When Jennifer Pankey grew up in Southern California in the 1980s and 1990s, her family taught her how to deal with problems: Ignore them by blurring your brain with drugs.
At 11, she started using meth. She didn’t stop using drugs for 15 years. “I had a daughter and quit for a while, but then I met up with my 7-year-old’s dad and started using again. It got to the point where I was no longer willing to let my kids pay the consequences for my actions. So I went to rehab.”
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She managed to free herself from drugs, but then she had another problem: “I had no life skills, and I’d never had a job.” How could she survive without knowing the basics? Enter North County’s Solutions University. It’s a project of the Solutions for Change organization designed to house the homeless, teach them leadership skills and prepare them for a better future.
Pankey now manages the Solutions for Change farm which produces organic produce that’s sold to a local school district. “They acted like I was trustworthy, and I’d never known that before,” she says. “That made a huge difference in my being able to move on and do it myself.”
Solutions for Change has worked to improve the lives of the homeless since 1999. The approach is different than the strategies of the past, says founder Chris Megison.
“We’ve run shelters, but shelters don’t transform lives,” he says. “We’ve provided units of housing, but units don’t transform lives. We’ve also noticed that the funding for those methods are largely underwritten by the government. We came to the conclusion that we’d have to pioneer our own solution if we were going to live our purpose.”
Solutions University, a 1,000-day program, serves homeless families by teaching parents about the basics of work, survival skills and the principles of leadership. Participants spend half the time in program housing and the rest in permanent housing.
On the employment side, parents at Solutions University work at the program’s landmark “aquaponics” farm, the first commercial operation of its kind in Southern California. The program emphasizes the basics, Megison says: “Get up, suit up and show up.”
“You can’t just take someone who’s been out of the work force for one year or five years — or has never had a job — and just get them a job,” he says. “It’s not going to work.”
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Along with work opportunities, Solutions University helps families deal with issues like domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness and poverty. “It’s not just about servicing the homeless and containing them,” Megison says. According to him, society wrongly “sees the homeless as liabilities that have to be controlled and contained.”
There’s leadership training too. “A lot of companies send their employees to leadership training, but we don’t even think of doing that for the homeless,” Megison says. “What we’ve discovered is that if we can equip the parents of homeless kids to lead themselves, then they’re going to lead their kids. And they might become a leader in the community in various ways.”
In the big picture, Solutions University is “like a college for the homeless to help them get physically, emotionally and spiritually fit,” says Dennis Bone, Solutions for Change’s associate director and chaplain.
Solutions for Change funding comes from donors like SDG&E, which has been supporting the Inspiring Youth Leaders program, which provides children ages 9-17 with skills to enable them to become contributing members of society. The program helps kids and teens from homeless families better handle a wide variety of challenges: Academic stress, parental communication, dating issues, the residual effects of physical and emotional abuse, bullying, addiction and peer pressure.
Pankey, the farm manager, is a Solutions University success story. Until she went through the program, she says, “I thought the world revolved around me, and it was very hard for me to be vulnerable and open and ask for help.” Now, she has support, insight and a “voice at the end of the day that says, ‘I understand, keep going.’”