Citizen, constituent, advocate: Spending a “Day on the Hill” with Mert

By John Tribbett, St. Stephen’s Human Services

John and Mert Verticle

John and Mert at the Minnesota State Capitol on March 15, 2016

The room was silent and all eyes were on Mert. He spoke slowly and deliberately to the Senator’s Aide. Along with Mert, the Senator’s office was tightly packed with a variety of activists. All were at the Capitol as part of the Day on the Hill, held on March 15, 2016, to lobby in support of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless’ 2016 legislative agenda. I was lobbying along with Mert because I work with him at St. Stephen’s Human Services.

“I am here,” Mert said, briefly pausing, “to support what you’re doing to help the homeless because I have been homeless myself.”

I expected Mert to end with this statement, as he did earlier in the day when meeting with his State Representative. He was nervous, and we had gone over the things he could say several times on the way to the Capitol. At the first meeting, he was brief. This time he continued speaking, confident now, in the power of his story.

Mert explained how he had been homeless most of his adult life. He had couch hopped and was in and out of shelters for years. Eventually, he found housing with the assistance of St. Stephen’s. He has been successfully housed in the same apartment for almost two years now, the longest time in his life. Mert ended his story by telling the Senator’s Aide that programs, like the ones that had helped him, need to continue, and he wanted to make sure they did so that others could be helped.

The Aide thanked Mert. Then the other folks in the room – Case Managers, faith-community members, and concerned citizens – took turns sharing their words to help ensure that programs that address homelessness remain funded. Mert sat and listened, taking it all in.  

It was not my first Day on the Hill. I had come last year with a group of my colleagues. It was a rewarding experience to take part in pushing for system’s change – to have a chance to lift my head up above the day in, day out struggle to house and keep people housed.

This year it was even more rewarding to be at the Capitol. For starters, we set a record. Mert and I joined over 600 of my fellow citizens in meeting with our Legislators – it was the largest Day on the Hill ever. Fifty of these individuals were clients and staff from St. Stephen’s, each stepping out from their normal roles and bringing their individual expertise of experience to the empowered role of citizen-advocate.

But this is what was most important: to see Mert, who has overcome so many barriers in his life, who has experienced the degradation of living on the streets, and who has been ill treated by society and power structures, sitting in the seat of power. Giving face and voice to the human struggle we so often hide our eyes from. Mert claimed his rightful place as a full member of the community. A constituent, a citizen, and an advocate.  

“Putting people who have experienced difficulty in a place of strength, because they are so often not in that place,” is how Monica Nilsson, Director of Community Engagement at St. Stephen’s, described the critical role that citizen-advocates have in the policy debate. Individuals, like Mert, know firsthand how policy translates into the reality of homelessness. Bringing citizens that have lived through homelessness and their stories directly to elected officials allows them to hear the reality of homelessness directly.

“Most elected officials only drive by what they think is homelessness, and it allows them to think ‘he can get a job because he looks capable,’” said Nilsson. This is a sadly limited view that must be confronted to bring lasting change.

When Mert, and his fellow citizen-advocates who have experienced homelessness, insist that they be seen and heard they disrupt the ability for those in power to ignore those they are rightly beholden to. They also are given an opportunity to give back to the community.

“What we just did is service work, isn’t it?” Mert said to me as the State Capitol faded away in the rearview mirror while driving west towards Minneapolis. We had been talking about the events of the day and what we had done and said.  

“Yes it is Mert,” I said. “Yes it is.”    


Originally published by MCH member St. Stephen’s Human Services, Spring 2016 Newsletter