Neli Vasquez Rowland
A comprehensive approach to homelessness addresses all contributing factors to help end the cycle
Story By: Valerie Menard
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 564,708 people are homeless on any given night in the United States. Of that number, 206,286 are people in families and 358,422 are individuals. To address the issue, federal, state, county, and city governments struggle to find workable solutions.
One comprehensive model in Chicago, A Safe Haven, may have hit upon the answer. Rather than focusing on one aspect of the problem, the non-profit takes a holistic approach that begins by providing housing. However, A Safe Haven housing is completely unalike the government-funded affordable housing units seen in poverty-stricken neighborhoods across the country. A Safe Haven apartments dot the city, and some residents even live in a high-rise complex in downtown Chicago.
Add to that drug rehabilitation, education, and job placement services and A Safe Haven boasts a return on investment greater than numbers are able to demonstrate. An investment in helping our city's most vulnerable achieve self-sufficiency through sustainable employment results in more tax dollars for our city and state, fewer individuals relying on state and federal aid, improved neighborhood security, and greater economic success for all. The cost of homelessness on society is high: from concrete costs such as paying for emergency room visits and incarceration, to intangible costs such as deteriorating mental health, the collapse of families, and the slow decline of entire communities.
“Our state and nation have historically thrown large amounts of money at this problem, but with very few results,” says Neli Vazquez Rowland. “When my husband and I were looking at what we could do, we didn’t just want to take money, we wanted to provide solutions.”
The middle child of seven, Vazquez Rowland grew up in a Chicago barrio she describes as a “beautiful enclave of Latinos” who looked out for one another. Rowland focused on helping her family financially as soon as she could, handing over a portion of her first paycheck to her mother as she had seen her older brothers and sisters do.
“I remember feeling so proud that day because I could finally contribute, and turning to see my father in tears. I didn’t know if he was crying out of shame or pride,” she shares.
Her father helped put her on the road to success, intervening when Vazquez Rowland was in high school, transferring her to a vocational high school in downtown Chicago, where she learned to type 90 words per minute and take shorthand, skills she still uses to this day. She would have continued to work in administrative jobs to support the family, but when her best friend’s namesake and mother, Esther Garcia, learned that Vazquez Rowland had no plans to attend college, she stepped in.
“She said I was way too smart to not go to school, and took it upon herself to help me apply for college,” she says. “It was the first time I ever considered college, and I was the first in my family to go. If folks hadn’t helped me, I would have become another statistic.”
Vazquez Rowland attended Loyola University, where she met her husband, Brian Rowland. They were both gainfully employed in the financial sector when her husband’s boss suggested that he might have a drinking problem. After completing a rehab program for substance abuse, he realized that access to this kind of help was lacking for those with fewer resources. The couple purchased and refurbished a downtown property in 1994, converting it into affordable housing for individuals recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. They intended to eventually sell the property, but that never happened. A few years later, A Safe Haven Foundation was born.
“We felt we had been blessed, and should share that blessing with our kids by paying it forward,” she says. “We knew we would feel good giving opportunities to those coming out of poverty.”