Age 35, Impact NW
2021 Prize Winner
Give!Guide: How does your personal experience inform your work with Impact NW?
Kendra Johnson: I was born and raised in Northeast Portland. I also come from generational poverty. My mom worked really hard to begin to break that cycle, and so did my grandmother. I come from a line of people trying to make it better for the next generation. So I knew I wanted to help continue trying to make the community better. I didn't know that it would be nonprofit work. But when I got into school and learned more about what nonprofit work actually does, I felt like that was the place for me.
Homelessness is a major problem in Portland. What is the root cause?
I don't think there's one root cause. There are many issues that plague the community currently and historically and collectively they have resulted in an increased homelessness. Yes, how much it costs to live here is part of it. But I also think policies and systems that are not built to help people that might need mental support or might need some addiction recovery support, as well as housing, play a part. Homelessness is a major problem in Portland, and so is housing insecurity. Many families are on the verge of becoming homeless, and that's where Impact NW comes in - we help people from ending up on the street. Root causes of homelessness are due to low wages, unaffordable, and scarce housing options. We also have to address racism, mental health, and addiction if we want to address homelessness.
What does an average work day look like for you?
There's no “average day.” One day I might come in and I'm working on budgets. The next day I might be at a school helping to fill in for after-school programming. The next day we might be trying to figure out how to get a contractor to put A/C in a senior's home before the next heat wave. We believe our clients are the experts in their journey, so we try to meet them wherever they're at.
What are some of the roadblocks you’ve encountered that can make the job difficult?
Just not having enough resources for the amount of need. The hardest thing is telling someone “no” or “not right now.” It's also very motivating because that means that, on my end, we need to continue to do more advocacy and find additional partnerships. And if we can't do what they came here for, what else do they need? It might be energy assistance instead of housing support right now. It might be a food box or some clothing. What else can we help them with while we're looking for other solutions? We don't want them to walk away without a plan.
Is there an interaction you’ve had through Impact NW that you’re particularly proud of?
I started working here like 13 years ago, pretty fresh out of college, and I was in the Independent Living Program. There was a young person who had refused to work with me. I continued to call them every month for a really long time to say, “I'm here for you if you want our services.” Finally, they're like, “All right, let's meet.” That person went to college, graduated from high school, is working at a local hospital, and has their own place. And when they’re able, they’ve come back and volunteered with Impact NW and talk about their journey. That was like a 13-yearlong journey from meeting that person to them coming back and volunteering and seeing them flourish.