Francisco Segovia, director of Waite House Neighborhood Center, fled his native El Salvador in 1990 during the civil war there. When he arrived in the United States he was undocumented and spoke little English, which limited the opportunities available to him. Segovia’s personal experiences have deepened his understanding of the needs of those seeking services at Waite House. Segovia is one of the people we interviewed as part of TC Daily Planet’s coverage of the huge racial equity gap that impacts nearly every realm of life, in Minnesota as well as nationally. His work brings him in daily contact with people struggling to overcome the gap.
Waite House is part of Pillsbury United Communities, the largest settlement house-based organization in Minnesota, and one of the largest in the nation. It provides community building activities and youth and service programs to Minneapolis’s Phillips neighborhood, helping those it serves meet basic needs, work toward self-sufficiency, and achieve their goals.
What forms of economic, racial, and cultural inequality do you see firsthand in your work at Waite House?
In most cases it’s people of color we provide services to. We see mostly people of color and a large number of American Indians; African Americans and Latinos as well. We offer two levels of services at Waite House, basic needs programs and self-sufficiency programs. I’m seeing more waves of people looking for food.
In the past few years have you noticed any differences in the types of people who come in needing food?
People who never expected to need to use a food shelf are coming in. Some of the first time users of food shelves are middle-class white participants. We have people who’ve been using food shelves for a very long period of time. Some are permanent users. Some come and go.
Are most of the people you assist out of work?
At first my assumption was that people who needed food weren’t working, but we’re finding that a lot of people are working and not making enough money to pay for food. It’s a picture that often times isn’t told, that food shelf users are often the working poor. We see a lot of families with kids, and kids who come for hot food programs. If you earn $7.50 an hour you have to set priorities about where you spend your money. Health care is normally at the bottom of the priority list; that is until a person needs it.
Is there another main reason people come to Waite House?
I see a lot of people losing their homes, either on the day they’ve been told they need to leave, or the day before, wondering what they can do to keep from being evicted from the home they’ve worked so hard for. We see a lot tears. I’m seeing more people come in who’ve lost their home, or who fear they’ll lose their homes, than I used to. We keep a database of first time users, which is broken down by demographics. Everyone who comes to look for a service is added to the database before they have access to services.
How is Waite House trying to address some of those inequities, and improve people’s quality of life?
We offer four main programs related to basic needs: our food shelf, hot meals, produce give away, and MAC and NAPS nutrition programs for older people and mothers of young children. They receive 40 pounds of food, once a month. Also, when people come to us requesting information or services we have a system in place. We keep track of phone calls. The front desk keeps track of who calls and what kinds of questions they ask, and what the referral was. Housing is one of the biggest areas that people call about. All of this information helps us do a better job of forecasting what to expect. It doesn’t help to have data if the data isn’t used by people.
The Latino poverty remains high—it’s at 24% and hasn’t dropped below 20% in the past 20 years. Why is it so high?
There are many different factors. For one, the community is relatively new in Minneapolis, so it’s more vulnerable. Latinos are the first to lose jobs. When I first moved here in 1990 I would only find Latinos living on St. Paul’s West Side, not on Lake Street or other areas. Now the population is much more dispersed. When you’re a newer member of a community you end up taking low-paying jobs without health insurance. There are a bunch of factors at play but it mostly comes down to lack of access to resources, and being hired only for low-wage jobs.
Does the Latino community, especially new immigrants, know about and take advantage of the resources available to them?
In terms of looking for resources, there’s a reluctance on the part of Latinos to take advantage of what’s available. For some it’s a source of pride. Some people are afraid to use them, even those who have documents. People are afraid that it will somehow hurt them in the eyes of the government as they move toward citizenship. There’s a lot of misinformation. Then there are those who lose employment and no longer have support. They lose their network. A large segment of the community is trying to support families on minimum wage jobs.
Are these experiences that you, yourself, have had?
I came to this country in June 1990. I first lived in Cedar Riverside with my son and ex-wife. I didn’t have documents because I was forced to leave my country because of the war. I did survival jobs at first and then got a work permit. My work permit opened up access to resources. Before I had a work permit, I was first hired to clean houses and mow lawns. Once I got my permit I started cleaning a Levitz furniture store. Then I studied English. After that I confronted health care. My first strategy was for none of us [his family] to get sick. MN Care helped us to get health care.
How did you end up working at Waite House?
A friend told me that the Brian Coyle Center was looking for someone to work with youth, mostly Somali youth who needed employment. It was my first connection with Pillsbury House. I’d studied at a university in my home country. Here I was finally able to continue going to school, so I could demonstrate I had something to offer. I’m still grateful to the person who hired me and trusted I could do a good job. I went from the Brian Coyle Center to Waite House.
You’ve talked about basic needs programs. What about Waite House self-sufficiency programs?
Waite House helps support people to achieve whatever goal they have. It’s important to give people food, but even more important to help them achieve self-sufficiency.
So are self-sufficiency programs becoming more of a focus?
We’re in the process of reframing how we explain our work. We’re talking more about sustainable communities and our relationship with the community. We’re talking about why people don’t have health care, and how to address poverty, and not just giving people food. A team of about 20 staff members has posed the question ‘Who are we?’ Everyone comes to this work from different experiences working with communities. As we create a vision we see ourselves as a hybrid going beyond basic needs, helping people to know how to fulfill their own needs. It’s not helping those we serve to be paternalistic.
What’s wrong with a paternalistic approach to addressing inequities?
We [the staff] come from different communities that want to do good for the world. That often means giving people something to alleviate some of their pain or their hunger for a short period of time, until they come back again. We’re asking, ‘How do we utilize what we have so the impact lasts?’ How does our [the staff’s] behavior need to change so that we see the people we serve as whole people, so that we’re better able to help them achieve their goals?
Can you give an example of how a shift in thinking may change what Waite House does?
There are a lot of people we see who have criminal backgrounds. We don’t want them to have false expectations. We’re asking, ‘How can we engage with the community to change the system so that people with criminal backgrounds get a break?’ They need jobs. If the laws don’t change we’re not making a real change. We have to engage with people and convey that it’s not easy thing to make such changes, but if we take those steps it can lead to lasting change in people’s lives.
How else are you working with people on self-sufficiency?
We’re having conversations about food security—things like gardening and healthy foods. We have a team that’s having a discussion about the alternatives; providing access to gardening and trying to engage food co-ops. We’d like to form a partnership with co-ops and be part of a network of people who grow food. With the co-ops we want to see at what point they can support us with cards that would help make food there more accessible to the people we serve so that they can explore co-ops and fresh foods.
Why is healthy food so important?
There are people in my network who have shown me the benefits of eating fresh and working with the soil, growing your own foods. The co-ops aren’t being receptive so far, but we’ll continue trying to partner with them. I do 90 percent of my shopping at a co-op now.
What else is Waite House doing to help with diet and access to healthy food?
Midtown Farmers Market people have come to Waite House and handed out coins to be used at the market. We’re moving into a new place, the kitchen is bigger, there’s space for a garden and an opportunity to introduce growing food.
In terms of inequities the Latino community faces, are there solutions — any programs targeting Latino populations that are making, or could make, a difference?
Access can make a difference to a lot of things: to banks, for example, so you’re not charged 10 percent if you cash a check. Access and allocation make a big impact, especially when we know that a large number of people don’t have documents yet. There’s a woman in the community who introduced a municipal ID concept. It allows you to have your home country’s ID plus another one.
How would having such an identification card be helpful?
There have been situations where people have opened bank accounts but then couldn’t access them because of their ID, or children not being admitted to HCMC (Hennepin County Medical Center) if their parent didn’t have an ID. Or parents coming to pick up their child from school and being refused because of their ID. Some city council members are receptive to the municipal ID concept, but others weren’t.
Why should those outside the Latino community care about the inequities Latinos face?
It’s important for people to look at the demographics and see that schools are filled with brown kids. They’ll be the ones paying the taxes in the future, so everyone’s future depends on their success.