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Ren Autrey: Navigating this World While Homeless, and Still Human

The following is a speech by Ren Autrey, Resident Action Project Steering Committee leader, which she presented at the annual Bring Washington Home fundraiser in Seattle on Oct. 15, 2019. She bravely shares her story of resilience and healing, explores how community is essential in the journey of overcoming homelessness.

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My name is Ren Autrey, I am a Certified Peer Counselor, a Resident Action Project Statewide Steering committee member and I co-run a grassroots non profit that advocates and works with people experiencing homelessness in Vancouver, WA’s 49th District. Leading up to all of that I had previously spent some time without a home living in my van and couching with friends and family from California to Washington while I was “in-between projects.” Like many folks who find themselves in this position, I was navigating some grief, mental health and money issues that come from the instability of life during times of change. During these challenges, I was able to gain a new perspective of not only myself but also of other people navigating this world while homeless, and still human.

As a single woman alone with my little dog on the road our only safety was inside our vehicle. And while inside that van, the perception of safety and community slowly slipped away. Each new location and city brought new challenges. Police knocked on my window and told me to move on. Well meaning people taped notes on my window threatening me if I kept my dog safe in that vehicle (with windows only slightly rolled down), that while I went to the bathroom or inside somewhere to shop for supplies they would break the windows and leave us even more exposed to unsafe conditions and the elements. Some days it was all I could do to step outside my vehicle. Living without a home is a daily trauma experience  and recovering from that trauma is not a simple thing.

But I have to ask – is it really possible to heal while still enduring daily traumas living on the streets or in unsafe situations?

We attempt to keep ourselves connected to community, while that same community looks at us sleeping with all of our stuff in our vehicles and RV’s and on the streets with fear and judgement of our circumstances. And we know that look in their eyes. It is really the fear of knowing that they too are only one car accident, one work injury, or one or two partial or late paychecks away from instability or homelessness themselves.

And then when we are the recipients of grace and find opportunity to be housed again, we need to realize that there is a healing process that happens when we go from being homeless to being reconnected to community.  We changed, our responses to situations changed and now it will need to change again. We have to work hard to get into new routines and new communication cycles with the people around us. We have to dig in a MAKE a home safe & comfortable. To do that we NEED a stable and resilient place to call home to learn and practice those skills — This is difficult and not easy when the answer before was just to “move on” and not feel worthy of that conversation or place to be.

Part of what we do in Vancouver with our non-profit Outsiders Inn is to engage in conversation with folks and ask key questions and DEEPLY LISTEN to their answers – We respectfully ask and encourage them to share their stories.

We get to see the human side of our unhoused population’s challenges. They get the opportunity to be heard. Through these stories, this is how the healing begins, for myself and for those I go out and meet and listen to.  It’s simple. We share our stories. We need to build more homes and safe spaces to heal and learn how to speak with confidence – Learn HOW to share our stories effectively – so we not only help others change, but WE continue to grow and change internally from our experiences.

Resident Action Project was a continuation of this process for me and I fell in love with the organization and the people in it right away, I had found my “heart community”.

They too were digging deep into helping some of those same folks and myself bring our stories together for a bigger purpose, to a greater number of people, and possibly a more influential audience. Lawmakers, city, county, and state representatives. And here we are – able to use our stories to be a part of changing policy, laws and perceptions in a grand way.   My fellow RAP members taught me that a little practice and confidence goes a long way in this work! I am grateful for their continued love and support.

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I would have never imagined a few short years ago that this is a journey I would have taken, yet here I am before all of you. I am a mother, a grandmother, a working member of our society, AND I am a person who has experienced mental health struggles and homelessness. I was a strong person already, but through my experiences and perspectives – I am even stronger now.  — I have experienced healing through being a part of something bigger than myself and learning how to effectively advocate around issues that affect all of us. Through the support of the Housing Alliance and the camaraderie with other Resident Action Project members, I have been able to deepen my skills around community organizing and building movements and I have been a part of creating and expanding something I am proud of.

But my community goes beyond my city, it is also my state and includes most of you in this room.

And — I am proud to be one of many in a community that cares.  I am proud to be a part of a statewide movement that works on showing what a caring and compassionate community can do when we come together. I am proud to help build those safe places we will call home — to share our stories and continue to heal our community – while we continue to collaborate with all of you to find compassionate community responses to homelessness – together.  Thank You.

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