Celebrating each story: An accessible approach to housing

United Cerebral Palsy puts a community-centered lens at the core of their work to combat housing insecurity


United Cerebral Palsy has helped hundreds in the Eau Claire area sign a lease and secure housing, according to the nonprofit. Graphic by Rosa Gómez

Rosa Gómez

As Jenny Chaput sits down at her desk, she puts everything on pause to take a phone call from a single mother of five who is attempting to find a permanent place to call home. The mother’s biggest fear of her children being on the street is a looming reality, a situation that Chaput is all too familiar with seeing in her work.

Signing a lease is just one piece of the puzzle toward accessible housing — and for many — making it to that step alone is not always possible without support. 

It’s the type of care Chaput set out to provide when she developed the housing program at United Cerebral Palsy of West Central Wisconsin (UCP), where community care is woven into the larger blanket of their work to address inaccessible housing in Wisconsin. 

Her main approach to helping people is first to “learn the story and understand the why,” said Chaput, UCP’s h0using program manager. 

With her staff, Chaput repeatedly emphasizes the importance of viewing their clients as people — each with their own personal narrative. Once you insert yourself into that narrative, you can begin to fight with them, Chaput said.

The team at UCP believes this outlook is a fundamental part in working toward securing accessible housing for vulnerable communities in the Eau Claire area. According to the United States Interagency on Homelessness, close to 5,000 people each day were unhoused  as of 2020. 

As Chaput puts it, the journey to find housing for many is an uphill battle; your soldiers are your community members and the obstacles you face take you one step closer to your end goal. This goes beyond just rhetoric, it’s also put into action on a daily basis.

“I promise you that you’re not alone,” Chaput said to the single mother on the phone. “This sadly happens to a lot of people,” already rallying her troops behind her.  

According to their website, since UCP’s creation in the 1950s, they have evolved into a resource that focuses on policy advocacy, disability-based research, tailored support services and living services.

At the UCP location in Eau Claire, UW-Eau Claire alumni Stephanie Hoeksema is using the skills she learned as a grassroots organizer and applying them to help their clients find accessible housing. 

Hoeksema said her organizing background allows her to have a broader view on what needs her community has and her role in addressing them.

“[Organizing] taught me about how to use your own personal story,” Hoeksema said, “and how narratives of the community really do bind you together.” 

It’s more than considering those who are unhoused that goes into the work that Hoeksema and Chaput do at UCP. The staff at UCP stay involved throughout every step in the housing process and celebrate moments of victory. 

Chaput said those opportunities to celebrate look different for everyone. For some, it may be being put onto a list for subsidized housing in the area they want to live, completing a housing application or signing their first lease. 

One former client called to keep the team members he worked with updated about major life accomplishments, Chaput recalled. Like clockwork, he called on his 30-day sober mark, then 60, then 90.

Like the mother on the phone — and by extension her children— with a developed, more intimate relationship, UCP is able to provide personalized advice based on their connections with the community. 

These sorts of personal connections are another element that can be drawn on from a community organizing perspective. While UCP doesn’t  fall neatly in the grassroots category — many of the principles they center themselves around overlap with organizing. 

Jasmine Baker, a grassroots organizer in Northwestern Wisconsin, echoed that working with the community members immediately around you is a large part of social justice advocacy. 

In this context, mutual aid functions as a pathway for humanity in our society to come forth. Communities provide resources — outside of institutional connection — to their peers who are in a time of need. 

“I always say mutual aid and social justice go really well, hand in hand, because a lot of social justice is community work,” Baker said. 

Hoeksema said one element of mutual aid in their work is they go beyond just helping an individual sign a lease; they want them to have everything they need to be successful. 

She said UCP has recently started their own donation closet, providing their clients with disabilities with some of the resources they need to make their future home as accessible as possible for them. 

Hoeksema said aside from the lease signing itself, one of their major aspirations within their program is to create an avenue to be a part of a community. 

For some this looks like having the equipment they need to physically get there, or for others it may look like creating connections and relationships with community resources.

The solution to such a widespread issue does not lie in one place; “it has to be all programs, all systems, all resources, all government entities all on the same page working together towards the same goal,” Chaput said.

United Cerebral Palsy has forged a path to caring for their community, while uplifting human dignity and placing compassion at the forefront. 

Gómez can be reached at [email protected]

According to the United States Interagency on Homelessness, close to 5,000 people each day were unhoused as of 2020.
Photo by Rosa Gómez