Written by: Simon Leek
Antonia had come up against a familiar wall. She was all set to move, along with her husband and their five grandchildren, out of the housing at Lucy’s Hearth and into an apartment. She was ready, thanks in large part to the independence-geared services provided by Lucy’s and Crossroads RI, to move into her own housing. Despite the work that Lucy’s had done to keep operating during the pandemic, the desire to move into a new, private space pressed upon her now more than ever.
Only she had little hope of finding a suitable place on her own. Not for lack of enthusiasm or vision; she knew what she was looking for, she knew the price range, she could anticipate what might come up in the negotiation—but she lacked the language.
Antonia, 65, and her husband, 72, have Spanish as their first language, with little English between them. Her grandchildren, who range in age from 8 to 16 and are fully bilingual, could take on some of the translating (as children in such situations often do), but she knew from experience that would require their passive participation in conversations she might not want them to have to deal with just yet. In counselling at Lucy’s Hearth, for instance, in the early sessions when the children were translating it was difficult to have the necessary frank conversations about finance, about past troubles, about anything that Antonia might not want not her grandchildren to know about. So their progress through Lucy’s Hearth’s transitional program stalled.
Luckily for Antonia, a recent grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield RI—called the Blue Angel grant—had just been awarded to Lucy’s Hearth for the establishment of a housing navigation program. Carolyn Belisle, Managing Director of Community Investment at BCBSRI, saw promise in the program and was crucial in securing the sizable grant toward its development. This connection should come as no shock to people familiar with the long-standing reputation BSBSRI has as a charitable force behind advances in health equity in RI. Lucy’s wasted no time in putting this money to good use, hiring Maria Figueras as their first bilingual housing coordinator in late spring.
Maria’s involvement completely changed the course of Antonia’s family’s case. Since she was able to conduct sessions directly with Antonia, progress came much quicker. It is said that someone is most themself when speaking in their native language(s), operating through the fewest layers possible; which is to say: bilingual support in social work is more than critical for logistical reasons, it gives the social worker the best access to their patient. Or, as the famous Mandela paraphrase goes: “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
So when it came time to look for housing, Antonia asked Maria to help her find and secure a place. Antonia had qualified for a 9-month rent voucher from Crossroads RI, but it was August in Rhode Island and with COVID concerns still very much in place the search was slow going. At first, every place that Maria found was either too expensive, was uneasy about taking seven tenants into a small apartment, or would refuse to take voucher tenants at all. Eventually though, in early September, Maria found a place that fit Antonia’s requirements, reached out to the landlord, Shannon, and set up a meeting. Along with another bilingual councilor from Crossroads, they went to tour the place and meet with Shannon.
During the tour and negotiation process, Shannon says Maria was crucial. As Antonia looked excitedly over the kitchen and the potential bedrooms, Maria translated the usual landlord-tenant inquiries back and forth, as well as serving as a reference for Antonia and her family when usually Shannon would have gone to a past landlord. The promise of continuing support (from both Maria through Lucy’s and from Crossroads) assuaged Shannon’s fears about taking on a tenant out of a situation like Antonia’s. A small sum was added to the rent price to cover what Shannon projected to be the extra water use of having seven people in a three-bedroom apartment, and the deal was made.
They moved in September, just in time for the start of the school year. Maria, who helped them move in, said that the kids immediately ran to the rooms, playfully claiming and setting up their rooms. Antonia, for her part, came back to a kitchen she was glad she hadn’t had to compromise on and began to set things up for their first meal in the new home.
So now a whole new life unfolds before Antonia and her family. The children are enrolled in the local school district and have been attending school (such as it is right now) all fall; Maria has been helping them furnish the apartment. Every week during her visit she says the kids pull her to the bedrooms to show her new decorations they have made, new imprints on their own space. Maria is helping Antonia look for work, a very useful help for Antonia considering the pandemic’s effect on the job market. Shannon says its going perfectly, that the kids are very respectful, that they are looking to be excellent tenants. Antonia and her husband, she says, have been very grateful to her—they are the third set of tenants that she has taken on from Crossroads, and thanks in part to the way that Crossroads keeps such arrangements economically safe for landlords like Shannon, she doesn’t expect they will be her last.
Maria too, is very pleased with the outcome and feels the thanks of the family when she makes her visits. The kids, she says, are elated to have a private space to call home. Antonia and her husband, too, are grateful to have a Spanish-speaking confidant as they adjust to the new setup. “You have a golden heart,” Antonia told Maria. “I just love seeing their face with a smile,” Maria says. “Being able to help people starting from nothing, who don’t have a lot of resources…it makes me happy to see her get going again.”
Language is worth much more than communication. Without people like Maria, it can isolate its speakers from other people but also from resources, from help. Maria’s role is less about translation capacities (this would be the English-centered view of it) and more about meeting Antonia in the most comfortable territory and easing the anxieties of that isolation so that the transition to life back out in the world can be as successful as possible.
There are other families at Lucy’s in the same situation Antonia’s family was, families grateful to have Maria there to facilitate and to talk to. The COVID-19 pandemic is both harder on the unhoused populations that it infects and creating more and more unhoused people thanks to the recession. But Lucy’s can only house so many and during the current crisis—where the unemployment rate in RI has yet to fall back under 10% and the phones have not stopped ringing at Lucy’s for months—accelerated housing navigation can drastically change the course of not only the newly housed person moving out, but the currently unhoused person who can now take their spot. Thanks to the support of organizations like Blue Cross Blue Shield RI, individual donors, and hard-working counselors like Maria, this important work has been able to continue and even expand when RI needs it most.