Giving the homeless a voice

By Elizabeth Strawn

Elizabeth Olson not only works with people who are homeless, but she gets to know them.

“My friends will ask me if I give money to the pan handlers that you see on the street,” Olson said. “I always tell them that I know them all, it’s hard to put your work aside.”

Getting a job at CHUM was a life’s dream for Olson. While attending school at University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) for sociology and Women’s Studies, she learned about CHUM and liked that they don’t just address basic needs. They also advocate for change.

“It’s just an incredible organization,” Olson said.

CHUM is a non-profit sponsored by 41 local churches that provide direct services and shelter to the homeless and people with low-income. They also work to effect changes in the hopes of eliminating the need for the service.

Olson got her job at CHUM after getting her masters in congregational and community care at Luther Seminary.

She is the Congregational Outreach Director, which she described as a "jack of all trades."

She preaches sermons, takes groups on tours, gets people ready to testify, works with pastors and helps people utilize resources, among other things.

But the most important part about Olson’s job is the relationships that she develops.

For the past 10 months Olson has been working to save General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC) by talking with local legislatures, taking trips to the capital, and most importantly getting people who would suffer from losing GAMC to tell their stories.

A woman that Olson met named Trixie decided she wanted to campaign, and Olson helped her put together her story and to testify. At first Trixie was shy, but soon her confidence did a 180.

“She went from barely being able to stand up at the drop-in center, to speaking to a room full of people in suits,” Olson said.

Trixie is now an actively involved leader in the Twin Ports Active Coalition, and has become a major advocate. She has spoken with Olson at presentations at UMD.

“We were like glue,” Olson said.

One of the first guys that Olson met at CHUM, was a man who had a serious case of asthma.

“My husband has asthma, and I think it just hit home for me,” Olson said, “something as basic as your right to breathe.”

He was able to tell his story through a YouTube video, and is now doing well and often volunteers at CHUM.

“Every time I see him alive, it is a good day,” Olson said. “He is a really gentle soul.”

A very vulnerable group of 33,000 people with chronic illnesses were going to lose coverage in Minnesota.

Along with the advocacy and grassroots efforts accomplished by CHUM, coverage is maintained in Minnesota. On April 22, they are having a party to celebrate.

Now Olson can take a minute to breathe.

“I am always good at taking care of myself, we are no good if we are not healthy,” Olson said. “You can burn out quickly if you don’t take time.”

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