Sara Jacobs knows a lot about homelessness. Not only because she heads the organization that works to coordinate the agencies and efforts to solve homelessness in Kalamazoo, but also because she lived it.
When she was 14, Jacobs was homeless, alone and living on the streets of Phoenix. She left “an unsafe situation” at home, she says, and spent a year enduring the daily struggle of trying to find food, shelter and safety. That’s how Jacobs knows there is no one solution or agency to end homelessness.
“It’s not just a one-agency problem,” she says. “It takes more than even the agencies and the funding. It takes the people that live in the community to understand, to learn about homelessness in our community. It’s something that we all need to be aware of and work on. It’s not something you can just say, ‘Oh, this is somebody else’s job.’”
Jacobs, 46, took the helm of the Kalamazoo County Continuum of Care (CoC) in June 2020, when the organization transitioned from being under the auspices of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) to the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region. At that time, full-time staff positions were created.
Since then, she’s been battling the community’s problem of homelessness during a global pandemic that, she says, has magnified the need to address the issue.
What is the Continuum of Care?
It’s a local planning body that coordinates the efforts of multiple organizations, government agencies and funders to address services and infrastructure to support those who are experiencing homelessness. It’s an exhaustive list of all the different agencies and organizations we work with, but it’s really about coordinating efforts. We know that addressing homelessness isn’t something that any one entity or agency can do.
We also work on creating coordinated entry points to get service for those who are experiencing homelessness. We don’t want to send somebody who’s experiencing homelessness to 25 different agencies to try to qualify for whatever program they have. Every funded program has parameters that you have to fit in, and if you don’t fit in that box, then there’s really nothing they can do because that’s what the funder or the funding stream requires. We coordinate the entry points so we can help prioritize people to get them the services they need and to get people to the programs they qualify for.
How did you get where you are today?
When I was homeless (in Phoenix), I would call my mom every couple of weeks to see how she was doing and let her know I was OK. I had been homeless for just over a year and I called and she said, “Hey, I’m glad you called. I am moving to Michigan in three days and I want you to come with me.” I agreed and we moved to a farm outside of Hartford. It was a legit farm, on a dirt road and the whole nine yards, and it was quite the shock for me. I stayed there for six months and then gravitated to the largest area that felt comfortable, which was Kalamazoo. By the time I was 16, I was out on my own again but working and living with roommates.
I started looking at going to college. My whole thought process at the time was, “How do I get a job and keep it?” I thought, “HR (human resources)! They do the hiring. They’re usually the last to go.” It’s pretty funny, but self-preservation, you know, it’s a hard thing to shake.
I got a degree (in human resources management and business administration from Western Michigan University) and was working in corporate sales. I started to have thoughts like, “We get this big bonus at the end of the year, but what does it really do for me?” The executives were talking about the boats and cars they were going to buy and the trips they were going to take, but I thought, “This represents an entire year of hard work, and it’s just to buy people more stuff, more boats, more vacations.”
I found out that CARES (Community AIDS Resource and Education Services) was starting a pilot program to help LGBTQ homeless youth overcome barriers to safe housing, and said, “It’s worth the pay cut.” That one-year pilot turned into a four-year pilot. When the CoC opportunity opened, I had the experience and was ready.
Your role seems enormous. How do you tackle it day-to-day?
I’m not doing the lifting alone. It’s a communitywide effort. It’s about pulling the right people in the room to address whatever issue we’re working on. For instance, Ministry with Community provides a lot of our day shelter, but with Covid restrictions there’s a capacity issue. With winter coming we were asking, “What are we going to do?” We get the right people in the room, pull funding into it, and put all those pieces together. And we were able to launch a day shelter at The River Church nearby.
We do that on a larger scale too. We are working on purchasing a hotel to provide space for people to live in. We have a rapid rehousing program, which is a really low-barrier program that can get people into a housing situation relatively quick, that we were able to help pull together with LISC. (Editor’s Note: It was announced Jan. 20 that the LIFT foundation, a Continuum of Care partner, purchased the Knights Inn, 211 S. Westnedge Ave., in the Vine Neighborhood, to turn into affordable housing with an emphasis on helping the homeless population and with through Integrated Services of Kalamazoo is operating, moving people in, and working on various issues with some of the rooms to ensure the remaining rooms are ready and safe for occupancy.)
One of the biggest things that we talk about at CoC is transparency. We want to be as transparent as possible about what’s happening, what resources are available, where those resources are going, what we’re supporting and potentially any gaps there are. We don’t want to say, “Oh, we’ve got it all handled.” We want to say, “This is the picture, this is where we’re at, and this is the thing we’re working on to fill these gaps.”
What do you like about what you do?
I feel like I’m doing something that’s for real people in our community, that means something. It’s bringing like-minded people together, people who are putting in all of this energy and time and passion within their own agencies and working together to accomplish something greater than ourselves and greater than any one agency could do, any one person could do. It feels good.
You have a pretty heavy job. What do you do for fun?
I’m a percussionist and have been playing since I was 20. I play different drums and get to play with a lot of talented musicians in town. Playing gets me out into the community in a nice, positive, light way where you’re just enjoying each other’s company. We haven’t been able to do that because of the pandemic, and I definitely miss it.
—Interview by Marie Lee edited for length and clarity