Meetup: An interview with one of Streetvibes’ own
by Jim Luken
Meet Jeni Jenkins, 31 years old. Mother of two, Caleb 15 and Kirah 11. Born and raised in Idaho, this dynamic young woman describes herself as “highly ambitious and very creative.”
Jeni is someone who is very well known to the man or woman who, in all likelihood, sold you the award-winning street newspaper you are reading. Jeni is the Director of Education and Outreach for the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition.
“Basically,” she says, “my job is to advocate, empower and educate the public about poverty and homelessness.”
No small task indeed.
One of the primary hats she wears these days (which involves 30% of her time) is to manage distribution for the bi-weekly publication of Streetvibes. Although Streetvibes Distributors often come and go, Jeni knows most of them by face and name. And they not only know her, but they rely heavily on her skills, her care, and her intense energy. But few of our Distributor’s know Jeni’s own story.
That story mirrors, in a profound way, the lives of many people with whom she comes in contact in her work for the Homeless Coalition.
“I grew up in a family with a single mother who married three times. We lived in poverty most of the time, not abject third-world poverty, but we struggled financially. When I was young my mother and step-father worked hard to provide for me and my siblings and our basic needs were always met with love. However, in my formative years my mother divorced and re-married. At this time my mother was struggling with depression that she eventually began masking with an addiction. I was around a lot of drugs as a teenager.”
And did she partake.
“Totally,” she responds, “it was the thing to do.” She recalls that, on her 13th birthday, she received a bag of weed from her stepdad as a present.
As an early teen, Jeni fought constantly with her mother, as many teens do, but the addition of drugs pushed the relationship over the edge. “I remember being so frustrated with my mother and her erratic behavior, but at first I didn’t understand why she had changed, I didn’t realize that drugs were feeding the behavior.”
So in a heated argument, Jeni left home, away from the unstable environment and the strained relationship.
“I was basically a runaway,” she says “relying on friends from school for my basic needs.”
After a few months, Jeni returned home and tried to get help for her mother, to get her “clean.” It didn’t work at the time.
Within a few months Jeni had her first child, a son, while she was fifteen, adding that as soon as she knew she was pregnant her lifestyle changed.
Prior to her son’s birth she had dropped out of school and drank and smoked pot frequently. But that all changed when she discovered she was pregnant.
She returned when her son was 6 weeks “because I didn’t want to be that drop-out teen mom.” During the day her mother would watch her son while she was in school, and in the evenings Jeni would return home and take care of her son and her little brothers while her mother went out.
“My mom wasn’t abusive,” she says, “she was distracted and not able to care for me, my little brothers or my son” [In more recent years, Jeni reveals proudly, that her mother has turned her own life around, returned to college in her 40’s and now works as a social worker].
Still in her mid-teens, Jeni left home again. First, couch-surfing at friend’s houses, then eventually contacting social services and placing herself and her child into foster care.
“I walked in and asked them to help me, help me raise my son, I was naïve thinking they could help me get a place of my own, but they told me my options as a minor and I took them.”
Her experiences in foster care were primarily positive, although one very caring family she lived with were, by Jeni’s call, a little overprotective, especially of her son.
For example: “If he cried in the middle of the night, my foster mother would come in and insist that I get my sleep for school. I felt guilty that she was taking care of him, and not me.”
Nonetheless, she remains grateful for the couple’s love and care.
Eventually Jeni’s aunt learned that her niece was living in foster care and went to the courts in order to gain custody of the young mother and child. Her aunt became a “guiding light” and helped her to return to school, a special alternative high school that permitted her to bring her son with her each day. Living with this “stable” relative gave Jeni the opportunity to graduate from high school on time and a 3.5 GPA.
While in high school she met the father of her second child a girl, now eleven.
For awhile, Jeni says, “I had the ‘white picket fence dream’. I wanted that cookie cutter life.” They bought a house and a car, got a dog and Jeni attended college and worked part time as a program coordinator at a women’s center-but all the while her partner was emotionally and physically abusive.
“I tried to keep it together, for the kids, but at some point I realized they would be better off.”
After three long years of torment, fear and abuse, Jeni gained the courage to leave him. Jeni got the house in the seperation, but couldn’t afford to pay all the bills on her own. Eventually, foreclosure set in. And, once again, Jeni became homeless for a brief time, “but, I was resourceful and with the help of friends and the community, I was able to secure housing almost immediately and move into my own apartment.”
After graduating with a degree in social science, with minors in dispute resolution and art in 2005, she secured a job as an Operations Coordinator for a Gay and Lesbian rights group called, “Your Family Friends and Neighbors” and found herself planning the major gay pride event for Boise in 2006.
She also describes a crazy job she had working for a “Funny Bone” comedy club in Boise. As the marketing manager, she worked to create ads and contact newspapers and radio stations on behalf of the comedians who would roll into town to work the club. She liked the job, but found it a bit crazy-making.
“Here I was, involved with these non-profits (working on behalf of various minorities), and I was in this club where people were coming in and telling racist and sexist jokes all the time. My bosses were always kidding me about my feminist friends and lesbian friends.”
Although the pay wasn’t great, she enjoyed meeting the offbeat comedians, many of whom had various forms of dysfunction in their own lives.
“They filled my life with color, and they made me laugh,” she adds.
In 2006, Jeni made a life-changing decision to come to the University of Cincinnati, to receive her Masters Degree in Women’s Studies. She graduated 2008.
She still misses Idaho and Boise, which, she says, is known as the “City of Trees.” She smiles, pointing out that the nickname (like Cincinnati’s) is a kind of misnomer.
“There are trees along the Boise river, but everything else is mountain desert.”
The State of Idaho is a different kind of conservative than Cincinnati , she says, a new conservatism versus an old. “Cincinnati,” Jeni avows, “is old greed, old money, old hate, and old racism.”
But she has found a place here combating age-old problems with new solutions.
Although she runs up against these “old” realities often in her job at the Homeless Coalition, she feels very glad to have found the unique position.
“My job requires that I be involved with multiple community partners. I am constantly networking and learning.”
Jeni finds that she is so “connected” these days that she receives calls from all over the city from folks who know that she is a person they can rely on to find creative solutions to the many complex problems that arise out of poverty and homelessness, out of dealing with the ones who make the rules, while she is dealing with those who often suffer by the same rules.
As for the future, her goals remain as wide as the western sky that surrounded her young life.
“I always wanted to do everything,” she laughs, “own my own business, start up an arts organization, travel to every country, play in a band.”
To her work and to her dreams, Jenkins brings the fire of an artist.
“I have this desire to be a liberation artist,” she says.
The men and women who sell Streetvibes, and so many other homeless people who are part of her everyday life, hope that Jeni Jenkins remains nestled in the Queen City and in Homeless Coalition office on 12th Street for a long time to come.