Kandi Geary's passion lies in her work. A simple conversation sparks emotion in her eyes despite the fact she is a true advocate in a community with diminishing resources.
We all have ideas on issues in the world, ideas of why things are the way the are, how things operate in different areas, how things should be handled, and most of the time they are nothing but a shot at the truth that almost always misses. The issue of homelessness is no different.
Homelessness can be loaded with stereotypes. Generally we think that homeless people are middle-aged males who choose to be the way they are and are too lazy to do anything about it. But Kandi Geary, a Families in Transition advocate, is passionate about letting people know that this is rarely the way it is.
"Raising awareness is the most important thing a Duluth citizen can do," Geary said, "and changing the image that people have in their heads, which are the stereotypical ideas of what a homeless person is, when the reality is, most homeless people are under 8 years old."
Geary, who had spent her morning at St. Mary's Duluth Clinic with one of her homeless clients who gave birth to a newborn baby, is a family advocate and teacher with Families in Transition. Geary also works for Duluth Public Schools Head Start Program that works with families who have children ranging in age from newborns to 5 years old.
"If families are experiencing homelessness and they have any kids between birth and kindergarten age, then they can be referred to work with me." Geary said. "And then I bring the Head Start Program to them, whatever there current situation is, whether they're living in a shelter, whether they're living in there car, or doubling up with friends and family."
Once a family is taken under Head Start's wings, they will then bring the entire umbrella of services to the family, which Geary says is a very successful process. These services include education, advocacy, parent involvement, mental health, nutrition, immunizations, parent governance and more.
While services are diminishing due to the recent economic times, Geary said that homelessness is increasing greatly. But Geary insists that there is a way out of homelessness if people do their parts.
"There is a level of accountability," Geary said, "so in order to have that bed at the shelter, you have to meet with me everyday and we've agreed that before you see me you'll have to hand in your childcare subsidy packet and meet with your job counselor, and go to the food shelter, and if you have, then we lay out 3 or 4 more steps for the next day, and so having an advocate is probably the fastest way out of homelessness, it very much shouldn't be this way but it is."
Geary believes there is a way out of homelessness, and it primarily comes down to the individuals themselves to take the right steps out of it.
"It's really crucial for people to do their part," Geary said, "I can know everything, I can take you where you need to go, I can make connections for you, but if your not showing up for your appointments, if your spending your money instead of saving it for your deposit, then there's nothing you can do for a person who can't help themselves with it."
While a common misunderstanding is that homeless parents are bad at raising their children, Geary contends just the opposite, and that we should be inspired by the parenting of her clients.
"Realistically, they are fierce parents," Geary said. "The only thing many of these children have is their family, and I just see remarkable strengths in the parents that I work with. It humbles me so much to have so little and be so committed to your kids, and then be coming up against barriers and stereotypes."
Common misconceptions revolve around the idea that homeless parents do not do a good job raising their kids, but in no way could we ever relate to them unless we experienced it, Geary asserts. "Is it more likely that their kids are dirty and have old clothes on because they have bad parents, or could it be because they simply don't have access to hot water, or money to buy new clothes for their kids?"
In a world where some parents are trying to get there kids only the things they want, these homeless parents are primarily concerned with making sure their kids are getting what they need to survive. Homeless parents can go through an amount of stress that we can only imagine.
"When Head Start can get involved it's a real relief," Geary said. "Like this little baby that I just came from the hospital on, the mom was like 'you know, you're like his Grandma, you got to be around for the long haul here because you're all I've got.' So with her, we'll make sure that I'm not all she's got, we'll make sure we build a team of people that are there for her."
Unlike the life of a college student where multiple levels of friendship exist, homelessness is a very isolated world where you don't have a variety of people you can connect with. Generally if you're homeless you are only in direct contact with other families in the same situation and same struggles as you.
"I'm all she's got because I'm the only person who does what I say I'm going to do," Geary said, "she doesn't have a person in her life who will buy her flowers and bring them to the hospital, and those kindnesses, they mean something to all of us, but they mean the world to someone who has nothing , or nobody, it's very, very isolating."
It's obvious that Geary is as passionate as one can be when it comes to these families, and while she loves working with the children, it's the relationships within the family that she is most concerned about.
"I feel like the best thing I can do for a family is help them reconnect with the joy of being a family," Geary said. "It's the parent-child relationship, that's what I'm working for. Working with a whole family, that's when you can really help people take some steps to change their lives."
Geary, with emotion welling up in her eyes, said that she loves to give parents the opportunity to enjoy their children after they have a good week of keeping their appointments and staying on the right path. She is constantly looking for opportunities to utilize the community, and find free events that families can easily access so that they can spend quality time and grow as a family.
It is clear that Geary is a strong advocate in this community, her life and clients wipe away prior thoughts of homelessness in an instant. She is dedicated to a greater cause that not many would go out on a limb for.
"I feel very blessed to have meaningful work every day, and every day I feel like a day well spent." Geary said.