Empowering Unhoused Families and Youth with City Hope

“When I began to work with City Hope, it drove home that [unhoused people] are humans. That they had some challenges. That they are needing some support, some care, some love, and, most of all, to be treated with dignity”

Mike Willis

Today’s guests are City Hope St. Louis’s CEO Pastor Mike Robinson and Director of Operations Mike Willis. Pastor Mike and Mike sit down with Staci to discuss common misconceptions for unhoused individuals, the struggles of acquiring identification, and helping unhoused youth continue their education.

What is City Hope?

  • Born out of Hope Nation International church, which has always been dedicated to serving those that are marginalized in underserved communities
  • Works with unhoused community members over the past 7 years, but City Hope was officially founded four years ago
  • The winter vortex in 2017 came and the church stepped up to the plate, because they realized there was a huge deficit in beds for the unhoused.
  • Grew from there

Pastor Mike’s personal K-12 story

  • In Delmar neighborhood, went to Clark Elementary
  • Things didn’t go well in kindergarten
  • Mother was a single mom who stood up for his education.
  • Every day, all the kids would do was color. So they moved to the University City school district to get a better education.
  • He went to 1st grade there, but was held back because his reading levels weren’t up to par.
  • Struggled throughout all of grade school and then later on in college as well.
  • Started volunteering at Hope Education and started working with people who had dyslexia and realized that he has dyslexia and it was never noticed.

Mike’s personal K-12 story

  • Grew up in a rural community of 2,000 people in Tennessee
  • They had one primary school, one elementary school, and one high school. There were no options.
  • He did get a good foundation for learning, because the district had to make sure they were meeting standards since there were no options.
  • He never understood how many more schools there are in St. Louis until he got here, and the challenges that come along with that.

To Pastor Mike – How did your background with dyslexia shape your work? 

  • The teachers weren’t educated on how to adapt to children with learning disabilities
  • He might have been in a better school district, but there’s still 20-30 students in a classroom, so giving students individual attention is difficult.

Students are also unhoused – what are some of the common misconceptions that are aligned with unhoused people and how do we support what you guys do at City Hope?

  • “I think one of the biggest myths out there is that many unhoused individuals are not educated.” – Pastor Mike
  • “We tell our story. They tell their story. There’s a level of trust that is built there and then brick walls begin to come down.” – Pastor Mike

What do you think is the correlation between unhoused persons and the quality of their primary education?

  • Usually, somewhere along the line, there was a disconnect, whether it came from their immediate home structure or some other challenging situation that caused them to disconnect from school systems.
  • Some got education through different routes than normal, i.e. when they are incarcerated. 

What does it look like for children to be unhoused? And how is that different from the public perception of unhoused people?

  • The definition of housed is living in stable and consistent places.
  • Children might be staying at an aunt house one night and a grandmother’s the next, and that qualifies as unhoused.
  • If they’re going from one school district to another, that can be difficult.
  • Many unhoused students are relentless in their fight to be educated.

What are the most unexpected things that you’ve encountered in the work that you do?

  • Pastor Mike has seen so much over the years that nothing is shocking to him anymore.
  • Mike Willis never really encountered unhoused or homeless individuals growing up in such a small town.
  • “When I began to work with City Hope, it drove home that [unhoused people] are humans. That they had some challenges. That they are needing some support, and some care, some love, and, most of all, to treat them with dignity.” – Mike Willis
  • That’s what is so shocking – how poorly unhoused people have been treated by the time they cross paths with City Hope

How do you all support unhoused people in reclaiming their lives, dignity, and humanity by having necessary documents to move forward (i.e. drivers license, birth certificate)?

  • It’s very similar to what Navigate STL does for the education system, but for the systems of city government and housing, because it is a tangled web out there.
  • City Hope helps navigate individuals to get their necessary paperwork. 
  • Many won’t go to the doctor or clinic because they don’t have insurance or an ID, and they don’t know what they are able to receive in that state. 
  • Even for the people who are aware of the systems, it is still challenging.

How do you inspire hope for these unhoused individuals?

  • They will often go into survivor mode and get stuck in that mode of thinking.
  • For somebody that has been in survivor mode with chronic homelessness, it can be difficult to get them to change their perspective. That there are people out there who really want what’s best for you.

There are laws that protect unhoused children, like McKinney-Vento, can you tell us about that?

  • City Hope has partnered with St. Louis public schools to ensure that when City Hope has a child that comes into the shelter, that they are plugged into that student in a transition program, so they can receive the full access of what the McKinney-Vento bill.
  • This makes school districts required to accept students immediately when they are out of their normal school district due to being homeless or in a shelter.
  • That gives the child hope – they might be unhoused but they can still maintain their education. And they’ll have breakfast and they’ll have lunch.

City Hope is hosting a Gala this year – what inspired you to do that?

  • This is the second annual Gala
  • It was originally inspired to celebrate the end of winter, which is challenging for unhoused people and efforts to help them.
  • It’s also a great way to raise funds for the cost of operations.
  • This year, we are celebrating the difference-makers in the community.
  • Navigate STL is actually one of the recipients of an award this year because of the amazing work they do

How do people get involved with City Hope?