January 9, 2024 / Modified jan 9, 2024 11:11 a.m.

Local Tucson non-profit uses "whole healing" approach to fight homelessness

I Am You 360 provides homes and professional training for young at-risk Tucsonans

I Am You 360 Second Development with sign I Am You 360 is building a second group of tiny homes to house clients right next to their office.
Duncan Moon - AZPM

Homelessness is a pressing challenge in the Tucson area. Despite the city buying several hotels in 2023 to turn into housing for the homeless, the city's Housing and Community Development Department says the city has insufficient housing resources and is still trying to ease the housing strain caused by the Pandemic.

Charities and non-governmental organizations are also working to pick up the slack, and one in particular - "I Am You 360" is taking a unique and holistic approach and finding success.

The office of I Am You 360 looks and feels more like a home. The main room is furnished with comfortable couches and overstuffed chairs. Young people lounge and talk as they wait for an event scheduled to start in just a few minutes. A lone adult moves comfortably and easily among them smiling and interacting with them like an older sibling or a parent

I Am You 360 - sharing a meal at the office VIEW LARGER I Am You 360 clients share a meal with Founder and CEO Desiree Cook at the organization's office before a training session on budgeting and personal finance
Duncan Moon - AZPM

Her name is Desiree Cook and she is the founder and CEO of I am you 360. The non-profit is her brainchild, designed to take what she calls a "whole healing" approach to beating homelessness. For many the cycle of homelessness and poverty begins when they age out of foster care, and lose the shelter the system has provided them.

“Imagine being a kid in foster care and bounced around several homes and then you turn 18 and age out and there’s no one there for you," Cook says.

She says she brings a unique understanding to the work. When she was 17, her father died, and grief and despair led her to look for comfort in drugs. Eventually, she became a homeless addict - She was arrested for drug use and incarcerated for three years - and because she was a single mom, her children were put in foster care

She said she had a moment of clarity while she was in prison, and when she was released in 2002, she devoted herself to becoming a productive member of the community. She says she knows only too well how hard it is for young people with little or no resources She both knows the pain and stress they feel and what it will take for them to get back their feet.

"I see things through much clearer lens when it comes to creating whole people because I had to work on transforming myself to become who I am today," she says.

She believes her willingness to be honest and transparent with her clients about her past gives her credibility. They know she has walked the same path. And she says while she has plenty of advice to give them, she does not ever speak down to them. Condescension, she says, kills trust and I Am You 360 is fundamentally about helping her clients find and feel their innate self-worth.

Cook knows that reliable safe housing is essential to building a successful future, so providing that is a cornerstone of her plan. I Am You 360 built a small house community with ten 450-foot square homes constructed around a quiet and secure private courtyard . Each home has a full modern kitchen and bathroom. The rent is a dollar a month per square foot - $450 in total.

I Am You 360 First Housing Project The courtyard at I Am You 360's first tiny house site
Duncan Moon

But Cook says just providing temporary housing, no matter how good, is just a short-term fix - what she calls "treating symptoms without addressing the root causes," so I Am You 360 uses it as an opportunity to build something more permanent

"We take half of the rent each month - $225 - for the next three years and put it in escrow," she says. "And at the end of the 3-year program, each client gets that money back as a down payment for their first starter home as well as partnering with other organizations that offer first time home by your programs."

In addition I Am You 360 provides clients with the opportunity to learn necessary life skills they will need to navigate life successfully and become useful tax-paying citizens. They teach interpersonal communication - how to speak to others and answer questions in job interviews. They provide professional classes that teach the difference between purchasing necessities and impulse buying, as well as how to save, budget, and invest.

And Cook, who is a licensed cosmetologist, teaches them personal hygiene and how to dress and present themselves for employment interviews. She says this is an element that is often overlooked, but is vital for buiding a sense of self worth, and when mixing with the public, it becomes a make or break skill. And, in addition to providing hygene instruction, I Am You 360 also provides them with quality personal hygiene products.

I Am You 360 Hygiene Products VIEW LARGER In addition to housing and trainings, I Am You 360 supplies them with hygiene products every 6 weeks
Duncan Moon - AZPM

"And we refill them every six weeks to fill the hygiene insecurity void, which data shows is so related to self esteem, school attendance, academic success," she says. "It's a foundation for success, so we make sure that everything is full size and refill times 8 times a year."

I Am You 360 Desiree and Daniel VIEW LARGER I Am You 360 Founder and CEO Desiree Cook and Daniel

One of Desiree's clients is a young man named Daniel. He asked that we not use his last name. Daniel is 20 years old and has been in the program two years. He says, like Desiree, he came to a crossroads in his life.

"I was going down like a pretty messy path," he says. "I remember just waking up one day and looking myself in the mirror and asking myself would the little Daniel be proud of the Daniel that I’m becoming, and the answer was no, he he wouldn’t like, it so that’s when I decided to do something. I changed for the better because I wanted to be the best person that I could be."

He says he had applied to several housing programs, but either did not hear back or was told he didn’t qualify. He'd nearly given up hope when someone suggested he get in touch with I am You 360. At first he thought what's the point, but he decided to try one more time and put in an application

A few weeks later his phone rang.

"And I remember I was with my friend. It came up as an unknown caller ID. He told me hang up, that it was probably a scam," he says. But the thought came to him: "What if it’s important; I'm going to answer it."

On the other end was I Am You 360 inviting him to come in and meet Desiree and the team.

Daniel says it didn't take long for him to realize that I am you 360 and its whole healing approach was different. He caught a glimpse beyond the 3 year housing offer to a plan designed to give him the skills and confidence get him back on his feet and end his homelessness once and for all.

For example, he says he was always quiet and shy, lacking confidence in his ability to speak, but Desiree taught him basic communication skills, which gave him the confidence to engage with people he didn't know. And he says that and the other skills he was taught opened up a whole new world for him - one he couldn't see before. .

A few days later, I met Daniel at one of the program's mandatory training sessions at the I Am You 360. This session is on basic budgeting, how to save money out of every paycheck, and how to invest those savings profitably.

Daniel says these sessions have transformed how he sees himself and his future. And he says the the safety of a stable inexpensive roof over his head has allowed him to apply his new found skills to work and begin to learn a trade. He is studying solar construction and installation and picking up electrician skills on "the side..

You know, I feel myself improved and becoming best version of myself," he says. I ask whether little Daniel would be happy? He Would! He would!"

He says he hopes others will find inspiration in his experience with I Am You 360. "I know there are other people out there that are in my situation and I don’t want them to give up," he says. "Don’t give up. because this program will be their hope. They literally will plant seeds of hope for the future generation, so just please please don’t give up."

Desiree Cook and I Am You 360 have big plans for 2024. A second group of 10 single unit houses is nearing completion right next door to their office and she says they are already targeting a third site once the newest site is up and running. And since I Am You 360 works with a contractor who allows them to build as the money comes in, rather than having to pay it all up front, Cook says there is no limit to how many homes they can build and how many lives they can rebuild.

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