Just over one year ago, a bold and big-hearted project to fight housing insecurity launched in Minneapolis' North Loop. That's when 16 previously homeless adults moved into Avivo Village, an indoor grouping of "tiny houses" offering safety, comfort and dignity. Today, all 100 dwellings are filled. To find out how things are going, we reached out to Emily Bastian, Avivo's vice president of ending homelessness. The Twin Cities native, who has a master's of social work degree from Augsburg University, shares her thoughts on how the two-year pilot is faring, what's planned for 2022 and why she remains optimistic that she will — happily — be out of a job one day soon.
Q: Growing up, were you aware there were people who were housing insecure?
A: While I did not experience housing instability growing up, I had friends who did. I was lucky early on that I had parents who taught me about homelessness, poverty, mental health, substance use, and treating all individuals with respect.
Q: How did you connect those compassionate early lessons with an actual career?
A: I was first introduced to this work in high school at Totino Grace. The school had a well-developed service learning component, allowing students to volunteer at various sites in the community, country and abroad. Volunteering was made cool!
Q: Your title – VP of Ending Homelessness — sounds massive! Are you optimistic that you will be happily out of a job at some point?
A: My goal is to work myself out of a job. I had a mentor in college who once said during one of my social work classes that working ourselves out of a job should be our priority as social workers. I am optimistic that together as a community and society we can end homelessness as we know it today. If I didn't truly believe that we can end homelessness, I would not be able to do my job and lead this incredible team in this mission. Each time we support an individual in exiting homelessness, we are one step closer to that reality.
Q: I was happy to see that Avivo Village, designed by AWH Architects, was honored with an architectural award in the category of "well-being." The judges said, in part, that the free-standing enclosures offer "a sense of neighborhood and belonging." What does this affirmation mean to you and your team?
A: The physical layout does replicate a village, complete with tiny houses, "streets" or massive walkways between blocks of adjoining units, and a community gathering space that gives the sense of a town square. Having your own living space where you can keep safe the things that belong to you and that you can come home to, that's the most basic and important human need. A place to call home. While individuals live there, they get to know their neighbors. It really does promote relationship-building with staff and residents that includes social events, encounters that teach what it means to be a neighbor, and the give and take between people who live in community. The sense of neighborhood and belonging, surrounded by life-changing services, helps people take their next steps to permanent housing.
Q: You describe Avivo Village as a low-barrier, harm-reduction model. Might you explain that?
A: Low-barrier means there are no requirements individuals need to meet to move in. Our harm reduction approach embraces people wherever they are and focuses on supporting their safety and the safety of our community. Second, Avivo Village operates robust services right on site — nursing care, mental health services, housing case management, and other coordinated support services.
Q: Who tends to find their way to you?
A: Our residents' ages span from 21 to 64, and 85% of people we serve identify as Black, Indigenous and people of color. A large percentage identify as Indigenous, and represent 18 different tribal affiliations. One of the unique aspects of Avivo Village is that we are gender neutral, accepting individuals of all gender identities equally. Residents are also invited to bring their pets. Pets are family, and traditional shelters don't allow pets. So far, we have hosted six to eight dogs!
Q: How long can residents stay and how much rent do they pay?
A: Residents stay as long as it takes to take their next best steps, the goal being moving into permanent housing. On average, residents stay about 90 days. They are not required to pay rent at Avivo Village.
Q: In the year since your first residents moved in, what has surprised you?
A: I have been pleasantly surprised by the model itself, which was set up to support people living outside who did not want to come indoors. They had specific reasons for not wanting to come indoors — including COVID concerns and the desire to come and go 24/7 with no questions asked, without having their belongings searched, without being breathalyzed. The fact that we were able to successfully address those concerns and they did want to come inside confirms for me that this is the model this community needed.
Q: As successful as this seems to be one year in, the village model is a two-year pilot. What comes next?
A: This is a two-year pilot, but we have the option to renew our lease. We have seen the outcomes and the county, city and state have seen the outcomes. The county and city have agreed to continue to support us financially as we continue to build out the relationship with the tribes and get to a place of long-term stability.
Q: How can Inspired readers help you do this important work?
A: We spend a lot of money ensuring that we have a "radical welcome" policy when guests arrive. That includes offering them move-in kits with a laundry basket and soap, new pillows and sheets, small bottles of Gatorade and much more. Monetary donations to help us purchase those products, or that buy products for when they move out, such as shower curtains, can openers and gifts cards, would be greatly appreciated. Visit our website at avivomn.org.
Q: And the intangible gift you'd like to mention as well?
A: It's really important that we educate ourselves about housing instability and homelessness and that we are educating our children about it. When you drive by someone holding a sign on the side of the road, it's an opportunity to say hello and wave. Don't pretend that people are invisible.