I moved to this funky little pueblo six months ago to explore the mountain ranges, eat delicious food, grow a garden, and take on poverty. Tucson is an affordable city (relative to the rest of the country), and yet, much of its population lives in poverty. This little hub of activism thrives, but poverty is widespread, and a huge community has emerged to address it. Tucson's charm brought me here, and now, it is the context where I reconsider poverty’s causes, how to address them, and the frustrations that come along with both.
Here at Compass Affordable Housing (CAH), I work in Tenant Services. The mission of Compass Affordable Housing, Inc. is to improve the quality of family and community life by developing, producing and managing low-cost affordable housing with support services. We strive to increase efforts that make housing affordable on the local, state and national level. As I approach the end of my service, I contemplate what this service really means. Mostly, I wonder: what makes more sense: reacting to poverty or preventing it? I’m learning now that working on both fronts is necessary, complicated, and far from easy.
“Low-income” is more than just a quantifier. People are not defined by how much money they make, and yet, this experience defines large parts of their reality. Are their basic needs being met? What about their other needs? Where does my role as VISTA fit in?
We at CAH works on both fronts - preventing poverty where we can, and responding where needed. Affordable housing -housing that does not cost more than 30% of one’s income- is in short supply nationwide. So, CAH builds these properties, and tailors services onsite to meet unique needs. We try to meet the basic needs, and discover the other ones that - like people who live there - are more complicated. What are their goals, and what’s our role? Do they need help writing a resume or finding work? What if they lost their job, and are just short of rent this month? And further - are they hungry, and don’t have the time or money to get to the grocery store? These are small bits of opportunity where Tenant Services steps in to react to crises. We try to build small bridges to success to connect people to the many resources here that exist, and seek out where they don’t to be more creative in the future.
If half of what I do is responding to need - be it hunger, financial crisis or personal crisis, the other half is trying to prevent that need and build community. Our pantry and employment centers react to hunger and unemployment, but the community garden and the volunteering required to grow it provide proactive steps against both. The wider issue of food insecurity is systematic on the Southside of Tucson. With our community garden, can we both feed and build community? Everyone has their own needs for food, but maybe once those individual needs are met, the wider sense of community can grow along with their fresh veggies.
Understanding poverty means understanding widespread inequity, having patience with imperfection, and having the endurance for long-term community-building and resource development all at once. Tenant Services is about more than measurable outcomes; we meet people where they’re at, and try to partner with them when and where we can. In the end, their success is their own.
By Elaine MacPherson, AmeriCorps VISTA at Compass Affordable Housing