We heard from Barbara Siemer, co-founder of the Siemer Institute alongside her husband Al, on what it’s like leading the charge to prevent and end family homelessness across the United States.
What gave you the idea to start the Siemer Institute?
Let’s go back to 2003 when my husband transported me to Florida from Ohio. I had no idea what I was going to do down there. I didn’t know anyone. In Ohio, I had been working in a church family support group for many years, mostly doing eviction prevention but with very small dollars to help people stay in their homes. I thought, “If I could only do this differently. If there could be more counseling, if there could be more stabilization on a long-term scale and not just a stop gap.” I wanted to try to stabilize families with the goal—and this is really important—of stabilizing the children. I knew that moving in and out of schools was one of the biggest hurtles children faced in staying on task and getting to third grade reading proficiency. It was what derailed these children as they moved, losing two to three months of school.
What did your work with United Way first look like?
We joined the Tocqueville Society at United Way of Sarasota, and I went to United Way and said, “I want to try an experiment. Will you help me?” I told them I wanted to find an agency that will immediately intervene when someone comes to them with an eviction notice. But I wanted the agency to work with families for up to a year to prevent this from happening again. I didn’t want a band-aid. I wanted a cure for family instability. So, with our $50,000 investment we chose Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the Suncoast. By 2008, the program had grown from the $50,000 investment to a $450,000 program.
How did you continue to grow your ideas?
Al and I decided to take the program to Ohio. After a year, the state did a study and found that during the recession not only did we not increase homelessness during that terrible period, we actually reduced it by 8 percent. We knew we had something really special. We decided that in the next four years, we wanted to be in 50 of the largest cities in the country because that is where mobility is the most damaging to children. When a family moves all over the city, the children are going into different schools and they’re adjusting to different reading and math programs. When a family moves, the average time that a child is missing in school is three months and missing three months of school means they missed the entire year. When kids move in high school, 50 percent of them will not graduate.
Why was this issue so important to you?
I’m an English teacher and I know what not being able to read does to a child. And when families have nowhere to turn—when their back is to the wall and they’re about to lose their house—there has to be some place where people can go; there has to be somewhere that they can turn and get help. And we determined that we would be that place and that the help would be immediate.
Did you know this program would grow into what it has today?
Not at all. I started this when I was in Sarasota and I needed some purpose in being there. I was curious about a more effective way to deal with families in crisis to come up with a longer-term solution to this problem of families being in and out of homes. I learned that there are two kinds of crisis: A situational crisis—if someone loses a job or suffers an injury—and a generational crisis. One story that comes to mind: A young nurse who slipped on an icy curb and broke her foot. She had just bought a car and when she went to get help, they told her she had too many assets and that she had to sell her car, use those assets and come back. She contested that when her foot is better, she won’t be able to get to work without her car. And they said, “Those are the rules.” She’s doing everything right, and it should not be that one unfortunate accident is going to completely derail her where she has to start over totally behind the eight ball. That cannot happen. And it reaffirmed what my feeling was: If we can intervene immediately, we can avoid a lot of subsequent trauma that is going to occur. I would hear these stories and I thought, “We can do better than this.”
What are some of the long-term impacts you’ve seen on families who struggle to find stable housing?
When people are housing insecure for 15 months, 65 percent will have clinical depression and need medical intervention. If they are housing insecure for 30 months, that number jumps to 85 percent. That doesn’t even begin to measure what happens to the children in these cases when their mother is depressed and trying to hold things together and trying to get up and go to work knowing that at any given moment she could be evicted. You listen to these stories and you think, “This doesn’t need to happen.”
What would you say to others who want to strategically invest in this program?
It works. It’s efficient, effective and economical. That’s the whole story. And it’s the cheapest thing you can do. It will cost four times the amount of money to help a family and reestablish them than it will cost to keep them in their homes. It’s cheaper if we keep them in their homes, rather than letting them become homeless, moving them to a shelter, then moving them to new housing. If you want to really put your money to good effect, this is the way to do it.
What are your hopes for the future?
It’s something that Al and I talk about around the kitchen table all the time: How can we help more people? Is there another program that would be better? We can’t figure anything else out. We just know that this does work. We’ll run it as long as we can, then we’ll make sure there is system and organization in place that can keep it going. My husband’s goal in life is that before we have to leave this earth, he will have stabilized a million children who will have hopefully had a better shot at getting an education and therefore a chance at success in life than they would’ve if we hadn’t been around. My goal is to stop the pain and agony for a family—for a mother who has to tell her kids to put their things in garbage bags and go out to the curb and try to figure out what to do next. And if I could prevent any number of people from experiencing that, it would be worth doing. If there is any kind of legacy to be left of any life, I should hope that is going to be ours. That we stabilized all those families.