The Shift from Empathy to Action: A Reflection with Rob White at The Haven

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

By Mahima Reddy, Jeannie Taylor & Kristin Adams

1. What brought you to Charlottesville?: “Love and poor organizational skills brought me to Charlottesville. I grew up over the mountain in the Tree Streets of Waynesboro. The friends I had growing up were all used to hearing that if you were going to go all the way to Charlottesville then you’d better have a good reason. Those good reasons for us were Plan 9 Music, Blue Ridge Mountain Sports, Crutchfield Electronics, and Fashion Square Mall. This was in the mid to late 80’s. The first time I moved to Charlottesville was in the spring of 95’. I was working a temporary job in the warehouse at UVA Press of Virginia and cutting grass on a private golf course in Albemarle County. That spring I got a job for a local landscaping company as a Lawn Specialist. I would abruptly change direction with that decision and moved to Summit County, Colorado where my sister Lisa was living. It happened that I ended up staying out there for nine years. Six years in Breckenridge, a ski town, and three years in Boulder at Naropa Universtiy, trying to get an MFA in creative writing. I came back to Virginia in 05’ to finish my thesis and that’s when I started living in Charlottesville again. I’ve worked most of those years with the homeless population in the area and adjunct teaching English Composition courses at Piedmont Virginia Community College.”

2. What is your role at The Haven?: “My job title is Day Shelter Coordinator, which is a position with job duties that are still evolving. Two seasons ago the shelter decided to extend its hours of operation through the afternoons, and they needed someone to help with scheduling and with information flow between staff and departments. In my work I help out at the welcome desk and in the kitchen. I assist our Housing2Home Coordinator, who heads up a program that will help a recently housed guest furnish and personalize their new living space. I also assist our Community Engagement Coordinator with supply donations, and with coordinating voucher programs for clothing, shoes, furniture, and eyeglasses. In addition, I help one of our kitchen managers coordinate a program called Haven Homecooking where we turn our dining room into a café and hire 5-6 guests each week to help us prepare and serve a lunch to the public. The café is currently closed because of the pandemic. We’ll have to rethink a new approach because this program became something special to everyone involved.”

3. Do you see your role at The Haven evolving in the future?: “I see the Day Shelter Coordinator position evolving to include a more focused approach to coordinating guest engagement and programming. These have always been a priority at the shelter. In particular I’m referring to having onsite medical, psychological, and addiction services, as well as programs that target personal enrichment opportunities. There’s a need to have targeted services and programs at the shelter because that’s where we’ve got the best chance of their being accessed rather than having to refer them offsite. I’m thinking of writing and art groups, stress reduction activities, and educational opportunities. What does all of this look like now that we’re four months into our response to Covid-19, and considering the protest movement for racial justice? That’s the hard work we have ahead of us. Our Board of Directors has asked staff and guests to participate in listening sessions with them so that we can better understand how we participate and are complicit in systemic racism.

It may be that I’m not the right person to coordinate guest engagement and programming at this time. I think we’ll all be taking a close look at our positions and will have to make adjustments based on our priorities. This is where I find The Haven’s strength. We all bring something unique to this community and we are encouraged in our work to develop our skillsets and realize and aspire to our dreams. This is what we want for our guests and that’s why we are in this line of work.”

4. How and why did you get involved with The Haven?: “I worked with PACEM, as an overnight supervisor in 2005 when I moved back from CO. I applied for the job because of a street retreat I had taken the previous spring in Denver, CO with a Zen Peacemakers group. It was a four-day immersion retreat where we lived homeless on the streets of Denver, ate at soup kitchens, and begged for our bus money back to Boulder. We did a lot of council circles where we practiced speaking from the heart, listening from the heart, speaking spontaneously, and speaking leanly. These were interesting to do in public settings like parks where some of the real homeless folks would join us.

I left PVCC in 14’ to take a break from teaching and took a job doing construction work on a timber frame schoolhouse at Heartmoor Farm in Kents Store. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted and whether or not I was going to go on living in the area or move somewhere else. I began to gravitate towards the homeless community I knew in Charlottesville. It felt like home to go and eat breakfast at The Haven in the mornings, to see the familiar faces, and to hear and feel the energy of the place at breakfast time. I helped with dishes after I ate and would leave to go to the library and Tea Bizarre to check emails and write cover letters for employment. There was a point where I took a job with Relay Foods as a delivery driver. I didn’t stay past the training stages because I got an offer to work at The Haven. Owen, our Operations Director, asked if I’d be interested in working at the welcome desk. I took the job and went on full-time the next year. I also started adjuncting again at PVCC.”

5. What is a good habit you have developed and hope to maintain post quarantine?: “Doing yoga at home. I started taking yoga classes with Hot Yoga Charlottesville in 2006. During quarantine they started posting videos and hosting virtual classes via zoom. This helped me have a yoga practice at home.”

6. How have you been spending your time in quarantine? What are some of your favorite hobbies?: “I’ve gotten some gardening in this year. Zoom has been helpful. The Shakespeare Theater in Staunton started offering online master classes during quarantine, and I took one with one of the actors who’s in charge of textual editing. The local Zen group has a Sunday morning zoom call that I have been attending. There are folks on the call from the area, Reading, PA and London, England.”

7. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned at The Haven?: “I like seeing the connections between guests, volunteers, and staff. It’s integral to experiencing the place and how it works. I’ve never been much for group activities but working there, and with PACEM and PVCC, has helped realize the magic that can happen in community.”

8. What is one thing you wish you could have told your college age self?: Decide on a major early? I went through a lot of majors and chose English. Maybe I should have done liberal arts.

What would you tell yourself that is not school related?: “ ‘Rob, you should go to California and get on a shipping liner and go to Southeast Asia and see what happens.’ That’s what my older cousin Steve said to me. I think it was good advice. He was raised on a farm in Fork Union. He’s now a business professor in Beijing.”

9. What is a misconception people have about homelessness or homeless individuals?: “That they don’t try. I’ve been working on the same puzzle my whole life. I just started grabbing pieces to get started and couldn’t even see the image. I still can’t see it. But I have learned how to make a few better choices. I have started to listen. There are conversations going on that can help me see the image more clearly, that can help me find the piece that I need to keep moving forward so that I can see the whole thing clearly. Discovering that these same people are right there with me wherever I may be can feel magical.”

10. Do you have any comments or thoughts you would like to share regarding housing inequality in Charlottesville? If so, what have been your experiences/observations?:I lived in a ski town for years, where housing was impossible and many folks that worked in the ski towns had to live a good way away because they couldn’t afford to be there. I see the same thing happening in Charlottesville, where people can’t afford to live in the communities that they need to support them. There is housing available, but it isn’t close enough to resources people need to stay stable.”

11. Can you comment on which factors seem to contribute most to housing inequality in Charlottesville?: “I’d like to see a change in how we think about habitat. All spring at sunrise I could walk out on my porch and to the north across rolling cow fields I’d hear saws and big machines. There have been clear cuts showing up especially the past few years all along my commute to Charlottesville along the James Madison and Thomas Jefferson Highways. It’s an awful sight in all directions to see so much loss of habitat and not to be having more public discussion about how these careless decisions are being made and who profits the most from it. This crossover of public and private interests on this issue will reveal a lot of what we need to know to take on related issues of inequality and homelessness.” 

12. What do you hope changes about housing inequality?: “That we talk about it as a practical problem that can be solved. All the conceptual questions related to it can be worked on, as a house becomes a home.”

13. Can you tell us any initiatives or programs at The Haven that have been implemented to reduce housing inequality?: “I’d point to Haven Homecooking, a café lunch we offer on Wednesdays for the public, and the writer’s circle. The community at The Haven is a venue for sharing stories and personal reflection. Each of these contributes to raising awareness of who we’re working with at the shelter.”

14. Can you comment on the impact of racism on affordable housing in Charlottesville?: “Our history is complicated. I’m glad we’re having a public discussion about racism. It’s time right now for me to listen, to educate myself, and to respond with courage.”

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