Promoting community and resiliency during crisis: An interview with The Haven’s Ocean Aiello

By Kristin Adams, Anna Grace Chang, Mahima Reddy, Subhi Saibaba, & Tuyet-Minh Tran

  1. What brought you to Charlottesville?

I have been living in Charlottesville for a little over a year now. It's still very new and I'm a part of a very transient wave of people. My partner is attending graduate school at the Batten School of Public Policy and I came along for the ride! Life provided this beautiful moment of things working out professionally for me, along with personally. Previously, I had a role in Richmond working for Bon Secours Hospice as a volunteer coordinator there, and was looking to transition to something different. This job was a perfect fit, something that totally interested me, and overwhelmed me, and was really exciting, and that's how I landed here.

2. Why did you get involved with The Haven?

It’s really interesting, because in the beginning of my time here when I was asked that question, I'd say that I have an interest in housing and with the issue of housing being as massive as it is, you know even in this job I barely scratch the surface of understanding. It's funny looking back now, and comparing my experience in hospice. There are a lot of similarities, even though on the surface they deal with such a different situation entirely. I think the general theme is similar: here at the Haven we believe that everyone deserves more than a second chance — they deserve countless chances, and there’s an emphasis on accompaniment with other people with care and good humor, and addressing human suffering, because that is something that knows no boundaries. Something that was very attractive to me here was that people weren't running away from that. The issue of homelessness is complex and scary and upsetting, but one that cannot be ignored. I think it was an interesting transition from a place of healthcare, specifically, but then to still be looking at how we best serve people who need the most and have the highest barriers and are the most vulnerable in our community.

3. What is your role at The Haven? What kinds of responsibilities does this role entail?

My title is Community Engagement Coordinator. It’s always evolving. I manage all of our volunteers, which is — similar to our guests — a very fluid population of people. I deal with all of the events in our space. During non-Covid times, our sanctuary serves as a community space. So, for instance, there are private schools who use it as a space for their events, it’s used as an auditorium and for debates — political figures will meet here and have discussions. We have a lot of weddings in our space and that's kind of our side hustle here at the Haven. I deal with anyone who wants to rent out the space. I’m involved with all the communications (for the most part) that we put out: two hardcopy newsletters a year, all of our social media channels, an email newsletter (as of recent) for volunteers and supporters of the Haven. I also do some donor development, which is less exciting, but necessary. My job involves doing tax receipts for donations, fielding requests from people who want to have supply drives in the community, working to make sure we are meeting the needs of our guests as they spring up, and doing community outreach when possible, like with classes at UVA (we work really closely with Prof. Kate Stephenson), church groups, and people who want to learn more about the Haven. I do about half of my job on site, especially in this time when there are very few people on site in general and there is a lot of troubleshooting to be done in the shelter. So even though my role itself doesn't take on a super client-focused form, it still has a heavy dose of being with people and figuring out what they need, what the next step is, dealing with crises if I can help (which is sometimes very little), and supporting the shelter staff. It's about being present in the shelter and just offering support in any way I can.

4. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned at The Haven?

It’s crazy! I really mean it when I say that there is not a day that goes by when I'm not learning something new or building on some other type of teaching. I think that's because we're surrounded by very interesting people at the guest level; I think it's so important to listen to people's stories. You can spend one shift at the welcome desk and whatever conception you have of what homelessness looks like is completely exploded. I think that's such an important part of volunteering and working here, especially if you lack that lived experience. On the staff level, we just have so much intelligence and experience here on site, and it's not always obvious. For example, Rob (our shelter coordinator) is an English professor by night, and Stephen has a background in chaplaincy. The staff brings humor and lightheartedness to sometimes really dark days and dark topics here. Owen has such a wealth of knowledge about music and trauma and its impact on people. Laura is like our shelter mom; she raises kids but also cares for everyone here. There's so much to be learned from every person in this space. The biggest themes are the importance of care, often in the most simple ways possible. And I know that you can talk a lot about walking with people and offering hospitality, but you see it lived out here in every possible capacity. Dealing with and addressing conflicts is something that is not comfortable for me and it's been modeled for me by a lot of people here as something that you should not be afraid of or run from and can be a very important part of working through things. I think also just learning about poverty, and how invasive it is, and the structures that we learn about when we read and discuss in classroom settings — the systemic structures, the racial injustices, and all of these things that have existed to put people where they are today — you see that lived out in its many forms here at the Haven. For example, there is learning in working with someone who had a felony on his record from almost ten years ago and the fact that he can’t apply to any major rental property companies in town because they won't accept his application. I saw how hard he was working to do everything in the "right way" and become more of a present person in our community and how he was shot down at every angle. Bearing witness to that has been huge and it's a hard thing to learn.

It's just wild to think back to how I was raised. My mom would say “don’t make eye contact with people on the street”. Some of that is born out of safety, but being comfortable ignoring someone's presence and their humanity is so bizarre. That is a huge piece of what I talk about in volunteer orientation or outreach; acknowledging someone’s humanity is a huge piece of what we do at the Haven. When people ask how to interact with someone panhandling on the Downtown mall, I think it looks different for every person and there's no right way, but one thing you should do is make eye contact and say hello. It's something so simple, but it shook my idea of how we interact with people, specifically, who we see as human and who we work really hard to dehumanize just so we can exist in a lighter way as we walk through the world.

5. How have you been spending your time in quarantine? Is there a good habit you’ve developed that you hope to maintain post-quarantine?

We asked this question to our staff at a recent meeting and it was so fun to see what everyone was up to and it was a myriad of things, from mushroom hunting to sleeping better. For me, just living close to ample hiking has been so important. Although my name is Ocean and that conveys a sense of outdoorsiness, I'm not outdoorsy. Hiking and camping is a new thing for me and it’s been super fun and life-giving. Being able to get out and breathe cleaner air feels so good. 

I've also invested in a water tube this summer and tubing down the Rivanna and the James has been so fun. My weeks have been mentally and physically laborious at the shelter, so being able to spend 5 or 6 hours on the weekend floating down a river is wildly enjoyable. 

I think there’s a gentleness that I feel like I find with everyone in my life but I don't often reflect back on myself, which I think many of us are guilty of. This is something I've been actively working on with the help of friends and a wonderful therapist. I’ve been making sure I'm meeting my own needs, taking time off, walking, and thinking once a day, “what is one thing is I'm proud of what I did today”. It's really important to center yourself and reconnect, which I've been trying to cultivate as a personal practice.

6. In what way(s) do you think the pandemic is most significantly impacting the unhoused population of Charlottesville?

It's wild because we've been in this for 7 months now. Anecdotally, I've seen so many peaks and valleys of people and how it’s impacting them on every level. Specifically for our guests it's been really difficult. We shut down the indoor part of our shelter to only people who are currently un-housed. There are many folks who live in extreme poverty and use our resources (like free laundry, clothes, computers, etc.), and they can’t now. Interacting with people outside the Haven and seeing them separated from this community is just heartwrenching. I think this is a super resilient group, so seeing people just pool together to tackle everything, from doing dishes to answering the phone, is the magic of the Haven. When you put in the work and care and show up, people notice and that really ripples outward here at the Haven. The reality is that we see the implications of eviction moratoriums and rent and living programs running out of money. We see these lack of social services in the surrounding county because we are the front door to so many services and people know our name. It's changing a little now, but not too much because many places (community centers, libraries, social services, etc.) are operating in a limited capacity. We're having to troubleshoot very, very difficult situations. There are so many people sleeping outside and families on the brink of homelessness that we’re concerned about. It's on a much larger scale now. Maybe we don't have as many people in the shelter physically but when looking at services that reach outward, there are a lot of people needing assistance. I took a call a few months ago with a nurse who was exposed to covid and lived in a multigenerational household of people who are at higher risk. She didn’t have anywhere to go and asked for our help. It's kind of crazy that she was part of a larger healthcare system and was calling the Haven for assistance. A whole range of people don’t have enough support from the governmental level for this essential care. We put out our newsletter in April or May and our big emphasis was you can’t shelter in place if you don’t have a home; you can’t socially distance yourself when you don’t have a home. The guidance coming out around shelters was just so ridiculous because people didn't know how to keep people experiencing homelssness safe. The misunderstanding about homelessness is that anything but a home can end homelessness. 

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