Interview with Katherine Erickson, AmeriCorps VISTA

For the past year, Katherine Erickson spent her AmeriCorps VISTA year of service working on Housing 1000. The Housing 1000 Team is incredibly grateful for all of her contributions to our campaign. Thanks to Katherine we have this blog, a website, YouTube channel, newsletter and a great presence on social media. Thank you Katherine for your dedication to this campaign, creativity, technical skills and social media savvy!

We wish you the best of luck in law school at NYU!

Q: What led you to spending your AmeriCorps year working with Housing 1000?

Katherine: I actually applied for the position from China, where I was teaching English at the time. I accepted the offer via email while visiting friends in Singapore. Can you imagine trying to explain AmeriCorps VISTA to a Singaporean? It’s a complicated enough program to explain to other Americans!

My dream is to work for social justice as a civil rights attorney, and I believe that housing is arguably the biggest poverty issue in America today. I grew up in Santa Clara County, and I’ve really appreciated being able to return to my home to help make it a better place. I wanted to work on the Housing 1000 Campaign partly because I appreciated its concrete, time-limited goals. A lot of organizations out there help the homeless—but Housing 1000 is about ending homelessness altogether.

Q: What have you enjoyed the most about working with Housing 1000?

Katherine: Housing 1000’s mission to house the most vulnerable is absolutely revolutionary. In the history of America, the normal way for communities to respond to homelessness was to force indigent men and women to leave. Wealth earned societal acceptance—if you had nothing, you were nothing. In colonial times no town would allow destitute newcomers to settle there—nobody would give you a chance. We’ve moved away from this idea somewhat with shelters and other services for the extremely poor, but sit-lie laws still make it effectively illegal to be homeless. Our mainstream culture still blames people for their poverty. I really believe that criminalizing poverty is a human rights violation—and so does the United Nations.

Housing 1000 is subversive because the Campaign is basically saying that the historical approach is wrong, and that people do have an innate dignity, regardless of their net worth. It’s saying that extreme wealth next to extreme poverty is obscene. It’s saying that nobody should ever die on our streets when we have the means to save them. I’ve truly enjoyed helping to advance that mission.

Q: What experiences will stay with you after having worked with this campaign?

Katherine: Americans have this idea that since we have emergency health care, and we are relatively wealthy, that there’s no extreme suffering in our nation. But I’ll never forget the story of a wheelchair-bound client that Housing 1000 helped this year. He took the survey, we realized he was very vulnerable and we tracked him down. When we found him, his legs were covered in open wounds. He hadn’t even been able to take off his shoes in 4 months. Thankfully, with the help of Housing 1000 he’s housed now!

Q: How has your perspective on homelessness changed after this year of service with AmeriCorps?

Katherine: I have a new perspective on men’s issues. Before working with Housing 1000, I wanted to work mainly on women’s issues—I still do, but I now have a much better understanding of issues affecting men. This year I spoke with a disabled man earning poverty wages on a VASH voucher, who lost his housing because his child support was over $400 a month! People need to pay their child support, but there’s something wrong with the system when people are becoming homeless because of it. Housing 1000 helped this client lower his child support payments to a more reasonable monthly amount, and he is currently housed with a full-time job!

I also learned about the challenges of finding any housing at all after any sort of criminal conviction. Even a misdemeanor can be a barrier, and try getting a job after a felony conviction! The data tells us that defendants of color are more likely to be convicted for any given crime, with the same evidence presented—and that they’re more likely to be assigned a harsher punishment, and do more jail time. That means that solving homelessness is a racial justice issue as well. This county’s population is 3% African American, but our homeless African American population is 17%. I have a problem with that. We should all have a problem with that.

Q: What’s in store for your future?

Katherine: Next year I will be studying law at New York University. I’d love to wind up working for a nonprofit working on civil rights issues. I’m interested in international human rights, but I’m beginning to think there’s plenty of work to do at home. I have a lot of friends in California, so I’ll be visiting the Best Coast again soon!

Q: Any final words of advice for Housing 1000?

Katherine: When the going gets tough, remember—it’s supposed to be hard. That’s what it means to be revolutionary; you’re doing something that has never been done here before. The data says it will work, and you’ve got an amazing team, so just keep going, stay adaptable, and together you’ll get there.

Thanks for the smiles. I’ll miss you all!

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