August 2017
Maria Cruz

Maria Cruz, a senior this fall at Augsburg College, grew up in and out of homelessness — she and her siblings moved around the Minneapolis area but often found themselves without a place to live. “We moved around a lot. We lived in Minneapolis, Brooklyn Park, St. Louis Park, Richfield and Osseo,” Cruz said. “We were homeless more than five times. This had a big impact on me.”

When Cruz, a double major in political science and international relations, was approached by her advisor about an opportunity to do a community service project, she knew exactly the community she wanted to work with — homeless women. “As I looked into the resources available, there didn’t seem to be many for this community,” Cruz said. “There were resources for kids but I knew if we supported the women it would help the whole family.”

The community service opportunity that Cruz’s advisor connected her with was the Phillips Scholars Program, which supports potential leaders with outstanding academic credentials who intend to dedicate a portion of their lives to community service. Six competitively selected Phillips Scholars are eligible to receive a $6,000 junior-year scholarship, along with a $4,000 summer award to support the development and implementation of a self-designed service project to address unmet needs in Minnesota communities. Cruz’s application was one of six selected, with all of the projects now underway.

“My idea originally was to hold group sessions where we would have resources available for homeless women to easily access,” Cruz said. “We’d have presenters and people talk about issues these women were facing.”

As Cruz began recruiting women for the project she realized that getting homeless women in one spot was going to be difficult and that many of these women needed more one-on-one support. So she decided to change the structure of the project and coordinate individualized support for each woman. “The goal is ultimately to get women out of homelessness, but from the beginning we wanted to start with financial literacy: building credit, getting a bank account and saving money,” Cruz said. “There are a lot of issues around homelessness but financial success is very important.”

Once this structure was in place Cruz still had more hurdles to jump. She quickly recognized that the resources that were available were extremely hard to access. “I kept getting shut down. I wouldn’t hear back for weeks — these women relied on these resources,” Cruz said. “This frustrated me. It’s not always a successful story, but it’s important to keep persisting.”

Cruz finally had a break through; the women she was working with decided to hold group sessions without her support. “From the beginning we wanted these women to come together to talk and work with each other on issues,” Cruz said. “It took a while, but finally they got together and were working as a group. I am really proud of them. I thought that’s what they really needed, and we achieved it. There’s a lot of work to do but empowering these women and increasing the awareness around homeless women has been a great start.”

By Tom Lancaster