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 shelter at Lucy’s Hearth in Middletown RI and into an apartment of her own. She was ready, thanks in large part to the independence-geared services provided by Lucy’s Hearth. Although she was grateful to have shelter during the pandemic, the desire to move into her own new, private space pressed upon her now more than ever.
However, Antonia 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, speak Spanish as their first language, with little English between them. Her grandchildren, who range in age from 8 to 16 years, are fully bilingual and do, at times, take on some of the translating. But Antonia did not want to burden them with the necessary yet frank conversations about finances, about past money troubles, and other private family matters. So, their progress seeking their own housing stalled.
This is when Maria Figueras, the new bilingual housing navigator at Lucy’s Hearth, took on this case. Figueras met directly with Antonia and quickly made progress; guests of Lucy’s Hearth often feel most themselves when speaking in their native language, operating through the fewest layers possible. 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.”
Figueras worked with Antonia closely to secure a place to live – a new home for her family. Antonia had qualified for a 9-month rent voucher, but with COVID concerns still very much in place, the search was slow going. At first, every place that Figueras found was too expensive; refused to accept all seven members of this family into one apartment; and/or refused to take voucher tenants at all. By early September, Figueras identified an apartment that fit Antonia’s requirements, reached out to the landlord, Shannon, and set up a tour of the place and meeting with the landlord, Shannon.
Shannon noted that Figueras’s help was crucial when touring the property and negotiating the terms. As Antonia looked excitedly over the kitchen and the potential bedrooms, Figueras translated the usual landlord-tenant inquiries back and forth, as well as serving as a reference for Antonia and her family. 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. Lucy’s Heath guarantee of continued family support assuaged Shannon’s fears about taking on Antonia’s big family as tenants.
Antonia’s family moved into their new home later that month, just in time for the start of the 2020 school year. Figueras, 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, delighted in having her own kitchen to cook their first family meal in the new home.
“I am forever grateful for everything Maria has done for my family. We are thankful that she is still helping us even after we left Lucy’s,” Antonia said.
Antonia’s husband is also grateful for the help Figueras offered their family. “We don’t trust many people, but I felt I could trust you with the well-being of my family. We appreciate everything you have done for our grandchildren and our new home,” he told her recently.
So now a whole new life unfolds before Antonia and her family. The children are enrolled in the local school district and are attending school this Fall. Every week Figueras visits the family – and the kids pull her to the bedrooms to show her new decorations they have made, new imprints on their own space. “You have a golden heart,” Antonia told Figueras. She is helping Antonia look for work – not easy during a pandemic. Shannon says its going perfectly, that the kids are very respectful – that the family are excellent tenants.
“I just love seeing their face with a smile,” Figueras says. “Being able to help people starting from nothing, who don’t know have a lot of resources…it makes me happy to see her get going again.”
Their landlord Shannon is also grateful. “I am glad that Maria can continue to help this wonderful family. I was happy to hear that they have this support”.
Language is worth much more than communication. Without people like Figueras, it can isolate its speakers from others, but also from resources– from help. Figueras’s role is less about translation capacities and more about meeting Antonia in her comfort zone and easing the anxieties of that isolation so that the transition to life back out in the world can be as successful as possible.
The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged more families into homelessness, and has infected those families at higher rates. 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.