Anita Hellam admits she’s never had to live on the streets, nor has she ever been a paycheck away from homelessness.
But as the executive director of Habitat for Humanity for Stanislaus County since 2002, Hellam has dedicated her professional life to assisting those on the streets. On Tuesday, March 12, as the guest speaker for this semester’s Women’s Campus Connection event, she spoke of how helping the homeless helps everyone, and how changing community attitudes toward the homeless may be her most important task.
Over the past 20 years, Hellam has played various roles in the building of more than 300 affordable housing units and remodeling of more than 400 houses in the Central Valley. Nationwide, she said, Habitat for Humanity builds or refurbishes more than 300,000 homes annually.
“I know it’s just a drop in the bucket,” she said. “We’re addressing problems that continue to get bigger. The practical side of me feels I would be more effective if I could change attitudes, especially in the area of affordable housing.”
She told the story of a very nice couple who lived down the street from where Habitat for Humanity was building an affordable home. She had a pleasant conversation with them and they seemed to be decent folks, but they firmly believed the construction of that affordable house was bad for their neighborhood.
That’s one side of attitudes toward affordable housing that need to be adjusted for there to be real success helping the homeless, Hellam explained.
“You have to be willing to elevate the needs of the other person,” she said. “That’s the challenge. This is not political. We know that home ownership empowers people — men and women — in this country and around the world. For low-income individuals, home ownership often is the only way they can accumulate wealth — and a way to pass wealth to the next generation.”
But, she said, there is another side to the need for adjusted attitudes: The homeless have to be willing to accept help. Sometimes, it comes down to making the homeless person feel wanted, loved and that they are a person of value.
“Choice plays a large role in every individual’s success,” Hellam said. “People need to want success for themselves, so we need to help people see their own value. If people have checked out of life because it’s too painful or difficult or scary, it’s our job to make them feel like they’re not alone. Make them feel significant.”
Women have the power to make remarkable changes within their communities, she said, and Habitat for Humanity is one of those vehicles for great change.
“We’re proud of the work we do and the contributions we make and it’s great to be involved in a cause greater than ourselves,” Hellam said.