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Gerard Campbell has been working as our Wisconsin Property Manager for Heartland Housing for half a decade now. He believes in the transformational power of a home, and has dedicated his life to ensuring that for others.
1. What got you into this work?
I’ve been driven to help people who are vulnerable housed for a very long time now. When I was 9 or 10 years old, we lived in a divided community in Ireland. I was one of a few families in my hometown that was burned out of our homes because of our beliefs. We were forced out of town, and we were left homeless for some time. Ever since, I’ve been determined to live and work for social justice.
I used to work for an agency that had been working with and learning from Heartland Alliance. There was a whole delegation of nonprofit officials and government leaders who were trying to find solutions for a growing problem in our city – homelessness and mental health issues. We came down to Chicago looking to develop some new programs to help individuals experiencing homelessness, and Heartland Alliance inspired all of us. They’re permanent supportive housing models provided opportunities for people to grow and find self-sufficiency. A few years later, when it was time to start looking to broaden my horizons, I came directly here.
2. Why is this work important to the community, and to the people we serve?
There’s just such a high need in Madison and Milwaukee for affordable housing. The cost of living is high and rising, and I think there’s an ongoing struggle for folks living week to week and month to month.There’s just not as much opportunity to live in an affordable place. That roof over your head provides so much more than just shelter – it provides opportunity, safety, and a better outlook on life.
In the long run, the housing we develop creates so much more for the entire community. It creates hope.
3. Was there a moment where you KNEW you were in a job that was right for you?
We were serving a family – a mom and her young kids – that had fled a violent domestic situation. I remember they had been staying from hotel to hotel for some time, which is a very unstable way to grow up. We ended up finding a unit that worked well for them at one of our Milwaukee sites, and I remember one of the little ones saying, “Mom, I know it’s not a hotel, but I think we should make this place our next home.”
Those children had spent so much time living sporadically that it seemed normal to them. The mom went on to find work and become independent, and they ended up finding some real stability. That’s what permanent housing should be.
4. What is your favorite part of your job?
I enjoy handing off the keys. I’ve been with Heartland Housing for five years now, and I still get so excited when I get to hand over the keys to a newly housed person or family. I know how important it is for these folks, to have a chance to call a place home. With all of the hours I put in, all of the hard work that comes with the job – this is what it’s all about.
5. How can others help your work?
It really does take a village. If we aren’t in this together and pulling in the same direction, we aren’t going to be successful. Supportive housing is really just one part of the puzzle to end poverty and provide stability. All community members are needed to make this successful.
Housing is fundamental to the growth of individuals, families, and communities. A stable roof over one’s head helps develop a sense of opportunity, safety, and comfort that is necessary to build a life of independence and success. In Milwaukee, Heartland Housing’s Maskani Place has been supporting participants for several years.
For Maskani Place residents Geraldine and her daughter Pryesha that sense of safety and opportunity have led to very real successes. Despite living homeless for years, Pryesha was able to graduate high school one year early.
“She’s going to go far, I know it. We’ve gone through so much and have overcome so much, and she’s still been able to reach her goals.”
Geraldine and her family know a thing or two about overcoming obstacles. For years, Geraldine and her children struggled to find affordable housing. The family grew up in Chicago, living in various neighborhoods in the city’s west, south, and north sides. During this time, Geraldine worked selling auto parts and cashiering at convenience stores.
“I did it all because I had to. There was nobody else there for me. It was hard raising my kids, but I made it happen.”
With no real support structure, Geraldine raised her children, paid the rent, and put dinner on the table – all on her own. After years of struggling to make ends meet, the opportunity to build a new life emerged when a friend invited the family to move into an open apartment in Milwaukee. Geraldine and her kids jumped at the chance. While the family had even fewer connections in a new city, the chance to start fresh was too good to pass up.
But in just a few short months, the opportunity seemed to dissipate. Geraldine was having a hard time finding work and the friends that provided the apartment were ready to part ways.
All of a sudden, Geraldine and her children were without a home in an unfamiliar city.
And they made it work for years – first at an overnight emergency shelter, and then in transitional housing. Enduring the day–to-day of shelter life wasn’t easy, especially for a mom and her children. The rooms for families had to be shared, and the crowded space wasn’t favorable for things like homework and play.
“It was frustrating, no privacy. The shelters were ready to put you out at any moment’s notice. My kids are respectful; they aren’t going to clown, so we made it work.”
Pryesha remembers life in the shelter system vividly. She remembers the difficulties, the frustrations, the fears brought upon by not having a place to call home. When Heartland Housing’s Maskani Place invited them to move into a new permanent supportive housing unit, Pryesha hoped to move in as soon as they signed the paperwork.
Just a few days later, that day finally came. Geraldine remembers it all fondly.
“Everything came in when the time was right. Heartland gave us beds right when we moved in and over time, all of the furniture arrived making us feel at home again.”
After spending years feeling out of place, the warmth of Maskani Place was a welcome experience.
“It was so beautiful, so welcoming. I knew this was a good thing when I got here. The people here give us good advice and help us with whatever we need.”
Pryesha’s new home couldn’t have come at a more critical moment. The ambitious young woman was entering high school, and the newfound security of her own room supported a smooth transition. Pryesha is a natural when it comes to her studies, and she enjoys most of her subjects , which made it easy to take on extra coursework and summer school to achieve early graduation.
“Math, English, I like it all. If I had to choose, I would say I enjoy writing the most. I like to consider myself a writer.”
Nothing could keep Pryesha from her goals. Difficult homework, bad weather, school drama – none of it slowed her down. Where most students found barriers, Pryesha wouldn’t flinch. Where most students found an easy way out of an assignment, Pryesha would tackle it head on. To her, there was only the ultimate goal.
Even through crisis and health concerns, the young woman found perseverance. Pryesha was in the middle of her junior year when she was struck by a car, breaking her arm and giving her a serious concussion. The school, her doctors, and her mother all wanted her to slow down and let her body heal, but all she could think about was her goal.
“Despite being hit by a car, I was so determined. I was still so focused on doing better in school and getting to where I wanted to be.”
Pryesha found the inspiration needed to power through by leaning into her mother’s courage. Geraldine suffers from arthritis, back issues, and depression – but through it all, she was able to find security for her and her children.
“When we were without a home, it was so hard for my mom to focus on her health. She had to focus on us, and getting us off the street. I wasn’t going to slow down. No way.”
Graduation was a monumental day for the Maskani residents. With Pryesha graduating a year ahead of schedule, Geraldine feels both proud and hopeful in the fact that her child’s success has placed her on a path toward security. Pryesha sees herself majoring in IT and minoring in business, with the hopes of one day building her own company and working for herself. She has enrolled in Milwaukee Area Technical College to keep costs down and, then will transfer to the University of Wisconsin Madison next year.
The next chapter for Geraldine and Pryesha is bright. We’re confident that Pryesha and Geraldine will be ready for just about whatever comes their way, and we’ll be ready to help every step of the way.
“Being here, with Heartland Alliance, is so comforting. When you feel like nobody loves you or wants to see you make it, they are here for you.”