Article first appeared in the Arizona Daily Star on Monday, March 4, 2019.
By Loni Nannini Special to the Arizona Daily Star
Scott Koenig would like to foster dialogue in an era when understanding often seems to fall short.
“In today’s climate, anyone with a differing view is evil or wrong, and through Our Family Services Center for Community Dialogue and Training, the whole practice of mediation tries to get down to emotions. It turns out we all have the same emotions and we can relate better when we understand what other people’s emotions are,” said Koenig, past president of the board of directors and the Volunteer of the Year for Our Family Services.
Koenig will be among those honored during the Voices of Home Luncheon 2019, which will feature keynote speaker the Rev. Bernard Lafayette Jr., at 11 a.m. March 14 at the Tucson Convention Center, 260 S. Church Ave.
Lafayette is a civil-rights pioneer and freedom rider who worked alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. A co-founder and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and founding director of the Center for Nonviolence & Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island, Lafayette has led education and training programs on nonviolent social change at the state, national and international levels.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear a civil-rights hero who travels all over the world to lecture on peace and nonviolence. We are excited to see him explore the connections between poverty, nonviolence and the beloved community,” said Sarah McNamara, development associate for Our Family Services, which is dedicated to eliminating homelessness and strengthening the community.
The product of consolidations and mergers between various nonprofit agencies over more than four decades, Our Family Services has built a reputation as a champion of homeless youth and families. Last year it served more than 5,600 clients and provided more than 104,000 “touches” to people who accessed community resources through Our Family Services Information and Referral online at 211Arizona.org or by calling 211-Arizona.
A cornerstone of the organization’s approach is a scattered-site model for housing for the homeless as opposed to a typical shelter model. The scattered-site model allows participants to relocate to apartments and wraparound services in the neighborhood in which they are most comfortable.
Typically, eight or nine out of every 10 people who utilize this model will progress to permanent housing and financial stability versus the 30 to 40 percent statistic attributed to those with access to typical homeless shelters, according to McNamara.
“Instead of taking people from all parts of town and sending them to a shelter that might not be close to where they work or attend school, we work with them to figure out which part of town they can live in to ensure that they will be successful. For example, someone fleeing a domestic-violence situation might want to be far away from their abuser and live close to a possible support network, so we work with them to make that happen,” she said.
Housing is initially leased through Our Family Services; those leases are transferred to families as they stabilize, enabling them to remain in their homes long-term.
Additionally, Our Family Services provides a range of programs to address the root causes of homelessness and enable families to attain self-sufficiency, including intensive case management along with education and job training; counseling and substance-abuse therapy; services for survivors of sex trafficking; resources and referrals to other local organizations; and more.
“We are not just putting roofs over people’s heads. You have to look at the causes of why they didn’t have roofs in place. We really try to meet people where they are and help remove barriers for them,” McNamara said.
The Center for Community Dialogue and Training is central to that philosophy. On a mission to help Tucsonans engage in conversations about difficult topics in a skilled, respectful and productive manner, the center provides communication training, classes and mediation for groups, businesses, neighborhood associations, schools and families.
McNamara said it has facilitated communication and constructive dialogue with events ranging from a post-election community forum following the 2016 presidential election to mediation between family members regarding end-of-life issues and a forum for students at a local high school concerned about school safety.
“The center has always been a place that has taught nonviolent communication and provides free services to community members and family members,” said Koenig. “It offers neutral third-party mediation and teaches skills in dialogue and communication that can help to resolve challenging situations. Those skills go a long way toward building a stronger community.”
He credits the unique services at the center for providing him with communication and conflict-resolution skills that he has used throughout his career, including in his current position as executive director for Arizona’s Center for Rural Leadership, which provides leadership-development training for adults in rural communities statewide.
Koenig is also a huge proponent of Our Family Services’ Reunion House. The recently renovated facility in the midtown area offers emergency shelter for teens who have nowhere else to turn.
“Without the shelter and the generosity of the donors who have supported it, there would be a lot more kids on the streets. Once they start the cycle of homelessness, it is harder to break, so this is vital for early intervention,” he said.
Overall, Koenig hopes his volunteerism with Our Family Services will help to educate the community about difficulties that homeless people face and provide outreach about ways to improve their lives and strengthen society.
“I think that it is difficult to understand homelessness until people have walked a mile in someone else’s shoes, and that is where Our Family Services programs come in,” he said.