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Banking on KC – Precious Stargell Cushman of Community LINC

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. With us on this episode is Precious Stargell Cushman, the CEO of Community LINC, a 35-year-old organization that is working to end homelessness. Welcome, Precious.

Precious Stargell Cushman:

Oh, Kelly, thank you so much for having me. I am delighted to be here.

Kelly Scanlon:

Community LINC is the largest single-site provider for homeless services in the Kansas City area. I really want to dive into what your services are, but before we do that, lay out for us, give us an idea of the extent of the homeless problem in Kansas City.

Precious Stargell Cushman:

Unfortunately, Kelly, homelessness is on the rise in Kansas City, and I don't believe it's lost on any of us, as you've seen the rise in people on the streets, and the rise of homeless encampments that dot our community, but what's a lesser known fact is that there's a proliferation in families and children experiencing homelessness. When you think about the role that community plays, we play a really pivotal role in the landscape of those organizations that are supporting homelessness in our community and providing homelessness services. In fact, among our staff members are folks who are actively engaged in outreach, so they go into our city's homeless encampments to provide services to people, and in some situations some pets that are first to call those places home.

Unfortunately, what's happening in our community is sobering and devastating, but I also sit here before you and really believe that ending homelessness in our community is possible because we have a community that's coming together in very intentional ways to signal greater alignment. We also have the city that just recently compiled and sent out it's comprehensive plan entitled Zero KC. It's planned to end homelessness in our community.

But the other thing that we're really trying to focus on and we need to focus on as a city is a lack of housing that is both affordable and available for those with the lowest incomes, so while we have a great deal of work to do in Kansas City, I believe that we are a very caring and compassionate community, we care about each other, and when we come to together and think about what is possible and put our collective will together, this community can make things happen, so I am very deliberate when I say I believe ending homelessness in Kansas City is possible.

Kelly Scanlon:

Given the number of unhoused residents, as you said, it's growing, it's not impossible to stem that tide, and to even eradicate homelessness, as you've mentioned, but how do you determine who to serve when there are so many to serve?

Precious Stargell Cushman:

Really, the short answer is it's through a referral process. Several years ago, our community adopted what's called a coordinated community approach to really ensure that the most vulnerable households in our community were not skipped over, so we adopted what's called a coordinated entry system for those who experience homelessness. What that means is there are several access points throughout the metro where their physical locations, their outreach teams, and their phone numbers that are available for initial connections to both housing and services, and for those whose needs are not met just through those initial contact points, there is a standardized triage and assessment process really designed to be consistent in our approach and fairness to getting people referred, if you will. After those assessments are done, there is this process of referring households to agencies like ourselves based on prioritization. Since we focus on families, those families are primarily referred to us.

Kelly Scanlon:

You take a generational approach to the problem of homelessness, specifically a two-generation approach. What outcome are you striving for by taking that longer view and what do you have to do differently by taking that approach?

Precious Stargell Cushman:

Well, our mission of Community LINC is to end homelessness for this generation and the next. As I mentioned before, there is a proliferation of homelessness among families, and frankly, I don't think any of us are okay with that. When you think about the people we serve, 62% of those individuals are children, and so we have a two-generational approach because being houseless should never define who you are. We all know that families never ever choose to be homeless, and so when people come to us, they're often at their lowest points, they're exhausted, they're traumatized, and really feel isolated. Our job is to serve as their empowerment team, so basically, what we're doing is to ensure that the entire family is not limited in terms of their perception of their current housing situation, and we work with those families during and after their establishments of housing.

While we know that shelter's fundamental, we're also really focused on trying to address some of those factors that infect poverty and homelessness, and that runs the gamut from mental health issues to low self-esteem, addiction, inadequate access to healthcare. There's often too few networks to catch people when they're false, so there's this network impoverishment. Then when you couple that with violence, abuse, further exacerbated by discriminatory practices of race, gender, identity, and religion, it's easy to see why it's important for us to provide service to enrich supports.

When I think about that, even for our young people, we have our programming that is focused on their resilience, play therapy, and group therapy. We work on their school advocacy in the event that they need IEPs and we also work on tutoring and educational supports because our work is to give children what we call a growth mindset and we want our children and their parents to envision a better future. They look like everyone else wants. They need to be able to dream about going to school regularly, feel supported, encouraged, and ultimately have a home, and so it's up to us as an organization to make that happen for them. That is our role.

Kelly Scanlon:

Community LINC has three programs, three main ones to address the homeless problem you've been speaking about. Can you briefly describe each one of them?

Precious Stargell Cushman:

Yes. The thing that I love about our organization, because we had to respond to the needs in our community, that we actually play a pivotal role as a homeless services provider within the whole homeless services ecosystem. That means that we've had to tailor our programs based on the variant needs of our constituents. Those needs range from low needs, medium needs, and higher-level supports, so we operate in three different areas, and that's basically from a prevention and diversion standpoint. What I mean by that, we are preventing homelessness by keeping people in their homes with emergency assistance. We have our outreach individuals that are providing triage with basic needs and building of relationships with folks that need immediate shelter and housing. As a site-based housing provider with on our campus, we're providing support there, and then offsite or in the community, we're providing housing as well with our landlords, so we run the gamut, if you will, with respect to our services.

Kelly Scanlon:

Talk to us about your attainable housing initiative.

Precious Stargell Cushman:

Well, sure. If I needed to quantify that as probably a fourth initiative, that would be our fourth because basically we know that the lack of low and middle-income housing really contributes to homelessness. While we know there are tons of other factors, we also know that the spikes in housing costs have made rent completely out of reach for not only those low-income families, but also for middle-income wage earners as well.

When you think back, just like three years ago, homes and apartments, they used to rent for $700 a month are now rooting anywhere between 1200 to $1600 a month. That makes having a home really unattainable for so many of our neighbors. With few housing options at that price, families are again being pushed to the brinks of homelessness for that dwindling supply of attainable homes.

Really, from our vantage points, we could see that housing stability and of ownership was becoming increasingly out of reach, so we wanted to play a role, so we decided to invest in our community, invest in Kansas City by building and renovating affordable homes ourselves. Literally, in 2020 with some generous seed money, we established a new non-profit subsidiary of Community LINC called Community Housing. With the subsidiary, we have an opportunity to approach housing attainment very differently. What we're doing is we're focusing on the financial preparedness and supportive services to maintain a home. How do we maintain a home? What does neighborhood engagement look like? Also, making sure that we're providing ongoing education to equip our clients with the skill sets that they need to succeed along their homeownership journey.

We opened up our first home not adjacent over to the Ivanhoe neighborhood, and we've launched our first new build, and we're going to be seeking some homes around the Rockhurst University area as well. When we think about our plan for next year, we're thinking about having 25 homes built or renovated by next year, and if all the stars align and we are able to do what we expect to do or hope to do, we hope by 2025 that we have over a hundred new or renovated homes that will be a part of our community's landscape, creating an opportunity towards homeownership for some of our folks in our community.

Kelly Scanlon:

You also provide broader wraparound services. What are they and how do they set families up for longer-term success? I mean, you can provide shelter, and that is one thing, but for that longer-term success, how do these wraparound services come into play?

Precious Stargell Cushman:

Primarily, these wraparound services are really focused on providing our families with some foundational tools to make sure that they're successful. I already touched a little bit upon what our children's programming was about, but we also provide adults with some supports as well. I'm talking about intensive case management, and so they meet with their empowerment coaches routinely to just talk about goals and at goal-setting process and working collaboratively to make sure that those goals are achieved. We're working with the families on their housing coordination and navigating that whole housing process. Obviously, what's important is budgeting and financial literacy, so we spend a great amount of time on that. We're also really, really laser-focused on mental wellness supports and those life skills that all of us get challenged with, and then those employment supports, so when we talk about those supportive services or those wraparound services, we're talking about the combination of all those things.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tell us about the impact. If you can, give some examples, or if you have some statistics about the impact that Community LINC has had on homelessness in Kansas City over the last 35 years.

Precious Stargell Cushman:

Well, I am so honored to be able to share with you that we have served over almost 5,000 households, and that represents north of 10,000 children and 15,000 individuals since we opened our doors in 1988. But what's equally impressive thing that we are very excited about is we go back and look at our five-year retention study on our graduates. This shows, on average, 85% of the families that graduated from our program remained housed and self-sufficient for the five-year period from 2017 to 2021. But the thing that I get concerned about is that statistic of self-sufficiency is not going to be sustainable given our current housing challenges, so we are going to really have to work collectively as a community to make sure that our impact and the success of people staying remaining housed and being self-sufficient is something they all need to be focused on.

Kelly Scanlon:

In 2021, Community LINC established a new program to extend the organization's vision, its initiatives, and it's called Changemakers. Tell us about Changemakers.

Precious Stargell Cushman:

Changemakers I love because it represents some of our newer voices in our community that are really committed to some of these aspects around social justice. While there's no age limit on this group of enthusiasts that support our work, these folks are primarily younger demographic in terms of age. They're emerging leaders in our community and their families and these families have all been intentional around illuminating and empowering philanthropy around trying to end homelessness in our community.

Really, it was a thought process out of a group of family members that were the recipients of our Hometown Hero Awards, the Stroms, and they have galvanized so many young individuals that are passionate about family homelessness, and we're just excited about what they're doing and what they tend to do to continue to illuminate the importance of building a stronger Kansas City where all family members can thrive and survive, so super excited about what they're doing. Changemakers have left an indelible spot in our heart with their efforts, really creating awareness for some of our younger members in our community and spreading the importance of eradicating homelessness in Kansas City and being thought partners in that effort.

Kelly Scanlon:

Talk to us about some of the ways besides Changemakers that our listeners can get involved with Community LINC.

Precious Stargell Cushman:

Like all organizations right now, we're a lean organization, and so we have to extend our reach through volunteers and partnerships. We always need help, as I mentioned before. Our campus and houses families, and we need to always make those apartments ready for the families. We're intentional about making sure that as families come into our program, that the apartment fits the unique specifications of those apartments, so as a result of a massive renovation that we just had, we had several of our units that were down. We're ready to get those apartments prepped and open for more families and this is a pivotal time for us because it's right and time for winter, so we always need volunteers to support us with our apartment preps.

We also need volunteers, especially male volunteers, to help with our children's programming. We have a lot of children, if you will, that need incredible supportive role models, so we're always looking for volunteers to extend our reach, to extend that support, so that's another opportunity.

We also practically just need more investment in organizations like ourselves because it's important for us to walk alongside our families and their stabilization journey, so we need to provide more support for us to provide intensive case management while families are in their homes, and we just always need to be focusing in on just expanding our reach.

As I think about what our community needs, as I hearkened back before, we need more investment in attainable housing. We need to be able to create a pathway for not only the most vulnerable among us, but even for those folks who are middle-income wage earners to have access to housing that is decent quality and affordable.

Kelly Scanlon:

Precious, what do you consider success when you think about the work Community LINC is doing in Kansas City?

Precious Stargell Cushman:

I think about success when we're able to ensure that Kansas City has quality, safe, and attainable housing for all of its community members, and when I think about success for not only for myself, but when I think about others that are in this homeless services ecosystem, it's for us to all work ourselves out of a job because I do believe that solving homelessness in Kansas City is doable, and if we're able to provide housing for those who desire it, we're able to then move on and tackle other pressing issues within our community, so again, what I consider success would be for me working myself out of a job and for us ending homelessness or solving for homelessness in Kansas City in a very meaningful and appreciative way.

Kelly Scanlon:

Anybody who is interested in learning more about your programs, more about your impact, and more about how to engage with Community LINC in order to achieve that vision of working yourself out of a job, is your website the best place to go?

Precious Stargell Cushman:

Yes, that's Community LINC, community L-I-N-C dot org.

Kelly Scanlon:

Communitylinc.org. Precious, thank you so much for all that you are doing here in the Kansas City community for so many, you and your team and your group of volunteers, and we also appreciate you taking the time to be with us on this episode of Banking on KC.

Precious Stargell Cushman:

I can't thank you enough, and I appreciate everything that Country Club Bank is doing for our community, and actually, you all are our bank, so thank you so much for that as well.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Precious Stargell Cushman for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. Homelessness is on the rise in Kansas City. Nonetheless, Precious believes that eliminating homelessness in Kansas City is possible. In fact, her goal is to put herself out of a job. Why? Given all the hurdles standing between the current situation and her goal is she's so optimistic because, she says, "Kansas City is a caring and compassionate community that cares about its neighbors and comes together to work toward what is possible." We could not agree more. When we put our collective will to work, Kansas City can and does make things happen. As a bank, we support Community LINC and share the goal of ending homelessness and lifting up the most vulnerable citizens in our community. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.

 

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