Empowering Rights-Holders - St. Stephen's Human Services

St. Stephen’s Human Services works in Minneapolis, Minnesota to end homelessness. As the organization’s advocacy and education arm, the Human Rights Program educates the public on homelessness and empowers those who have experienced homelessness to become community leaders. “We recognize that we are not going to end homelessness if people do not understand it,” Interim Program Director Cathy Heying and Staff Member Richard Johnson explain. “[Furthermore], we really focus on empowering people… When we teach poor individuals and people experiencing homelessness about human rights, we are talking about a belief in humanity that connects us all and that they can identify with. It is about bringing human rights to people in a very real way.” To create systemic change, the Program often combines its public education with community-centered advocacy.

The Program’s 2008-09 campaign to prevent a citywide bus fare increase is an excellent example. In 2008, the regional transit authority, Metro Transit, raised fares by 25 cents and, six months later, announced another possible 50-cent increase. Recognizing that the hikes would disproportionately harm homeless individuals, the Human Rights Program took action. “We began to wonder, how [we] could best show our numbers and really have an impact,” Johnson remembers, “We came across a video from New Orleans where people gave short testimonials of what they were experiencing since Hurricane Katrina and we thought it was powerful. While talking about this video, Josh [the Program’s previous Director] and I thought maybe we should go out and try to do video testimonials of our own.” Accordingly, program staff collected video testimonies of 409 low-income and homeless individuals as well as service providers. Answering the question “How would a fare increase affect your life?”, interviewees explained their concerns in their own words. With permission from participants, the testimonies were compiled into a 6-minute video that was posted on YouTube, on the organization’s website, and shown to a committee hearing at the State Capitol.

The video not only empowered low-income and homeless people to speak out about their needs, but it also educated policy-makers about the significance of public transportation. Oftentimes a lack of affordable transportation perpetuates homelessness and poverty. As Minnesota Senator Scott Dibble states: “People don’t commonly consider limited transportation access as something that keeps people trapped in poverty. We think about health care, housing, and education. [Yet transportation] is so fundamental for people to go to the things they need for their lives.” This idea was reiterated throughout the testimonies, with one interviewee responding: “How do you itemize a bus fare? If you have a doctor’s appointment, you have to get to your doctor’s appointment.” Ultimately, St. Stephen’s video testimonies led to legislative change. Working with four senators including Senator Dibble, the Human Rights Program proposed a new bill that allowed non-profits to buy and distribute discounted bus passes. To qualify, the bill required that non-profits provide services to the homeless and offer a job placement program. With overwhelming bipartisan support, the bill was signed into law by the Minnesota Legislature in late 2009.

Overall, St. Stephen’s Human Rights Program believes it is positively impacting the lives of Minnesota’s poor and homeless. The Program recently compiled over 350 new video testimonies in an effort to stop the state from ending General Assistance Medical Care, a program that provides health coverage for 80,000 low-income Minnesotans each year. Heying and Johnson also run an ongoing educational project that immerses students, educators, and professional groups in the life of homeless individuals. When asked about the inspiration for their work Johnson smiles. “It’s amazing work that you do when you know that you can empower and be empowered at the same time,” he concludes. “It is amazing to be able to foster an identity of dignity in people and have them give that same identity back to you.”