Kalamazoo Housing Advocates helps people navigate barriers to housing using 'that corny love thing'

This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's series on solutions to affordable housing and housing the unhoused. It is made possible by a coalition of funders including Kalamazoo County, the city of Kalamazoo, the ENNA Foundation, and the Kalamazoo County Land Bank.

When people are unhoused or housing insecure, they need a hand-up, some help to climb back to a more stable situation.

But they also need to be treated fully as a person. Even more importantly, they need that "corny love thing," as Sarah Cain puts it.

Cain is the Executive Director of Kalamazoo Housing Advocates, a non-profit that supports people in homeless, or near-homeless, situations.

She's worked in human services much of her life, with Housing Resources, Inc. and Ministry with Community.

"And it just kept happening over and over that I would help somebody get into housing, and then I'd see them a year later and they were homeless again," Cain says. 

The members of Kalamazoo Housing Advocates works together to help those who are in survival mode as they seek housing. "Over the years I just asked the questions like, 'What's going on? Why weren't you able to stay in your housing?' And it always came down to not enough support for that person. That was the bottom line.

"If I had something terrible happen in my life where I couldn't work, couldn't pay my rent, my brothers and sisters and my friends would jump right in. I would never be homeless. But the clients that I see that are chronically homeless, they don't have that support."

Cain works as a mediator between landlords and tenants, helps the homeless fill out all the paperwork needed to go through the voucher system, and tries to find funding for financial barriers to housing, like application fees. She also works to find solutions to many varied and messy life situations.

She gives the example of a tenant who was about to be evicted because of hoarding. Cain visited with the person many days over a month, went through each possession, and talked with the tenant about whether it was needed or not. 

Cain and the tenant got the apartment clear enough so there was no eviction.

A woman was reported to police for sleeping in a tent in someone's yard. It turned out that she was homeless, and the yard was her mother's. The mother wouldn't let her daughter inside, but inside were the daughter's two kids, allowed to live in grandma's house. 

Kalamazoo Public Safety contacted Cain. She talked to the woman and found out that she had been pulled for a housing voucher. Cain helped her through the next steps of the process, looked at apartments, and found sources to pay the security deposit and first month's rent. Cain also got the parts needed to get the woman's car running, so she could look for a job.

Sarah Cain, executive director, says Kalamazoo Housing Advocates is at maximum capacity at the moment. Another woman was about to be evicted because of behavioral issues -- she would call the landlord at 3 a.m. to complain about a burned-out lightbulb, call 911 when neighbors annoyed her, and showed signs of needing a therapist.

Cain stepped in as a kind of therapist. She has talked it out many times with this person. And reached an understanding with her landlord. Cain says the woman still calls her "when she needs to kind of de-escalate," she says.

"After about an hour of talking and letting her vent a little bit, then it was de-escalated." Cain is also a number on the landlord's speed-dial. "I mean, the landlords that I work with are so ready to work with me, so they'll call me when there's an issue."

Cain has files of people she's helped or is helping, people who can call her whenever there's trouble. Some of their problems seem small, problems that those with roofs over their heads and stable lives can manage to deal with on their own.

Does she ever get frustrated dealing with other people's problems?

She doesn't say "yes" or "no" to that question.

Marla LeMae, right, serves on the board of Kalamazoo Housing Advocates."I'll give you an example. A gentleman called me yesterday, and he had his hackles up because he's been told 'no' by many different housing agents and places in town. Like, 'Sorry, I really can't help -- we're overworked,' or 'We don't have what you need,' or 'You don't qualify for this.'"

The man was ready to hear "no" from her and was preemptively angry. He told Cain, "None of you care," and began swearing at her.

"So I just kind of let him vent a little bit because if you're in this line of work, you've got to see where their perspective is. I don't let people swear at me, but if they're swearing into oblivion about life struggles, then heck yeah, do it. That just rolls off my shoulders," she says.

Kalica Good is the board chairperson for Kalamazoo Housing Advocates."But he started to get personal on me, and so I said, 'How about you take a half an hour, calm down a little bit, because I do want to help you, and then call me back.'"

"He called me back today and he said, 'I'm so sorry.' So I scheduled him for tomorrow."

Cain explains how she can deal with other people's issues. 

"Here's my corny love thing." She cites Mother Teresa. "She said that the more love that you exude, it becomes an energy field, and that protects you from the negativity in the world coming back at you."

Roosevelt's story

Cain started Kalamazoo Housing Advocates in 2022. Through funding from the Kalamazoo County housing millage, KHA opened a small office in an ornate Victorian house on South Street and made Cain the first salaried employee. 

She has a big family of volunteers around her. We met with a few at KHA's office: Kalica Good, board chairperson; Roosevelt Lee-Fleming, treasurer and housing advocate; Marla LeMae, director, and Maliha Raza Khan, consultant and grant writer.

She met most through Ministry with Community, Cain says. "And I invited them all over to my house and we sat in the living room. There were a couple of other people involved, too, that are still volunteering with Kalamazoo Housing Advocates." 

Roosevelt Lee-Fleming, who was formerly homeless, will be the first employee of Kalamazoo Housing Advocates. Cain told them "that we really should be advocating." For example, instead of simply directing a client to a website, when a client might not have access to the internet or might forget the site address by the time they get online at the library, "why not just help them do it? Let's just make that process go smoothly. Help them," she says.

Good says, "What we saw at Ministry with Community, in clients, is they're in survival mode. Fight or flight, constantly. And if you're not sleeping well, eating well, maybe you don't read or write well, maybe your education isn't beyond a middle school education... all of that together, it just makes it that much harder to function."

The little things of life become big and difficult when someone is just trying to survive. 

"It's one thing that a lot of people who have never been in that situation of homelessness don't understand," Cain says. "The simple thing, even if you're fully literate, you look at an application and you've got what I call trauma brain, it's daunting. You don't even know where to begin."

Cain wants one-on-one supportive services, where instead of just offices and forms, a person in crisis can call on someone to help navigate the steps toward a more stable environment.

Lee-Fleming says he was in that situation -- homeless.

"I was not just in the situation myself, I had a son who was less than a year old. So it was me and him," he says.

The company he worked for changed hands. The new owners brought in their own staff, and he was out of a job. This caused a breakup with his girlfriend, his son's mother. 

He was driven by a desire to protect his son. "I want to keep him. So taking on that responsibility was really heavy on my shoulders. I didn't know what direction to go. All I knew was that -- I was homeless for about a little less than 18 months."

He and his infant son were floating around, "I would go to hotels and things like that. But I was homeless."

"I had always been educated, come from a good family. So I had an idea of what I wanted to do. But like (Good) said, it's a trauma-based mindset....  It's traumatizing going through that because you never know what the next step is, where the next meal is going to come from."

He ended up at Ministry with Community. There, "I got lucky," because he talked to Cain, he says.

"It changed my whole trajectory, because she was able to take the jumble that was in my mind, she listened, and put it in order and gave it back to me. I was like, 'Yeah, I can do this!'"

Lee-Fleming found stable housing. In 2021, he opened his own business Downtown, The Drip Sneakers (read Second Wave's 2021 story on Lee-Fleming and his shop) During this interview, he kept an eye on the time, because he needed to be at a parent-teacher conference for his son, now 5.

"And now he's going to be my first employee," Cain says. Lee-Fleming will be their first paid Housing Advocate, doing one-on-one help and taking some of the burden off Cain.

"Yeah, God comes around, man," he says.

"The systems behind her corny love"

KHA gets referrals from KPS, Kalamazoo Open Doors, the Disability Network of Southwest Michigan, many landlords, and others who want to see people housed. 

Collaborations and connections are important for KHA, and all the many people in the housing sector, Cain says. 

Sarah Cain, executive director, pulls out her active files, thick folders -- 12 cases who are housed, eight who are trying to find housing. She has four new people she'll be meeting soon."The way I get my referrals is just from all of the people that I've met over the years. Then they tell their colleagues, so I get phone calls."

It can get overwhelming. "What I'm telling people right now is before you just tell somebody, 'Call Sarah,' you call me and tell me that I'm sending somebody your way and their name is such-and-such and this is their situation. At least I know ahead of time because I really want to work not just by myself. I want to work with anybody else that's connected in that person's life. It just makes sense."

Cain pulls out her active files, thick folders -- 12 cases who are housed, eight who are trying to find housing. She has four new people she'll be meeting soon. She pulls out another three files, "they're fine" -- clients who may have most problems worked out, but Cain still keeps in touch, willing to offer support if needed.

KHA is "at maximum capacity" at the moment, she says. 

Raza Khan stresses that metrics are important. "What would we say is success for us?" she asks. "If a client has been housed for at least 12 months, that's something that we would say is a successful client relationship. That's our benchmark."

Raza Khan continues, "We're all working on the systems behind her corny love, right? We need to make sure that there's the foundation beneath it, the systems, the metrics, the tracking." 

To be a surviving organization, they'll need "to replicate what she's doing. She's going to have people that she's hiring -- are they going to have similar corny love and how do we duplicate that? How do we clone Sarah so that over time the organization is working on that same value that she has?"

More funding is needed, Raza Khan, as the KHA grant writer, says. They've received a county millage grant, and feel confident they'll get that renewed. Plus they've gotten other grants, and more that they're waiting on. "And people can just click on the website to donate," Raza Khan says.

Maliha Raza Khan is a consultant and grant writer for Kalamazoo Housing Advocates.KHA has big plans for the future. They'd like to buy their own facility, something that could provide temporary housing, be a daytime center, a safe space for marginalized communities, or a storage facility for people on the street who have nowhere to put their possessions. 
They would also like to reach out to the greater Kalamazoo community. Educating the public about people in crisis is part of their mission. 

Cain wants people to understand that, if they see someone at a busy intersection with a sign, asking for money, they're there because they have no other support. "Nobody wants to be on the side of the road," she says.

LaMae says of the people KHA sees, "With chronic persistent mental illness, substance use, criminalization of being unhoused, that's all led them to a place where they can't trust anyone. They've learned that they've only been penalized all their lives for being unhoused and the shame, blaming."

"Then they come here," LaMae looks at Cain, " you work with them, and you show them that you do love them, that they are human beings, worthy of having their foundational needs met, and a valuable member of society."

Lee-Fleming will have an advantage in his new position as a housing advocate since he knows what that situation is like. 

Cain has never been there, but she stresses that empathy matters. She says they treat clients like people, "Because it's the only way to build rapport, you know? I don't want to have a relationship with somebody who isn't authentic. Why would I think anybody else would, especially when you're so vulnerable?"

"You've got to meet people where they're at and make them realize you see them as an equal human being. If I were suffering, that's what I would want. And, you know, we all suffer periodically, and to have that love -- people think I'm so corny because I use the word 'love' all the time."

Sarah Cain, executive director, keeps in touch with clients who may have most problems worked out, willing to offer support if needed.Lee-Fleming says, "That's what changes it. That's the key. Because if you didn't have that element of love, it wouldn't have that impact that you were able to have." 

Cain says, "My clients know that I love them because I tell them... It's not corny! Love is important!"

Raza Khan says, "I think I can testify for that because the way Sarah approaches people, it's not just her clients. It's her vendors, her buyers, it's her landlords that she partners with. Basically, that's how she comes across to everybody."

She continues, "I can vouch for that because as a Muslim, you don't always see that wherever you go. It's a challenge. You're breaking down barriers. When we talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, that's a big value for Kalamazoo Housing Advocates. That love and that compassion and that genuine respect for people's differences and their color of their skin or their faith or their appearance. She's just love personified," Raza Khan says.

That love is being built into the organization, Cain says. "I want to build that foundation of love in my board, in the staff that I hire, in the volunteers, in the interns, anybody that's a part of this organization. I want this to continue like that long after I'm not here doing it."

Photos by Fran Dwight. See more of her work here.

A sign on the door that let's people know they've reached Kalamazoo Housing Advocates.

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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.