We gathered around a wooden table in a coffee shop to learn noteworthy lessons from an amazing human being, Sandy Brekke. From volunteering at St. Clare Health Mission, serving as the head of the Mobile Medicine Team, and meeting the needs of those she serves where they find themselves residing, Sandy never stops advocating for those experiencing homelessness. “I am a nurse and I started volunteering at the St. Clare Health Mission 26 years ago. On the day I called to start volunteering, the hospital was pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars of resources into an older man that we all knew was going to die. My next patient was a 40 year old man that came in with his wife and daughter after he had a heart attack. He was signed up for a procedure, but when I went to check on him, he was signing out. He said he didn’t have insurance and his choice was between the procedure or his farm, his livelihood, everything. That is when I decided I needed to understand the system better.”
In an effort to understand the system, Sandy joined the Collaborative to End Homelessness. “Four years ago, I was a part of the beginning of the Collaborative to End Homelessness. This group is made up of all groups working with homelessness and looking through a different lens. We want to end it, not just support people in it. We know that there will always be homelessness in a community, but when it does happen, it should be brief with a quick transition back into housing. This means looking at the whole continuum. It includes preventing homelessness, helping the shelters, and supporting those who are housed. We don’t have enough housing in this area.”
As it did for many people, COVID-19 changed Sandy’s line of work. “When COVID hit, I took over the emergency plan for special populations and began meeting people where they were at, in the shelters, on the streets, and at the park. I love the one on one connection. It's a rarity that I've met someone that I don't connect with on a deeper level. I also am able to make a tangible difference in their lives with immediate medical attention. That is really rewarding to be able to do.”
Throughout her personal accounts with those experiencing homelessness, Sandy continues to ask questions that foster change, innovation, and solutions. “Seeing this first hand, I have really begun to ask myself, who is responsible and what can we do differently? For example, there is an individual that is in housing, but still stays at the warming center. The community tends to view this in a very critical lens. Instead of asking where we failed her and what isn’t working, we criticize her for being at the shelter. Our community is really good at forgetting to include the people that it wants to help in solutions. If we asked her why she doesn’t stay at her house and what we can do to help, we will change our processes rather than condemning her for not fitting our expectations. We find this a lot. In many of the evictions that we have, it’s because individuals let others stay with them. They care about those people and they know what is going on while they are on the streets. We pull them away from their whole support system and that community. So they gravitate back toward it. We have to learn from them, what works and what doesn't work.”
Sandy emphasized the importance of understanding the causes of homelessness and how we must shift our thinking from fixing people to transforming inadequacies built into the system. “We do not talk about the really high level of untreated mental health in the population. We find that people are self treating which adds a whole new level of issues. Then there is trauma. Childhood trauma is incredibly significant. When I started doing this, I asked people 'what led you to be right here today?’ Almost everyone could give me a specific answer without thinking. It’s the trauma, the abusive household, the addiction, mental illness, and families. It’s everything from I lost my job, to I got divorced, to another man who looked at me and said, ‘a priest.’ He let me in and told me his whole story. I just listen to what they have to share. After hearing those stories, you can never turn back. Now you look at them through a whole different lens. People don’t need to be fixed. We don’t need to fix anyone. We just need to know what works for them and who is asking the question of what’s not working and how are we going to fix it [the problem]?”
Systemic changes need to happen. When we continue pushing a broken cycle, we walk in circles and never waver from what remains cracked, fractured, and shattered. “We have an incredibly broken system. The housing list prioritizes people based on a variety of factors. It puts people at the top of the list that are less likely to do well in housing and keeps people that would do well in housing at the bottom of the list. Then we look at people who stay in shelters and we say how grateful they should be that they get a cot in a gym with 40 of their closest strangers. I was thinking about it and I would definitely be someone that goes and pitches a tent. For someone that has anxiety or another mental health concern, try being in a room with a lot of mental health and addiction issues and all those different personalities. We need to include those experiencing homelessness in solutions and remember they are human.”
“Our community is really good at forgetting to include the people that it wants to help in solutions.”
Artist’s Note: Sandy shared about the need to change our viewpoints. The monocle symbolizes the lens we need to apply in order to better understand the systemic causes of homelessness. The chain between the two represents the deep systemic chains that bind us. Finally, the stethoscope serves as a connection to Sandy’s reach to individuals through healthcare and her use of her gift to empower others.