pencil that sits with my journal, and I sketch and write my thoughts.
We provide youth experiencing homelessness with art bags filled with small sketchbooks, pens, and pencils so that when they're on the train or walking around, they can write their thoughts. This helps us pause without waiting and setting up an elaborate space, and you can pause throughout the day.
Choose a color for the day. Let's say yellow and put a yellow pencil with your sketchbook. When you're feeling stressed, just bring out the sketchbook and doodle. It's very small steps that really help shift our mindset.
Such steps can help us exhale. If we are intentional with the pausing, I think it takes us pretty far.
How can the audience support One Heart One Soul and Monarch Thrift Shop?
Our programs happen all year round, and we accept and request art supplies on an ongoing basis. The cost of art supplies is very expensive, and often the number of youth we can work with is dictated by the number of supplies that we have. So one way to help One Heart One Soul is to donate art supplies, and the other is to shop at Monarch Thrift Shop.
Your purchases at the store help to support the retail certification program. When you donate new or gently used items, and we sell them, that turns into money, money turns into service, and service turns into support for our demographic.
So, small steps… these little steps go a long way.
If you’d like to donate art supplies, please send them to One Heart One Soul Coalition, PO Box 481247, Niles, IL 60714. Monarch Thrift Shop is located at 2875 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60618.