Posted April 21, 2017

By Jennifer Z. Paulsen


You may have read about the THN AmeriCorps VISTA program if you get our newsletter delivered to your inbox. (You can sign up here.) This program has opened up opportunities for communities to build capacity without impacting their budget too heavily. The VISTA program is important for agencies like Texas Homeless Network that have a statewide reach. Since it’s impossible to be everywhere at once, we can place VISTA members in communities to work on statewide initiatives such as implementing the SOAR program, and in the Balance of State Continuum of Care areas VISTA members help with things like Coordinated Entry and coalition building. However, any agency providing homeless services can now request a VISTA member through THN.


The minimum age to serve is 18, but these three members show you don’t have to be a certain age to serve and make a difference. One of them, Loretta Williams, is a THN VISTA Member!


As a quick explanation, I often describe the VISTA program as a “Domestic Peace Corps.” They can provide job training, create volunteer programs, help create funding plans, and more. In return, members have the opportunity to build an impressive resume and use their year of service as a starting point for a successful career. Rep. Elliot Naishtat relocated from New York to Texas to serve as a VISTA Member and ended up serving 26 years in the Texas Legislature. George R.R. Martin, the author of the Game of Thrones and Song of Ice and Fire series, was an AmeriCorps VISTA in the 1970’s. (You can search and find many famous former VISTA members.)


AmeriCorps VISTA members are passionate, dedicated, and work toward eradicating poverty. Meet our newest member:

My name is Ashley Lemell. I am a THN VISTA Community Project Associate in El Paso, TX working with the El Paso Coalition for the Homeless. I am originally from Dallas, TX, but I have called El Paso my home for the past four years. Even as an undergraduate studying social work, I was also interested in working with individuals who are homeless and indigent. Although I have only done direct practice with this unique and resilient population, I am excited to be working on a macro level as it pertains to finding ways to increase accessible, affordable, and permanent housing to individuals who are homeless or at-risk of becoming homeless. From my own personal experience, I understand the detrimental impact homelessness can have on individuals, especially children. It is my hope that our commitment as VISTA members help to eradicate, and not just alleviate homelessness, will lead to a worldwide commitment to ending homelessness altogether.


Poverty is not going away. According to Feeding America, in 2015, 43.1 million (13.5 percent) people were in poverty, 14.5 million (19.7 percent)  were children under the age of 18. (Feeding America uses AmeriCorps VISTA members to help combat hunger.) Where there is poverty, there is housing instability and risk of homelessness.


However, President Trump’s preliminary budget plan calls for eliminating the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) altogether. CNCS is a $1 billion-a-year agency that oversees AmeriCorps and other programs including Senior Corps, NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps), and the Social Innovation Fund. According to the Corporation for National & Community Service's website, "since 1965, over 220,000 VISTA members have served in all 50 states and U.S. Territories." That is a lot of VISTA power that would be lost.


We need people like Ashley. We need programs like the ones offered through the Corporation for National and Community Service now more than ever. And we need YOU. What can you do? Contact your Representatives and Senators and let them know how valuable the AmeriCorps VISTA program is to ending homelessness. Read “What’s Next in Congress?” by Steve Berg with NAEH for more information on the spending legislation and for a set of advocacy tools.


And thank you!