Systems are designed to keep people in. If it weren’t designed that way, we’d have a gradual path out.
A few years ago Shelly Jensen found a man napping in the shade of her tree. She greeted him, and he was quick to double-check: “Do you mind if I sit here?”
“Not at all,” she responded. They started up a conversation, and he shared about his experience of homelessness—the uncertainty of day-to-day life, the police officers who kept giving him a hard time. She told him he was welcome to camp out on her property any time, but he was still concerned that the authorities would make him leave.
So Jensen came up with a solution: she added him to her lease. Now he had a place to keep his car, and no one could kick him off the lot. Additionally, he could receive mail and list a permanent address on job applications and other documents.
Problem solved—at least, in Jensen’s perspective. It’s easy to imagine that others would have seen a different problem in her position: the problem of a homeless man sleeping on their lawn. There are government programs and civil servants who “take care of” these sorts of problems, but Jensen sees the shortcomings in the solutions they provide.
“Systems are designed to keep people in,” she says. “If it weren’t designed that way, we’d have a gradual path out.”
So instead, Jensen thinks about what it means to be a neighbor. She believes we need decentralized systems of support, humanizing our neighborhoods again. Jensen has traveled to India, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, where she saw people enjoying community even in the most impoverished environments. “We need that here,” she says.
This is the kind of mentality that has led her to start We Fortify, a non-profit that builds tiny home communities for 18-25 year olds who need safe, affordable housing. The first village opened this spring, but it has been many years in the making.
“I’ve always been for the underdog,” Shelly Jensen tells me shortly after we meet. “Unless you’re the other team—then I want to crush you.”
She laughs, but I can see that she is at least partly serious. We are sitting outside at a picnic table, and she is distracted by a bee that keeps circling her head. She is allergic, she informs me, which leads me to volunteer that we could find somewhere else to sit. She disregards my suggestion and instead swats madly at the bee until it flees. Her manner is brusk yet somehow warm.
“I have the brain of a capitalist but the heart of a social worker,” she tells me.
This dual makeup has propelled her through years of hard work. She began in 2016 by calling up various human service agencies to request interviews. At her first meeting she brought along a notebook to record her research and plans; she is now on notebook number 10. She can look back through this series of notebooks and find the entire history of We Fortify scribbled across hundreds of pages.
Originally she conceived of her idea as a public benefit corporation called Kairos Project 17. After witnessing a close friend of hers be evicted from her home due to circumstances that were beyond her control, Jensen wanted to start a business that would support people in housing crisis. Through several conversations and paradigm shifts, she realized that she was starting a nonprofit.
Then COVID hit, and everything ground to a halt. Jensen remembers, “I almost quit.”
The first projected We Fortify village had already passed unanimously through city council twice, but government funding was now being designated to salvage existing nonprofits, rather than start new ones. Jensen applied for a grant with El Pomar, which told her to come back when she had more backers. With a sliver of hope—“They didn’t say no!”—she developed an expedited funding plan, her “accelerator model.” The Etson Foundation fully funded the first home, and other investors started coming onboard. When she returned to El Pomar, they released funds for operations and infrastructure.
This spring, We Fortify completed construction on the first of several planned communities in south downtown Colorado Springs. The housing philosophy is aimed to reduce the barriers that often confront people who are trying to break out of systemic poverty. They don’t require first and last month’s rent. They fully furnish each home to the resident’s specifications, and everything that is not attached to the walls is the renter’s property. Mattresses, towels, dishes—it all goes with the renter when they move out.
Sese Griffin is one of the first residents of Working Fusion, the first We Fortify village. A 19-year-old student at Pikes Peak Community College, Griffin dreams of one day launching a community similar to the one she now lives in.
In her previous residence, an inexpensive apartment, she lived beneath a loud neighbor. and she could hear the people above her playing loud music, arguing, and cursing at all hours of the day or night. She hated being at home, and her grades dropped. She tried to find other housing but, in the current market, she struggled to find anything.
“Because I’m young and I don’t really have a credit score or renting history, it made it more difficult to get approved or even to hear anything from anyone.”
When Griffin met Jensen, she felt an immediate connection. She was relieved when Jensen invited her to begin the application process with We Fortify. Her application was approved, and she heard that the housing should be available by November 2021. Unfortunately, the move-in date kept getting pushed back—first by a few weeks and ultimately by several months.
“It was a little frustrating for me,” she admits. She had already packed many of her belongings, so the wait was not easy.
Jensen speaks to the same frustrations, the seemingly endless obstacles that pop up when you’re trying to make something from nothing. A new village requires building permits, inspections, blueprints, and any number of other legal hurdles. Working Fusion is now open, with seven residents and a projected 18 by January 2023.
We Fortify is a group effort, and everyone experiences setbacks and successes as a group.
If we zoom back a little bit, we might also recognize Colorado Springs as a group effort and we who live here as its builders. Jensen is quick to mention her partners around the city, where a surprising number of connections are being forged between people of different socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures.
I tried, when listening back to our interview, to tally the number of times Jensen referenced another person’s good work. I lost count at 15. While most of us are engaging online content about faraway people, debating abstractions like “poverty” or “climate change,” she is busying herself with a list of action items, trying to make this city a little better for the people who live here.
“Our brains weren’t meant to have a global neighborhood,” she says. She has purposefully limited her social media engagement so that she can be present to the people around her.
This seems to be Griffin's perspective as well. She offers rides to one of her new neighbors who doesn’t have transportation, knowing from experience how hard it is not to have a working vehicle. She feels a degree of responsibility for her community’s success.
“I know that as a kid myself, if I’d had a more stable home or maybe even my parents had a little extra help understanding and getting things together, then I would’ve had a different experience.”
The week before Griffin and I met, flowers had just been planted in the village, and she was starting her own tomato plants from seed. A lounge had also just been opened, and Griffin enjoyed watching Jensen’s face light up with excitement as the new trailer was installed. She didn’t have a mailbox yet, but she could see her new home taking shape.
“It’s how you feel about being there,” Griffin says. “Making it an environment that feels homey. Not having to worry about everything else that’s going on—just sit down and relax.”
She isn’t sure she’s felt that way about a home before.