Heroes of The Homeless Crisis: How Gabrielle Clowdus of Settled is Helping To Support Some Of The Most Vulnerable People In Our Communities

Education & Outreach — read and watch the hand selected resources we have on our site. Learn in community (either with your family, friends, or church) and the true causes of homelessness, addiction, and mental illness — and relationship, long-term responses! Join local outreach teams to meet with people on the streets regularly. Get to know the poor in your community by face, by name, by story. Take them a meal and share it over conversation. Take the time to invest in relationships! It is relationships that lead to change.

As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Gabrielle Clowdus.

Gabrielle Clowdus is the CEO and co-founder of Settled, which activates and equips faith communities to pursue home with the homeless through sustainable housing, purposeful work, and supportive community. She is also a research fellow and PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota studying housing and homelessness. Gabrielle holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Architecture and is at the end of a 5-year Ph.D. program in Housing Studies where she brought a “Community First” approach to homelessness to the academic community for the first time, comparing it with the prevailing “Housing First” model.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us about your personal background and how you grew up?

I went to Guatemala at age of 12 and then Russia at age of 13 and saw people living in extreme poverty. I saw a community of three thousand people living in a landfill carving their homes out of compacted trash. It completely changed my life in every way. I came home to a place of privilege and with that came a responsibility. So for the past two decades, I have been studying and responding to poverty, both globally and in my own backyard.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?

I was hired by the University of Minnesota about five years ago to study local poverty. Before then, I had only studied global poverty. It was the defining moment of my life to look in my own backyard.

We live in downtown St. Paul, transplanted here six years ago from California, where there was a huge homeless crisis. We didn’t see nearly as many people on the streets as we do now. We started building relationships with people on the street, getting to know them, getting to know their stories, inviting them into our lives, our meals and celebrations. They got to know my children and husband. But it was really unsustainable because at the end of the night, they would go back to a park bench or under a bridge and I would go into my warm bed.

We realized there has to be a better way. Waiting for affordable housing isn’t enough. Or waiting for multi-million housing complexes that don’t get built fast enough. We looked at the tiny home movement and thought that could make an impact on the housing crisis. As a nation, we take a “Housing First” response based on the assumption that people just lack housing and access to supportive services. While that might be true for people who are temporarily homeless, it is not true for the chronically homeless, the segment of the population that’s hardest to serve. They are the smallest percent of the homeless population and use the greatest amount of the resources.

Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from? Also, for the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?

For 25 years, our country has taken a “Housing First” approach. Studies show that it reduces the cost of that homeless person on the public and increases their stability, but out of those hundreds of studies, no study shows that it increases social belonging, civic engagement, interest in purposeful work, volunteerism, connection back to faith roots or community, essentially all the reasons that you and I get up every morning and have a reason to keep going. “Housing First” just housed people, often in isolated housing units next to neighbors who didn’t know them and couldn’t relate to them, and it furthered the stigma and stereotypes of who the homeless.

I did my PHD research on the “Housing First” movement and then compared it with the “Community First” movement. In Austin, TX, a group had similar questions to mine about 25 years ago, and to find answers to those questions, they began sleeping next to the chronically homeless. They walked alongside them during the day, getting meals with them at food shelves and kitchens, staying on the sidewalks, same cockroaches crawling up on them at night, and just learning. The homeless all have such unique stories. There is a strong theme of childhood neglect, abuse and violence. These are not only just homeless adults, but they might have never experienced the feeling and the warmth of a true home. Folks have grown up in very broken homes and often broken environments and adverse communities. People of color are disproportionately homeless, and they have adverse childhood backgrounds and adverse community environments.

We realized we have to start creating solutions that take that into account. People are not homeless because they don’t have a house. They aren’t houseless, they are homeless. They don’t have the feeling of a real home, the feeling of coming to a place after a long trip, walking in the the door and saying, “I am home.”

“Community First” response says “You are welcome here.” We walk alongside people and build trust and relationships. Many homeless people are coming from an abusive background and have trust issues, so coming into someone’s life humbly, listening with humility, responding with generosity…that changes everything.

We have built what we believe is a holistic response to homelessness. First and foremost, it’s not just lack of housing, but lack of belonging and social connection. We try to build social belonging through an intentional community.

A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?

I don’t know if there is cheaper housing anywhere. Maybe from slumlords in a city. The poor often get swindled and taken advantage of a lot. If you’ve been homeless for years, you aren’t set up to advocate for yourself. You only get the leftovers, you have no choice, no opinion. The waitlists are closed in many cities for quality affordable housing. There are not enough government dollars to build our way out of this problem, so we have to take a community response with lower cost.

If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?

We meet with people on the street. Walking with a Purpose is our outreach partner; they meet real needs of people on the street and that’s our pipeline into Sacred Settlements. We encourage other organizations to start with relational outreach, offer people choice, meet them regularly, get to know them and gain trust.

What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?

Follow your heart. Do it in relationship. Try to build a relationship that’s reciprocal, so it’s not about charity, but what we can learn from each other.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?

In Minnesota, we are taking a “Community First” approach through what we call a Sacred Settlement. We are building tiny homes that are made to last from generation to generation, just like a single-family home. And they are $25–40K, a fraction of what affordable housing costs. We invest in our housing stock, and ordinary groups can sponsor, pay for, fund and build them. More people can help to invest in our poorest neighbors and in their lives. Beyond the cost of the housing, it is the land. There are often sentiments that neighbors don’t want homeless people in their neighborhood, they don’t want a development to affect property values, or be around their children, or to increase crime.

How do we enable this intentional tiny home living where housed and unhoused can come live together? We found a very strong federal land use law called the religious land use act. It allows churches to use their land in conjunction with their mission. I would argue every faith community has a mission to care for their poor. So they invite the poor into their land that is highly underutilized. They can put a Sacred Settlement on their land, so the “not in my backyard” sentiment falls flat. But we also want to love those neighbors too. We want homes that are beautiful and valuable, well designed, and an asset to the neighborhood. We hope to have Sacred Settlements across the nation.

Our homes rent for $200–300 a month. We have a rule at Settled that we don’t put anything in the house that we wouldn’t put in our own home. So they are fully furnished with 100 percent cotton sheets, spices on the spice racks, new mattresses, a cast iron skillet, and a comfy chair. We provide simple things that are quality and built to last.

Everyone pays rent and abides by civil law and the good neighbor agreement. We have an advocate befriender team for Sacred Settlements, who are trained lay volunteers to help the homeless meet their life goals. This means getting on SSI or SSDI and food stamps, getting an ID card or birth, but we put the team together to help them meet their needs and do it in relational way. We use our abundance to overflow onto folks. We hope they find it’s a good place they want to live. We want them to become settled.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?

Covid has absolutely affected and increased homelessness, as shelters are overrun, and people don’t want to share a room with sixty others because of the risk. Sacred Settements is an idea that has come into its time since these are individual, single homes.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

I’m most proud of the people part of this work. The amazing people that have come into this vision, into this work to see it become a reality. With every new person bringing their gifts and passions and talents into the larger vision and mission, our work becomes stronger, clearer, and more defined. I am so amazed by the creative, devoted, loyal people that have said ‘yes’ to bringing about a community first approach to homelessness. It’s humbly to see so many enter into this sacrificially, entering into their role to see a kinder, more generous community for us all.

Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?

I have realized over the years that we’re not a charity or a homeless ministry, we’re a group of people radically committed to homemaking with the homeless — inviting them into our abundance, our lives, our traditions and celebrations, game nights and walks and family meals, and eventually being invited into their sacred spaces. And so, it’s not just who have we impacted, but how have we been impacted by welcoming the poor into our lives and them welcoming us into there’s. Some of the most remarkable moments for me in this work has been watching folks coming off the streets from under bridges and on benches and extending hospitality and love to my family, my girls. Simple acts of love by using their limited dollars to buy my girls an ice cream or bring them a birthday cake. It’s in these interactions that the paradigm is changing — it’s no longer one sided. Me, the resourced person on one side of the serving table, them on the receiving end — but it’s relational, reciprocal, and we’re both be changed and loved and cared for. This way of service is sacred and good, authentic and eternal.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

  • Keep things in your car and bag in anticipation of coming across someone homeless. Looking them in the eye, ask their name and let them know you were thinking about them and planning for this interaction. Then speak from your heart. I often say, “I’m so sorry you’re here and I believe it will get better for you. I will be thinking of you and praying for you!”
  • Sponsor a home or plant a Sacred Settlement — Talk with your faith community about using their land for the greatest good — to plant a Sacred Settlement with the support of other business and faith communities in the area. Or, supporting another Sacred Settlement by sponsoring a home and investing long term in making sure that settlement thrives through community events, meals, and service projects.
  • Education & Outreach — read and watch the hand selected resources we have on our site. Learn in community (either with your family, friends, or church) and the true causes of homelessness, addiction, and mental illness — and relationship, long-term responses! Join local outreach teams to meet with people on the streets regularly. Get to know the poor in your community by face, by name, by story. Take them a meal and share it over conversation. Take the time to invest in relationships! It is relationships that lead to change.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

We are lobbying the state of MN to recognize our movable tiny homes as permanent housing, distinct from an RV. They are built on wheels, so we can overcome strict building codes that don’t allow to build under 400 square feet and require every home be plumbed. So then, we build a new common house or remodel part of the church or building as the common house to have a kitchen, bathrooms, dining space, showers and laundry. We need the law to allow for Sacred Settlements — clusters of tiny homes where housed and unhoused can come and live intentionally together, gather in the common house, share in maintaining the settlement, and extending radical hospitality to the surrounding neighborhood so that these places might be cities on hills, beacons of light and hope to the larger community!

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

I cover everything in prayer, and invite God into the little and big things, I don’t have to take credit for closed or open doors, as He gets all the credit. It takes a load off when the work can feel burdensome and overwhelming.

Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?

We can work together to solve this crisis. Families can team up to sponsor homes since the price point is small enough. There’s so much potential for faith communities to rise up, get to know their homeless, sponsor a home, and start a Sacred Settlement on their land. Our role is to inspire a national conversation around a “Community First” response to homelessness.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  • I wish someone had told me that just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not working.
  • Just because people of influence or positions of power don’t latch onto the idea, it doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea.
  • Opposition doesn’t mean defeat.
  • Tilling the ground for a great harvest requires time, tenacity and others that see the same vision and willing to be loyal to that vision. Look for people that are loyal. Look for people who are willing to sweat, cry and break bread with you. Devotion and loyalty are so much greater than any skill set or job title.
  • You can’t do it alone and can’t do too much, so stay focused on your calling. You can’t solve everything, so do your calling well and faithful and you will see great fruit.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like to inspire a “Community First” response to homelessness movement. We need housed and unhoused living together; we need advocate befrienders and purposeful work opportunities. We need faith communities to rise up and use their land, with local governments supporting those communities.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have a reminder on my phone phone screen saver that says, Philippians 4:6 “Worry about nothing, pray about everything.” I recognize there is a good God who goes before me and behind me, and while I lean on my own understanding and wisdom, He’s fighting those battles. I try to live by that.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

My husband. We have three young kids and we’re pretty busy. We haven’t had a private date since we started Settled seven years ago. So maybe just a really nice breakfast with the two of us on a beach somewhere. There are so many beautiful people in the world doing what they are called to do. I think ordinary people saying yes to an extraordinary calling to “love your neighbor as yourself” is what unites the world.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow us at Settled.org, Twitter, FB and Instagram.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

Heroes of The Homeless Crisis: How Gabrielle Clowdus of Settled is Helping To Support Some Of The… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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