We Are Here: Jeni Jenkins on Holistic Solutions and Fighting Tooth and Nail
"We are here." It's a phrase that's been echoed by single moms and in city chambers and around encampments, and we couldn't get it out of our heads.
These are the stories of those experiencing and fighting housing insecurity here in Cincinnati. We believe telling stories changes things. We believe listening changes things. We promised the community that we would tell their stories. It's up to you to listen. Visit womenofcincy.org/housing for the full series.
Jeni Jenkins – her words – is a fighter.
For equity. For affordable housing. For the future of women in this city.
By day, she works at Our Daily Bread, an organization that provides Cincinnatians a safe and stable space, emergency financial assistance, and 98,000 meals a year.
That’s 300 to 400 meals per day, with 200 to 300 people served each day.
As the director of communications, she is a writer, designer, problem-solver, and, by my assessment, all-around wonder woman.
Prior to her current role, she worked at the Cincinnati Homeless Coalition for four and a half years doing outreach and communication so people could understand poverty and homelessness.
But that’s not where Jeni’s story with housing insecurity starts. Her own experiences with housing insecurity transcend her hometown in Idaho to Cincinnati.
Now a mother, homeowner, and entrepreneur with a master’s degree in women and gender studies, she’s decided to devote her life to causes that will change the cycle of inequity.
We caught up with her at Findlay Market as she finished her day at Our Daily Bread.
What initially drew you to working at Our Daily Bread?
I’m a social justice advocate. I’ve been studying equity, equality, and inclusion for as long as I can remember and always wanted to make a difference somehow, to use my skills in order to advance the mission of nonprofit organizations. I have a master’s in women’s studies and a bachelor’s in social science. I’m an activist, so this is where I fit in. I’m also an artist, so I’m trying to figure out creative ways to do what I do.
Sounds like you have lots of different interests – from art to women and gender issues. Were those interests developed together? Which came first?
I was always an artist. But it wasn’t until certain things happened in my life that made me interested in [women and gender] issues. Maybe if those things didn’t happen I’d still be interested, but I know for sure that they had a huge impact on why I was interested in becoming an advocate and someone who strives for equality in our world. I’m overwhelmed now with the possibilities of how to get in and make a difference. Because there is so much horrible stuff happening in the world. And I don’t know if it’s new, but it feels more constant because you see things on social media and it’s just all the time – it’s overwhelming, the amount of inequity and inequality that is happening in our society.
On days you feel overwhelmed – and I think we all do from time to time – where do you start?
Well sometimes I just curl up in the fetal position and I cry and eat a bowl of ice cream or binge-watch Netflix. But mostly, I just try to think back throughout history: All the people who have worked on these issues – they just kept going despite all odds. They’re inspiration to me, and sometimes I have to pull inspiration by reading about different times throughout history and thinking, “Yeah, it’s bad now, but it could be way worse and it’s getting better and if I keep trying it will make a difference.” And every day I know that I make a little bit of a difference. I might just be planting little seeds – not changing the whole social structure of our society, but we’re all doing that together little bit by little bit, right?
Is there anyone in particular you like to read about?
You mentioned there were certain things that contributed to your interests and in coming to Our Daily Bread. Can you share with us your story?
I grew up in poverty [in a small town in Idaho]. I grew up in a kind of dysfunctional, broken family – which a lot of us have.
After moving out of the house because of her mother’s addiction, Jeni lived on the streets with her friends. At 14, she was expecting her first child.
I moved back in with my mom and went back to high school, knowing that was important now with a child. I eventually left home and lived with some friends for a few days before I [eventually] went to the welfare agency and asked, “Can you help me get a house?” And I learned that’s not how it works. So they put me in foster care.
Jeni’s first experience having stable housing was going through foster care. Her aunt found out about her situation, and Jeni lived with her for three years until she graduated from a high school that had a daycare.
I immediately went on to college. Everybody in my family thought I was crazy – I was the first person in my family to go to college. I decided then that I was going to devote my life to social justice issues.
After her second experience with housing insecurity – this time, through foreclosure – Jeni signed up for the Section 8 program, which supported her through college and her move to Cincinnati.
I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have it. I was a single mom, raising two kids on one income while trying to go to school. You can’t afford a two-bed apartment on $10/hour – my first job out of school.
Once she moved to Cincinnati in 2006, she soon realized she was facing a new set of housing obstacles.
It was really difficult to find a place [and a landlord] that accepted Section 8. I was trying to do something for my life and trying to be a good person. Giving back. Going to school. Taking care of my kids. And [housing] was the thing that would help me. Once you end up getting a voucher, getting into a place is super difficult. In addition to that, you have to deal with landlords.
Jeni found a place that accepted Section 8 under the arrangement that she pay a portion of the mortgage and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) pay a portion. It was working, and she felt settled – at first. In the middle of her second year of grad school, she was foreclosed on. Her landlord had not been paying the requisite portion of the mortgage he was receiving from HUD.
I had to immediately find some place else to live. It sucked. How many times am I going to have to deal with finding a safe place for me and my kids to live? Finally, after all that, I was able to find the family sufficiency program. And after several years [in the program], they helped me buy a house so now I’m free of all that.
If you work full time, you should be able to afford housing – there just isn’t enough housing to go around. The expectation is that you’re going to have additional wealth, and where does that come from? I didn’t have any additional family wealth. I had to survive on my government benefits – that was my life, and I’m so happy that it’s not anymore.
Did you know those resources existed and feel they were readily available? Or did you have to do your own research to find them?
I sought them out. It was me asking, “What can I do?” Because my kids are number one – I’ve always wanted them to lead a better life, so I was constantly trying to figure out what I could for them. I maxed out on my student loans and I have debt – but a lot of that debt was just living, surviving. When I was in grad school, I was making $900/month.
Working at Our Daily Bread, do you meet people with stories like yours?
There aren’t many people who make it through school – it’s hard. You have to just keep going despite all odds. You have to wake up every morning and think, “This sucks. We are living on ramen noodles and surviving the best that we can, and one day it will be better.” It’s hard. And not everybody can do that.
Do you think there are things people, or the city of Cincinnati, miss when it comes to understanding poverty? Is there a missing part of that conversation?
There is – the agencies are not connecting all the dots. We provide a meal – but that’s not solving the problem; it’s a Band-Aid. And we know that, but we’re going to exist as long as there’s a need for us to exist. Income inequality is not going away. The problem in our society is that we have this bootstrap mentality. That if you just pull yourselves up you can make it. But not everybody can. For some people, there’s too many barriers. If you provide a meal, you also might have to provide transportation, and other things that need to be provided holistically. We don’t look at a person holistically. A lot of people are born into a cycle of poverty. They’re taught when they turn 18 to go apply for food stamps and Medicaid and go get this particular low-paying job because the idea of going to college and climbing the ladder is not really “allowed.” I remember having to remind people that “I’m not trying to be better than you; I’m just trying to build a better life for myself and figure out how to do this.”
I’ve heard you mention certain words throughout our conversation – equity, inclusion; how do you define those concepts?
Equity is what the system should be doing – looking at each individual person to determine what they are dealing with. What are their barriers? What are their opportunities? And figuring out what they need to get them where they need to be versus looking at the whole system and just giving everybody food, or housing – and thinking they won’t be poor anymore. But if you just give people housing and you don’t help them get over some of those barriers and learn how to survive on their own, they are never going [to be able to] do it. They might. Like me – but it was me fighting tooth and nail. I just have one of those personalities – I’m a fighter. Not everybody’s a fighter. Sometimes I wanted to give up, and I’m glad I didn’t, but some people live their whole lives working crappy minimum wage jobs, barely having all their needs being met, and they wake up and do the same thing again. Some people don’t know how to climb out. And our society is structured in such a way that we are reliant upon minimum wage workers for these corporations to exist and have the profit margins they have. If we change the mentality of “I’m going to take care of me” to more of a village mentality, then we will change the world. But if we don’t, we’re going to be stuck.
Is there something you think can break that cycle of these systemic factors you’re referring to?
[Laughs.] I do actually have a solution.
Well! Can you share it?
I’ve been working on a social enterprise that will look at trying to get people out of poverty – together – and grow their wealth.
Jeni’s idea involves women coming together to learn a trade and produce and sell a product as owners of the company.
Like a co-op?
Kind of. But it would be built from the ground up, knowing someone might not have a car; someone might have multiple kids; someone might have a domestic violence situation. The model that I am trying to create will be a business with a social worker on staff and onsite daycare. So those barriers [typically facing women] are eliminated. Transportation would be part of wages – whether we have to Uber you here or help you find a car through St. Vincent dePaul’s program. It’s a holistic approach combining all social services, but it’s a business at the same time.
What unique challenges do you feel women, in particular, encounter when they experience housing insecurity?
Because of inequality, women are paid less than men. Women still struggle with trying to break down the glass ceiling. In addition to that, most of the burden of childcare traditionally falls on the shoulders of women. That extra barrier prevents them from achieving wealth or getting out of a situation because they’re dealing with all these extra things associated with their children. This is not to say that men don’t do this, or don’t want to take care of their children, but being born a woman puts you at higher risk of being in poverty. And if you’re a black woman in our society, that makes it even worse. That’s the other thing – black people in our country are still living in a disgusting cycle of oppression, from being targeted on a regular basis to not being provided opportunities.
What do you think is missing from the conversation on race?
We need to stop treating black people as if they’re less than. Can you imagine if we treated everybody as if they were equal? I just imagine how many geniuses there are that can’t thrive because they were born black, which likely means they were born poor. Maybe a teacher might notice them, or a parent, and they advocate for their potential – that happens. But it happens a lot less than it does if they were white.
You mentioned something to me earlier: “I’m trying to change the world, one little piece at a time.” How can we, as women, start changing one little piece through this conversation?
Someone has to be open-minded; they have to want to see it. Moments [where that is possible] are few and far between, but if you can find those moments.