South Sound advocate for the homeless Selena Kilmoyer recently was recognized as the 2012 Hero of the Houseless by the Thurston County Housing Task Force.
Kilmoyer, 68, of Olympia, has been involved in several local efforts to help provide basic services to those without permanent roofs over their heads, including the Bread & Roses Advocacy Center, the Devoe Road Shelter, the Out of the Woods family shelter and Camp Quixote. She has served on Bread & Roses’ board of directors for several years and recently returned to the nonprofit, for which she serves as a live-in volunteer.
“Selena has been part of nearly every new approach to homelessness in our county,” said Thurston County homeless coordinator Theresa Slusher, adding that Kilmoyer has brought a faith-based perspective to community efforts involving nonprofits, governments and businesses.
“… She helps all of us understand that by working together, we create a whole that is greater than the sum of our different parts,” Slusher said.
Kilmoyer has a bachelor’s degree in special education and elementary education from State University of New York in Geneseo and a master’s degree in education and theology from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont.
After divorcing her husband of 25 years, she lived a monastic life with a Catholic order in Oregon for about eight years. She moved to Olympia about 12 years ago to work at Bread & Roses.
The Olympian talked to Kilmoyer about her work and life. Here are excerpts of the conversation.
Question: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Answer: I believe that I’m an advocate from the marrow of my bones. I recall advocating for one of my classmates when I was in third grade, and I don’t think I’ve stopped since then.
… I volunteered in jails and prisons for many years. I was a guardian ad litem at Vermont State Hospital, too. Ironically, one of my responsibilities there was to prepare cases for a panel that determined whether or not a long-term patient would be institutionalized or released to the community. Here we are, three decades later, living with the impact of those decisions — a large percentage of homeless people live with mental illness. For me it’s been almost a completion of a circle.
Q: What are some of the biggest issues facing the homeless in South Sound?
A: I think we are experiencing less funding for mental health care. Housing dollars are shrinking. Social-service dollars are shrinking, and yet as a community we are expected to continue providing the fundamental basics to meet people’s needs. Compounded to all of this is a very unstable economy. All of these factors have in tandem created more and more insecurity, particularly among the young. There is an increase of young folks, unaccompanied youth they’re called. Thurston County school districts are also seeing an alarming increase in the number of homeless children, which is frightening, given the overall wealth of Thurston County.
It’s so easy to use one generic term, “homeless,” but there are multiple subcultures in the homeless community.
Gradually, we as a community are growing in the understanding of the diverse yet basic needs of all these different subgroups. … But that’s not to say that we are fiscally, socially or even emotionally prepared to handle the increasing population and its needs.
Q: How do you think the issues can be resolved?
A: We must collectively look at all the various funding sources that are filtered through our county, and how can we better spend that money. … I’m hopeful we are getting to a place where we can let clear and accurate data determine who are the people, what are their specific needs and what are the best solutions.
… We have been remiss, I think, in the last six years in truly getting a handle on what needs to be done in Thurston County. Research demonstrates that other areas have embraced a plan to end homelessness and preventing homeless and are making great strides in just doing that. … We got caught in a quagmire and have not moved until very recently. I feel there’s a new sense of light in our community and hope that hasn’t been present for several years.
Q: What does the Housing Task Force award mean to you?
A: I was extremely touched. I was very moved that my peers perceive me in ways that they do. I’m so accustomed to be just part of the team that it was actually very difficult for me to be singled out.
Q: Social-service work is known for having a high level of burnout. What motivates you to continue your work?
A: I’m greatly supported by the little miracles I experience journeying with people who are homeless, like hearing about a first hot bath from someone who has lived on the streets for a long, long time. Those are the things that give me hope.
I have been blessed to work with many incredible people who just constantly persevere in trying to meet the unmet and growing needs of people in our community.
I also have a strong personal spiritual practice, and work very hard at maintaining my center. I have experienced burnout and I’ve experienced health difficulties, but I’ve been able to get through them with God’s grace.
Q: The Homeless Consortium set a goal to eliminate homelessness in our area by 2016. It was an ambitious goal at the time, and then the numbers of homeless skyrocketed as the economy tanked. How close do you think South Sound will be to that goal?
A: I think that philosophically and pragmatically, as a community, we’re beginning to listen to each other.
... Basically we’re getting smart about what to do and how to plan, and we may just surprise ourselves and accomplish a lot more than we thought we could.