Despite everything that this year threw at us, we were able to launch our 2020 Community Fellowship program this fall. In this series, we’ll be introducing you to the 2020 Fellowship cohort, in their own words.
We’re closing out 2020 with the final installment of our Meet the Community Fellows series, and we’re talking to Team Adams County. Adams County, Colorado joined our Fellowship program to address the following problem statement:
“How might Colorado’s Department of Community Safety and Well-Being (CSWB) prioritize delivering services to persons experiencing homelessness by identifying those in need of the greatest breadth of services in order to place them in permanent supportive housing?”
Engineers Ben Poon and Brandon Johnson and data scientist Fiona Tang are helping them work through this question. As the year comes to a close, they shared their thoughts on making a positive impact with technology, housing stability as a human right, and the importance of continuous community work.
What inspired you to apply for the Community Fellowship?
Ben: I was pursuing my own sort of fellowship before I officially joined the program. A few years ago, I reached out to some local organizations working with people experiencing homelessness to see how I might be of service, particularly with technology. I came to work closely with a transitional housing operator here in Denver. I saw the impact they were having on people who are so often marginalized. Through that experience, civic technology as a career path became a real option. When the founder of that organization let me know that Adams County was looking for Fellows, I didn’t think twice about applying.
Brandon: I tend to think about how I can be useful on a greater scale than just self-improvement. So when looking for new opportunities I often take impact into consideration. What drew me to this fellowship was its commitment to making an impact through technology. Yet what I find stimulating is the revelation that simply throwing tech at a problem isn’t the answer. This blending of digital solvency with human compassion in the Fellowship’s description is what made me want to apply.
Fiona: Poverty alleviation is an area of work that I’ve always felt passionate about, so it was the problem statement about homelessness and housing insecurity that compelled me to apply. I grew up in the Bay Area, and just over the past 10 years or so, housing insecurity has worsened beyond imagination. Through my volunteer work abroad, I’ve also observed the extent to which poverty affects people in other countries. Also, although I’ve never experienced homelessness firsthand, I believe that “lived experience” is essential to social justice work—we are delivering impact with, not to, our community.
What draws you to community work?
Ben: My definition of meaningful work is strongly influenced by this quote: “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” When we’re talking about homelessness, we’re talking about some of the most vulnerable and marginalized people in society.
I’ve worked in finance, energy, travel, and healthcare. Over the years, I sensed a pessimism growing within me about technology; I began to see tech as a primary driver of inequality. The work of software engineers has a tremendous power to intensify wealth and advantage for small groups of people (usually for the already fortunate). For me, working for and with communities is a way to combat these forces.
Brandon: A strong community helps everyone, especially its most marginalized portions. Being able to assist people at the margins is a worthwhile endeavor, and I hope it inspires others to look around at the people in their communities and see where they might lend a hand.
Fiona: I appreciate the purpose-driven spirit and values shared by community organizers and the inherent challenges of social justice work. Working with my community allows me to better understand issues on the ground, practice empathy, and inform the way I think about sustainable solutions. I consider myself a very outcome-oriented person—I want equality and equity to happen right now, but doing community work has helped me to practice patience and appreciate the process of dialogue, conflict resolution, and disagreement. I realized that there isn’t a “correct way” to doing community work—the only requirement is that we imagine a better world that serves all of us, not just the privileged few, and that we continue to work toward it each and every day.
Why is getting housing-related support to every eligible person experiencing homelessness in your community important to you?
Ben: Every single person needs a home and should have one. Full stop. It’s that simple. We all have different challenges in fulfilling our fullest human potential, but how can we begin to address those things without first having a home? This is the thinking behind Housing First programs, and I’m strongly convinced that it’s the most humane and correct approach to ending homelessness.
Brandon: Shelter improves other areas of one’s life. Without stable housing, finding employment becomes exponentially more difficult. Fragile employment phases then lead to a lack of means for people without shelter, and things can continue to spiral from there. Not to mention the mental and physical toll that being unhoused causes. I believe that if I have the power to lessen the hardships that people experiencing homelessness endure, I should.
Fiona: I believe that all people are deserving of a safe and habitable home. Shelter is a universal and basic human right, regardless of socioeconomic background or upbringing. We have a responsibility to take care of our fellow community members, including and especially those who are the most marginalized.
What are you most excited about, or looking forward to learning, during your Fellowship?
Ben: I want to learn more about the people who’ve dedicated their careers to ending homelessness and the challenges they faced. I hope we can find ways to empower their work and maybe bring some of their ideas to life in the process!
I also take great satisfaction in taking ideas from concept all the way through to finished product/service/thing. Having to do this in a short timeframe produces a certain kind of pressure that I really enjoy.
Brandon: I’m mostly excited to help Adams County get a better understanding of their unhoused population and their needs. I’ve also been very grateful to work with Fellows that have a ton of experience in public service, from nonprofits to government agencies. Additionally, I look forward to applying my technical know-how to help address the issue of homelessness.
Fiona: I’m excited about producing a technology product that will improve the lives of people experiencing homelessness and that our government partners will be excited to use after our Fellowship. I’m also eager to connect with cool people who have devoted their lives to addressing housing insecurity.