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AmeriCorps groups seek affordable housing for service members

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UNITED STATES — In March of 2017, in a parking lot with snow piled up outside of a Missoula church, I loaded everything I owned into 1960s model Dodge Cobra motorhome that was so rusted you could not tell where the orange paint ended and auburn rust spots began. I named it “Old Crusty.” 

An elderly gentleman had sold it to me for $2,000 and promised me that it ran like a champion for its age, which was older than that of my father. 

I had just turned 25, and after a decade of working at newspapers, graduating college, and amassing a year’s worth of savings, I had arrived at a quarter-life crisis of sorts. 

I was proud of the work I had done. I had worked at and helped start newspapers in Texas, had a series of stories cited in a brief to the Supreme Court of the United States on a landmark decision, and found a home in Montana, where I worked at daily and weekly papers. But as our national dialogue continued to decline, I began to receive more and more hateful messages daily. I ran a story that someone didn’t like, and they pegged me as left-leaning and called my father, a conservative himself, and told them that they intended to beat him senseless. I ran an editorial from someone on the right, and animal rights activists from New York called me and told me that I was too evil to have children, and that she was putting a hex on me so that if I ever tried to procreate, I would miscarry. 

It was all too much, and lest I become filled with the resentment that seemed to overflow from these people sending awful messages into my inbox daily, I decided I needed to do something more productive. I asked my father, sitting on the front porch of our family home in Texas if there was ever anything he wished he had done as a young man that he had not gotten to do. There was only one thing he mentioned: “I wish I had gone into the service.” 

I pondered that. At 25 I had been to more hospitals than I could count, diagnosed with a series of physical maladies that I knew would never qualify me for any branch of the military. They’d laugh me out the door. 

“Why?” I asked him.

“I think we all should do something for America,” he said. “I don’t mean just paying our taxes. I think we should all do something to serve our country. It’s given us so much. We are so blessed to live here.” 

So, the next day, I submitted an application for AmeriCorps. The program is a 90s-era spinoff of other public service programs that came before like the Civilian Conservation Corps, and VISTA, where individuals can serve communities, while receiving a small living stipend and education award. While I don’t by any means think I gained appreciation for our country like what a veteran experiences, as the contribution I gave is paltry compared to theirs, it did deepen my love and respect for America on a much greater level than I had ever expected. 

When I loaded up in the 1960s Dodge Cobra, I knew that it was likely to have some issues, but at the time, it was the only housing option I had for where I was going: Cardwell, Montana, Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. First, I had to receive training in Helena. Old Crusty broke down as the sky was spitting snow on Rogers Pass and I rode in the cab with a tow truck driver to a garage in Helena, where we arrived at midnight. The bays that were covered with photographs of naked women and the mechanic gave me the heebie jeebies so badly that I clung to the pistol in my purse as I signed paperwork. 

Old Crusty broke down two weeks later as I was heading over Rogers Pass again. This time I called a tow truck from Whitehall. I rode in the cab of the tow truck this time with a white-haired man who offered hot chocolate and had calendars quoting Scripture on the walls. He said he could put me in touch with local church folk who could get me a cot at the local parish if I needed it. I declined and slept in my car for the next couple of weeks while he fixed the motorhome. When he finished, he was livid: the garage in Helena had taken nearly $1,000 for something he would have charged $300 for, including the tow. They had taken me for a ride, and he was willing to go up there and give them a piece of his mind and get my money back. I demurred, and I parked my motorhome on a city lot for $100 a month. The electricity didn’t work in Old Crusty, and temperatures ranged between 10 and 103 while I was there, so I learned to bundle up or strip down accordingly.

I settled into the dysfunctional motorhome and a new routine in Whitehall. I gave tours, scrubbed the latrine, and helped save an injured bat, injured owl, and wayward 5-foot-long bull snake caught in a parking lot. My specialty was a tour with for the elderly and disabled, carefully helping those with wheelchairs and other special aids into the cave. I was hugged by 90-year-old grandmas and 8-year-olds alike. In our group activities, we pulled acres of invasive species, paddled and pulled trash from a lake, drove transport vans at Bannack Days, installed signage, and more. In August, a week before the end of my term of service, I got sick, and needed a blood transfusion for a pre-existing condition, and the 100-degree heat in the motorhome was stifling. I was hospitalized for dehydration one of those last weekends after working in the sun and staying in the motorhome, as sweat seemed to leave my body nearly as quickly as I could drink water. It still was one of the most meaningful summers of my life, even if the monetary payoff was small and the toll on my body was a lot. Given the hours, my pay after stipends and education awards hovered somewhere just above $3 an hour. I had debt from the hospital visit in the thousands of dollars. I eventually paid them off and looking back, I’m satisfied that I gave a little bit of my time and my life to contribute something to this great country. It was worth every second, every challenge, every penny. 

During my time in Montana, I have spent many hours with other AmeriCorps members, and many have struggled with finding affordable housing. According to AmeriCorps, more than 3,500 members served in Montana last year at more than 500 locations. Their service is estimated to have generated $4.1 million in outside resources from businesses, foundations, public agencies, and other sources in Montana. Their work extends far beyond state parks, and in the past year has included helping communities and families impacted by COVID-19, reducing crime and reviving cities, connecting veterans to services, fighting the opioid epidemic, helping seniors live independently, and rebuilding communities after disasters, according to the organization’s website. Yet many struggle to find housing themselves, and even more so as housing prices have catapulted sky high in the past year. People making $12 an hour struggle to find housing, much less service members on a much smaller AmeriCorps stipend. 

Some AmeriCorps groups are now working to find families and individuals who will host members, including the Montana Conservation Corps. MCC members have one of the more physically strenuous positions of all service members in Montana. They hike miles into the wilderness for weeks at a time, carrying cross-cut saws and Pulaskis, and do things like creating or clearing trail in the backcountry of public lands. Every year they complete more than 400,000 hours of service, the equivalent of 200 full-time jobs. 

This year they have several projects planned for western Montana. 

“We expect significant trail maintenance work on the Plains district of the Lolo NF, as well as some State Park facilities, trails, signage work in the units around Flathead Lake, and some tree planting, campground and trail maintenance in the Swan Valley for the Flathead NF,” Regional Director for MCC Northern Rockies Clifford Kipp said. “We haven’t heard for sure yet, but we have a long history of doing a week or two of facilities, wildlife monitoring and weeds mitigation work on the Bison Range, so it’d be reasonable to assume we’d do more of that work again this season. We also have a regional office in Missoula, which also serves the Lolo and will be doing a ton of trail work in the Rattlesnake.” 

According to MCC, a survey of members shows 28% of members live out of their vehicles during service. According to Bobby Grillo, MCC Conservation Corps Director, 45 hosts have signed up this year to host corps members, who are often only home four to five days per month. MCC asks that hosts offer their living spaces for up to 25 percent of their AmeriCorps. 

“We hope host families will consider this rate as a contribution to the MCC member’s experience,” the program’s website states. “These members give up a lot to serve in Montana communities. They make lasting contributions to our public lands.  With your help this experience will be possible for the next generation of service members in Montana.” 

For former AmeriCorps member Nicki Jimenez, connecting with local community members helped provide stable housing when she served in FoodCorps in 2012-2014 and completed important projects including sourcing local food to schools in Ronan and Polson. She’s proud that her work provided a foundation for food and garden education in local schools long after her term of service. 

“I got super lucky because employees at my service site had housing on their property that they were willing to rent to AmeriCorps members for really affordable prices,” Jimenez said. “The kindness and generosity of Karl Sutton and Darci Jones and Will and Jan Tusick really eased my way to find affordable housing in the Mission Valley when I was a FoodCorps service member. I do believe affordable housing was something my fellow members struggled with. However, one antidote to this in my time in the Mission Valley was AmeriCorps members working together and supporting each other. In the communities of the Mission Valley, AmeriCorps members from various organizations - whether it was VISTA, FoodCorps, Big Sky Watershed Corps, Montana Conservation Corps, etc. - got to know each other and helped each other out with housing. I mostly lived with other AmeriCorps members and connected new AmeriCorps members to friends and possible housing opportunities.” 

As a group, she’d recommend AmeriCorps members to landlords or hosts. 

“I would generally recommend AmeriCorps members for placement in local homes or as tenants,” Jiminez said. “AmeriCorps members have chosen to subsist on a living stipend in order to serve their community. Thus, they are generally community-minded and caring individuals who would be conscientious tenants. Some may be willing to trade work for housing.” 

To learn more about hosting and MCC member, visit this website:

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