Learning How to Rent Well
The causes of homelessness are many; likewise, there are many barriers that stand in the way of obtaining housing for many Transition Projects clients, from debt or bad credit to a criminal history or previous eviction. Clients work hard with staff to try to find solutions to these issues, to prove that in spite of their history, they have made the changes necessary to be a good tenant. Among the services offered to help clients overcome these barriers and obtain permanent housing is a tenant education program called Rent Well.
In the Rent Well class, over the course of fifteen hours, students will learn a property manager's expectations, a tenant's rights and responsibilities, how to communicate well with your property manager and be a good neighbor, and how to maintain a clean and safe home. Among the assignments that students are expected to complete are pre-screening yourself as a property manager would, creating a household budget, and creating a housing portfolio to show potential property managers your qualifications.
Lee Thomas, a Transition Projects board member, has been teaching tenant education at Jean's Place on a volunteer basis for the past seven years.
"The class is incredibly useful in helping students acknowledge their rental barriers - eviction, criminal background, poor credit, no credit, no rental history, etc. - and develop strategies to avoid repeating them," says Thomas. "The first step is learning how the landlord is going to see you, so they identify their own barriers through a review of their credit reports and screening report. Then, they work on correcting the ones they can, like developing a payment plan to pay off debts, or they work on strategies to avoid repeating the barriers they can't correct, like creating a budget, or working on communication skills."
Ian, a Clark Center resident, is expecting to graduate from the Rent Well class next week. This is Ian's second stay at the Clark Center; after struggling with a severe alcohol addiction, he came to the Clark Center in 2008. At that point, he found work and an apartment, both of which lasted about a year, until another relapse.
"I lost my sobriety, and I lost everything... again. I wouldn't say that I'm grateful for that relapse, but on some level I am glad it happened, because it slapped me in the face and showed me that I'm not impervious to relapses, and made me realize that I really had to change. I'm very fortunate for this second chance, and this time I have committed myself to doing everything I can to make sure I succeed, and don't wind up back here."
For Ian, that meant taking advantage of the Rent Well class this time around.
"It's a highly effective class," he says. "It provides you with a wealth of information, and I've taken a lot away from it. Joan (Mershon, Rent Well instructor) stressed the importance of always, always reading through a lease, even if it means breaking out a magnifying glass, to make sure you are familiar with all of your landlord's requirements. Another valuable part was getting my credit check and background check - even though I knew I didn't have any legal issues, I wanted to be sure that those reports reflected that."
Rent Well Instructor Joan Mershon has some shocking statistics that she shares with her classes: 68% of background checks that she compiles for Rent Well participants will have "surprises" on them, incorrect information that could pose a problem for a client applying for housing.
Another thing of value Ian took away from his Rent Well class was putting together the housing portfolio and cover letter.
"You compile three letters of reference, income verification, the cover letter, all that," he says. "A lot of landlords are impressed that you've taken the time to put all that information together for them. The cover letter was especially helpful, where you need to gently touch on the negative things they may find, but focus on the positive steps you're taking to remedy them. This class really stresses accountability."
There is another huge advantage to completing the Rent Well course. Graduates of the class are eligible for the Rent Well Landlord Guarantee, an incentive for property managers to rent to Rent Well graduates. This guarantee provides property managers with up to $2000 of financial coverage if the graduate leaves their apartment with unpaid rent or damages. This guarantee is a big incentive for individuals to complete the course. There are also definite incentives for the instructors who lead these courses:
"It can sometimes be frustrating not always knowing how many of the graduates go on to get into housing," says Thomas, "but the most rewarding thing for me is when one of the women either stops by class after she's graduated - or sees me at the grocery store and runs over to tell me - that she's moving out of Jean's Place into her own apartment."
In Ian's case, at least, his instructor gets to see his success right away. He recently started a new job, and expects to receive approval at a new apartment early next week.
The Best Medicine
We've all heard the old standby, that laughter is the best medicine. More than a cliché now, there is documented evidence that demonstrates the benefits of laughter, and its power to relieve stress, reduce anxiety and depression, enhance the immune system, and much more. The women at Jean's Place were recently able to experience the benefits first hand, when new volunteer Laura Lou Pape-McCarthy came in to lead a laughter yoga session.
Laughter yoga is based in breathing techniques from traditional yoga, but replaces the typically silent exhalation with laughter. And according to the participants at Jean's Place, it feels pretty great.
"I had a blast!" says Mary, a Jean's Place resident who was trying laughter yoga for the first time. "It was really great. I can see how it would be a really beneficial exercise for people with depression. Even for the ladies who were around the laughter group today but not participating, they couldn't help catching the laughs at least some of the time. Laughter is contagious like that."
Michelle, another resident at Jean's Place, discovered laughter yoga through a laughing club at PCC, where she is a student. A friend brought her along to one class, and after discovering that it helped her cope with her post-traumatic stress, she kept going every week. It was there that she met Pape-McCarthy, who she encouraged to come and share this program at Jean's Place.
"It is literally changing my outlook on life," says Michelle. "I'm more relaxed thanks to laughter yoga. Especially with our population, so many of us here have experienced trauma or violence, this can be really valuable. It never pushes you too hard - the whole point is to get away from your stress. It helps you be able to not trigger those things that can make you act out. Because my breathing is already better, more relaxed, I have a calmer baseline, even days after a laughter group. It affects my whole week."
Mary, still laughing an hour after the group ended, concurs.
"I feel so great - I'm going to keep thinking about this all day!"
Ways to Get Involved
Volunteering and donations tend to slow down for us a bit during the summer, so there are a lot of opportunities to get involved for those of you who are looking to spend some time this summer helping out.
* Our biggest - and most popular - volunteer opportunity is meal providing, and there are still many open dates to choose from in the coming months! We rely on volunteer groups to provide the dinner at our transitional shelters every night of the year, and as we still have so many openings, we would welcome any new group interested in trying this activity out! It's a fun, rewarding, hands-on way to get involved with our work. You can find more information about meal providing here.
To inspire you, here is some feedback we've received from previous meal provider volunteers:
"We had an amazing time and were so welcomed by all of the staff and residents. I don't know if it is common, but all the men applauded for us as we left and it was an amazing feeling!"
"We had such a great time yesterday! ...Everything was perfect. We served fruit, salad (green and potato), chicken (tons - even leftovers), and ice cream sundaes with cookies. The guys seemed to love it and our kids had a great time! One of the moms had never been to the Clark Center before, but she absolutely wanted to do it again. "
"We had a wonderful time and we had a great turnout. The last time I went, we ran out of the entree and that was really sad. This time, we did taco night and had leftovers after some people came up for 4ths! It was awesome and we'd definitely do it again."
* If you're more interested in helping out from home, our other big need right now is for donations of summer clothes. With the warm weather finally here, we would like to be able to provide summer-wear to the residents of our shelters, and individuals who come in to use our shower and clothing rooms. If you've been cleaning out your closet and found some items you don't need, bring them in to our Glisan Center location at 435 NW Glisan, where we accept donations 24-hours a day.