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  • Writer's pictureSherry

Skoolies change homelessness

If a school bus could talk, imagine what it would say about the goings and comings of kids each day with their moments of silly to serious. Now imagine that same bus, in its ripe old age of 12 years (and they are built to last another 20+) transformed to house a family and children who are homeless. That bus now has family stories that include hope, safety and love for a better future.

I talked with Ashland, Portland based, Julie Akins, writer, lecturer, activist and CEO of a non-profit that creates "skoolies" to comfortably house a family with electricity, hot water, bathrooms and kitchens.

The school bus is a 240 square feet, steel framed construction with rigorous safety standards. Julie has twenty years of experience as a journalist and has served as News Director in network newsrooms around the country.

She has been an investigative reporter and taught journalism at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon and Emerson College in Boston. The focus of her more recent work prior to launching this non-profit was to chronicle homelessness in the west. I read about her unique approach to this critical issue and was so curious about her call to action.

Sherry Benjamins: How did this journey begin?

Julie: As a freelance journalist several years ago, I focused on understanding the homeless issue. I discovered so much about homeless families and children through a project that I was doing called “Tour of Humanity.” Through this experience, I began to transition from being a person covering a story to now being a person in the story and wanting to help. I launched the non-profit, Vehicles for Change about a year and half ago. The first family moved into the first converted school bus last November.

SB: What did you learn from homeless families?

Julie: I was inspired by speaking with so many parents and children. I met one woman with seven children trying to care for themselves and did not have a safe space to do that so ultimately she lost her children to foster care. This resulted in my inspiration to do something about this. No child should lose their family or grow up in the back seat of a car. They need cooked meals and a safe and clean place to sleep. There are 20,000 children in the state of Oregon that have no home. The United Nations calls this a humanitarian crisis and once you see this up close, you can’t look away. This is why I took action for these families.

SB: What is next?

Julie: We are working on our next bus and our builder is Alex Duniell, an expert in tiny house construction. We are planning five buses a year and focused on funding for the future. I also believe in being an inspiration for others and sharing what we are doing and how other individuals and communities can take action.

SB: What is the biggest myth about family homelessness?

Julie: These families are not homeless by choice. They can find themselves in this situation due to an illness, a family member health issue or loss of a job.

SB: Is your goal that the families eventually buy the “skoolie?”

Julie: Yes, that is clearly a desired option and we have created a five year process to allow for that change in ownership. The initial process for obtaining the refurbished bus involves thorough screening, asking about family and individual history, ensuring the individual and family is clean and sober, no record of felony or domestic violence and ability to pay for their space at the RV Park. After one year, we have created a Buyers program.

SB: What gives your hope about this work to tackle such a big problem?

Julie: I am hopeful about what already is happening and the awareness that is building in the community about this issue. We have children suffering and we have solutions. I am hopeful about the possibility for communities to take on skoolie projects and to germinate our ideas to other groups across the country.

SB: How can we help?

Julie: We are of course trying to raise money – the cost of a skoolie is approximately $20,000 and there are easy ways to contribute and donate on our website.

We are also very open to have volunteers help on a build project and most important share this story with others who care about children and families.

In summary

Many of you know that I am on the Board of Families Forward (FF), here in Orange County, CA. Family homeless ness is close to my heart and I was so inspired by Julie’s creativity and focus to do something about this critical need.

Here at Families Forward we have housed over 230 families this year and 193 children. On average, there are 45 families entering the homeless provider system every month. The leaders, staff, volunteers and donors at FF are here to make a difference for our community.

I so appreciate Julie sharing her story and plans for the future. Here in Orange County, we join you in the “movement to eliminate family homelessness.” We applaud you and are committed to positive change, empowerment and support for families and children. Reach out to learn more. I promise you it will change your perspective as it did for Julie Akens and remind us of our humanity for all.

Watch for our story on Madelynn Hirneise, the new Executive Director of Families Forward in next month’s issue.

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