San Juana Aguilar navigates down a steep driveway in her lime green Kia Soul. Her trunk is loaded with kids’ backpacks, baby clothes, baby formula and toiletries. She parks in the driveway and knocks on the door of the group “sober house” where Juan and Lydia are living with their baby daughter, Mia. This shared housing for people in recovery is a transitional step in the journey to wellness and living independently.
The young couple were homeless and addicted to Fentanyl and other drugs, only realizing Lydia was pregnant when she was hospitalized with what turned out to be labor pains. Now they’re both in recovery and recently gained custody of Mia from the Department of Human Services. Reflecting on everything that has happened over the past five months, Juan said if it wasn’t for Mia’s surprise arrival - which caused the couple to immediately start recovery - “we probably would have been dead because of the drugs.”
San Juana is their case manager and is helping them through this major life transition. Juan met her at a housing fair and felt an immediate connection: “That was the day that really changed my life in many ways. Having that extra help and someone you can talk to if something’s going on.” With San Juana’s help, Juan, Lydia and Mia are preparing to move out of the recovery group house into their first home as a family.
This young family is one of 20 households on San Juana’s case list. As a Supportive Housing Services Case Manager working for Bienestar in Washington County, she helps program participants with everything from finding a new home, to connecting with mental health care, to learning how to use public transit. She often brings basic supplies with her, like underwear and toothpaste. One afternoon, she wheeled a child’s bike out of the Bienestar office and into her trunk to deliver to a family.
San Juana’s work is part of the Regional Long-term Rent Assistance (RLRA) program, which is paid for by Metro’s supportive housing services fund. “With the RLRA program, we provide wraparound services,” she explained. “So it's not only getting them housed - the housing part is the first step. It's getting them to continue to become a stable part of society and permanent housing at the same time.”
As a culturally specific provider, Bienestar specializes in supporting the Latine community. Founded in 1981 to fight poor living conditions in the camps of seasonal migrant workers needed to harvest crops in Washington County, Bienestar has evolved to a wider mission of “build[ing] housing, hope, and community for the wellbeing of Latinxs, immigrants, and all families in need.”
San Juana moved from Chicago to Washington County in 1991 and has been helping people in the Latine community ever since, working for various nonprofit organizations before coming to Bienestar eleven months ago. “That's something I'm very passionate about” she said, “[I] enjoy helping people, especially those who can’t at times advocate for themselves.”
She described Washington County’s Latine community as a mix of people who are second and third generation decedents of original migrant workers from the 1960s and 70s, and people who recently immigrated to work in the area’s many agricultural businesses. There are cultural differences for members of the community who are older or recently immigrated around asking for or accepting help from people outside the family.
“I think that's another part of our culture where it's difficult to ask for help. We're the ones that are always giving the help,” she explained. “[It’s like] ‘we got this’, you know, always luchando and fighting for what we need to get done. And it's okay to fight, but it's also okay to ask for support when you need it.”
Homelessness in the Latine community is less likely to happen in encampments and other public spaces than it is for other races and ethnicities. More often, it is families living doubled or tripled up in a residence – an arrangement that comes from the practice of offering space to family members in need, even if it creates a strain on the living space.
This is a type of homelessness that is less visible than people living outdoors, but it can be deeply impactful for everyone in the household. “Too many people in the house and being doubled up or tripled up or sometimes quadrupled is very uncomfortable, especially if you have a two-bedroom apartment with 14 people and only one and a half baths,” San Juana explained.
Meeting people where they’re at
Though there are some similarities, every participant on San Juana’s caseload’s situation is different. These diverse stories include a family of migrant workers from Mexico with a history of abuse, a man who’s been living in an encampment for over three years after his marriage fell apart, and Juan and Lydia.
“I always try to meet my participant where they're at, not where I'm at or where I want them to be,” she said. “It's getting them from point A to point B at their level and at their pace.”
This work requires San Juana have a lot of empathy for the trauma participants have experienced. Sometimes she needs to step back and take a moment to process for her own well-being. But that empathy is also what enables her to truly connect with people and sense what they need.
The transition into permanent housing can be challenging. San Juana spoke of one participant, who had been living outdoors for many years, was scared to live in an apartment by herself. At first the woman slept on the floor because she didn’t feel like she was worthy of sleeping in a bed. San Juana suggested pulling the Murphy bed out of the wall just to get used to seeing it, while San Juana was there for support. Eventually the participant was able to transition from the floor to the couch, to the bed. She’s been housed for almost a year.
“When you're learning how to ride a bike, you don't just get on and you're pedaling and you're going, someone's holding you or training wheels,” San Juana explained. “And that's kind of the way I look at this program.”
Working with landlords: No one grows up wanting to be homeless
Working with landlords is another important part of San Juana’s job. Washington County’s rental market is competitive, and it is not uncommon for an RLRA program participant to have something like debt, an eviction or a criminal record that makes it difficult to get into housing.
Kahneeta and Eduardo were facing this challenge in their housing search. The couple both have addiction and criminal history. Despite both being in recovery for four years and having completed several programs that show they are committed to sobriety, they were denied from six apartments before they were finally approved.
The process was incredibly stressful, but Kahneeta felt supported by San Juana. They checked in with each other every day, and Kahneeta remembers one time when San Juana sang her a song to calm her down.
“It’s just helpful to have another person outside of us on our side,” Kahneeta said.
Now the couple and their two young children are in their first home in six years. Kahneeta can focus on her school program, training to be an addiction counselor and her part-time job with New Narrative. She plans to apply for an internship with Bienestar.
In addition to helping participants get into housing, San Juana continues working with landlords and property managers long-term During the application process she reassures them that she will be there as a resource if there are any issues after the participant moves in.
“With the landlords and property management companies you let them know that you're trustworthy and you have that follow through. They're going to say, ‘Okay, I know this person might have a colorful background, but this person is here to help them, so why not give them the benefit of the doubt?’.” Ultimately, she urges them consider that something led to the applicant’s homelessness, and that no one grows up wanting to be homeless.
A home is something you make
Finding an apartment or house that someone can make into a home is San Juana’s goal when she’s helping a participant with the housing search. This is a more intentional process than just taking the first place that will approve an application. San Juana wants to make sure that the residence truly fits the household’s needs, so she shows them the floor plan and photos and talks through each option.
“A house, I think, is four walls that have a door that gives you shelter,” she said, “and a home is where you can say, ‘It's my safe zone, this is where I am. My kids are safe, I'm safe. I can shower, I can burp, I can live’. And there's no judgment.”
San Juana’s favorite part of the job is letting someone know they were approved for the regional long-term rent assistance program, and the expression on their face when she tells them they’re moving into housing. Once they’re in their new home the impact is transformational: “Their whole life changes the way they were sleeping, the way they eat, the way they parent.”
As of December 2022, over 780 people in Washington County are supported in permanent homes through the Regional Longterm Rent Assistance program.
Editor's note: Metro uses the gender-inclusive term Latine, instead of Latino or Hispanic, to broadly refer to people of Latin American heritage living in the United States. This practice follows inclusive language principles.