Every day, Marik Armstrong comes to work at Higher Ground Saint Paul. As a case manager, Armstrong advocates on behalf of individuals living
in permanent supportive housing at Higher Ground Residence.
Higher Ground Residence is the housing side of Higher Ground Saint Paul, the innovative shelter and housing complex which opened in January, 2017.
Armstrong is well liked by his clients. They appreciate how he can understand their situation, since Armstrong knows life on the streets. He was once a homeless veteran. While unemployed he went from renting a room to sleeping in his truck and, occasionally, in motels. When he had to give up his truck, he stayed in Hennepin County shelters and ate at meal centers.
Armstrong credits the Veterans Administration for helping him get out of homelessness quickly. Programs available to him as a college-educated, healthy white male with a record of military service are not available to many of his clients. His first job out of homelessness was as a street outreach worker locating and identifying people experiencing homelessness and trying to get them into housing. He’s been with Catholic Charities for more than a year. He not only works full time, but also is a full-time student pursuing his masters of social work. He realizes his experiences likely helped him become the self-proclaimed “Encyclopedia of Resources” at Higher Ground.
As people come into housing from either the shelter or the streets, Armstrong said it is important to give individuals a time to recover and adjust with their new reality and
then help them connect to needed resources.
“I tend to view the experience of homelessness as more than a socioeconomic issue. For me, it tends to be a health issue as well as many other things,” he said. “When individuals move into housing we want them to have the reprieve from the trauma of the experience of street homelessness but then in the stability make a lot of movements toward medical insurance, getting out of emergency departments and into primary care clinics, moving to a preventive care model and attending to chemical and mental health recovery.”
Armstrong recognizes clients have varying needs and adjusts his services and approach to that end.
“Certain individuals, it’s important for them to get back into the job market. Other individuals will pursue Social Security claims of various kinds. Some will need to live in supportive housing for the duration of their lives and for some, this is kind of a segue into more independent
living situations,” Armstrong said. “That’s just particular to each individual. There are many types of situations with folks who come here to be residents and many paths out of here to make more room for individuals who are coming off the street.”
The beauty of his days doesn’t come from seeing his clients survive, but rather when they can thrive and dream again.
“The real work, to me, is allowing individuals to realize they have opportunity again,” he said.
“Because the world view of a person experiencing homelessness can be so reduced to immediate needs and crisis—and that’s understandable—in that individuals have to live hand to mouth and think about safety. It may take people awhile to learn that they can think a year ahead and that they can have aspirations and they can have hopes and dreams and wishes again,” he said. “The real emotional labor of case management is allowing people to see that opportunity again.”