Mary Ellen Jensen has a master’s degree in social work and has worked at Child Protective Services for 16 years. This work, she explains, is her way of giving back to the community that has supported her.
“I’m really grateful to be where I’m at in life,” she said. “I will work as long as I can work, as long as my health permits. I know that my goal is just to give back, because even now, if someone asks me to do something in regards to young folks, I have no problem to volunteer. Even if I stopped working, my goal is to bring to the table my knowledge.”
Twenty-four years ago, having a master’s degree and a steady, purpose-driven job might not have seemed possible. When Ms. Jensen first came to St. Ambrose, she had been dealing with chronic homelessness, housing instability, and addiction for two decades. Now that she has been living in a St. Ambrose home for nearly the same amount of time, she reflects on the way her life has changed.
“I was a person on drugs for 20 years. And I felt like drugs were more important than paying rent,” she said. “Once I got off the drugs, I got a job at a restaurant. And while in the shelter, I saved up $1,200. I got a house that’s in the same block as the house I’m living in now, across the street.”
After conquering her substance use, Jensen was also able to stabilize her housing. Housing and addiction often co-occur; around 38% of people experiencing homelessness are dependent on alcohol while 26% misuse other harmful drugs. Sometimes, addiction can contribute to housing instability or lead to homelessness, but often, substance use develops as a way to deal with the harshness of experiencing homelessness. Ms. Jensen’s journey toward stability had only just begun; even with her new house, the work didn’t stop.
After starting a new job in 2011, Ms. Jensen took the next major step in her search for a more stable home: a section 8 voucher. A section 8 voucher, otherwise known as a housing choice voucher, is a government assistance program that allows low-income residents to live in a home of their choosing with subsidized rent. But when Ms. Jensen went out to look for a home that qualified, she was left unsatisfied.
“Me and my two children would walk around in this neighborhood looking for someone who would accept my section 8 housing voucher and I was not able to find anyone,” she said. “I didn’t have credit for one, and the homes were not as immaculate the homes I thought I was going to be able to get, so I got frustrated; I was running to the end of my rope.” Her current home was run down, but her job was not bringing in enough money to upgrade her situation. If the housing choice voucher could not meet her needs, Ms. Jensen had few options.
Although her initial housing choice voucher search wasn’t providing satisfactory leads, St. Ambrose was able to secure a home for Ms. Jensen and her family. “It gave me stability,” she said. “And St. Ambrose would help whenever I needed assistance from them with whatever was going on in the house. And they treated you like family.”
Her children, who were seven and ten years old when Ms. Jensen moved into her St. Ambrose home, benefited greatly from the new stability. One of the best feelings was simply knowing they had a home, which was a relatively foreign concept for her children who had experienced homelessness for most of their lives.
“First of all, they were happy just to be in a home. I was trying to be the best mother I could be to them. This was the first real home that we had. A lot of people, once I got my degree, assumed that I was trying to move. But no, this is my home. It’s home.”