Mar 2, 2020

Board Member Spotlight: Laura Helmer

Tell us about your background and why you care about expanding housing opportunities.

I have degrees in economics and strategic management, I have worked in the field of human resources, and I have been deeply involved in community activism and social justice issues for decades. However, the main reason I care about expanding housing opportunities is personal. In 2011 I was approached by a friend who was losing her home to foreclosure and had nowhere to go. Her life had very quickly spiraled out of control due to illness, job loss and divorce. There were no immediate and affordable housing options in her home community of Chaska. There were also no emergency shelter options. Assisting my friend began to open my eyes to the challenges of homelessness and housing instability throughout my community. There were so many individuals and families affected, and community resources were inadequate. I joined a group of community leaders to bring the first emergency family shelter program to Carver and Scott counties. To do this, we began working with Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, a non-profit developer of affordable housing. Beacon is a collaborative of over 100 faith congregations which come together to build homes, shelter families, and advocate for better housing policy. My involvement with Beacon increased and, at present, I am the Chair of the Beacon Board of Directors.

Why were you interested in serving on the Family Housing Fund board?

I was asked by the Met Council to represent the geographic area in which I live on the FHFund board due to my work with family shelter. I was excited to join the board as the Family Housing Fund mission and vision exactly fits with the work I do with Beacon. It is important to bring many voices from many areas together to solve the issues of affordable housing and end homelessness.

What housing aspirations do you have for the region?

It may seem overly simple, but my aspiration would be that all people in our community have a home they can afford. It’s such a core, foundational idea that we often take it for granted. How would our systems be different if we started with this basic affirmation? How would we focus our energies? I think starting with this fundamental value helps each and every one of us – our elderly parents, our children and each of their friends at school, the parents who support our health, education, industry, dining – become more willing to create new homes in our towns. I think it means stepping in as a society, as a true community of neighbors, to make sure people with the lowest incomes don’t have to sacrifice their future just to keep a roof over their heads today. Our faith, our data, our guts tell us that we all do better when we all do better. I think my aspiration is that we take that to heart as a region when it comes to home.

What is one area where you think people generally fail to think big enough – and what is your vision for change?

Through my work with Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, I’ve really come to appreciate the desperate need to create more homes and provide emergency shelter when people are in crisis. But I also love that Beacon wants to see what’s behind the crisis of housing stability in the first place. What if we could effectively end the conditions that lead to homelessness? What if we could make sure no one pays more than they can afford toward their rent, thus making sure they don’t get evicted when they must repair the car or face an unexpected hospital visit? What if we could change the nature of the conversation and instead of spinning our wheels trying to keep up with the symptoms, we go up-stream and address the source? That’s what Beacon is proposing with the “Bring It Home, Minnesota” legislation: Covering the gap between what the rent costs and what a family can afford to pay – effectively ending homelessness before it can begin. There’s currently half a million people in Minnesota who are struggling every single month to pay the rent. If we could make an investment that would bring stability to one-out-of-ten of our neighbors, wouldn’t we do it? Especially when that initial investment is going to pay off in a big way for our economy, our employers, our local governments, our schools, our places of worship, the overall quality of life we value so highly in Minnesota. Sometimes the biggest thinking is being willing to see the simple solution staring us right in the face. “Bring It Home, Minnesota” is bold, simple, and effective. We need it and more ideas like it to make sure our communities continue to thrive and work for all of us.

What do you do for fun?

I’ve lived in Minnesota my entire life and in the Twin Cities for my entire adult life. While I really like to travel, I also love to explore Minnesota. Its fun to discover and re-discover all that we have right here – MIA, the Walker, Como Conservatory, Minnesota History Center, the State Fair, Kelley Farm, the National Eagle Center – just to name a few. The list is practically endless! Included is discovering new places and new foods to eat – sort of my own personal Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. And I’m a Twins season ticket holder – Go Twins!!

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