A photo of a person standing on a black path with trees on either side of hit. The person is smiling with her eyes closed.
Jae Lange experienced years of homelessness and unstable housing. Now, they are working toward their degree in the School of Social Work’s bachelor’s program. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Driven by lived experience, VCU social work student Jae Lange targets homelessness

Virginia Housing Alliance honors their efforts in the Richmond community housing program Marsha and Marian’s Neighbors.

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Jae Lange says they were a social worker long before a job or degree made it official.

“I was born one, and I will die one,” said Jae, a first-generation, second-year Virginia Commonwealth University student in the School of Social Work bachelor’s program.

Jae also has worked for two years with Marsha and Marian’s Neighbors, a shared-housing program in Richmond for young adults ages 18-24 who are pregnant, parenting and/or identify as LGBTQ+ and are experiencing homelessness. The work is deeply personal for Jae, who experienced homelessness and unstable housing from ages 19 to 22.

And their work has recently been recognized by the Virginia Housing Alliance, which in May named Jae one of two Emerging Leaders in its annual awards. The alliance’s Virginia Housing Trust Fund has provided three grants to help underwrite Marsha and Marian’s Neighbors.

The award “definitely reminded me that all of my hard work over the years – while overcoming my own instability – did not go unnoticed,” Jae said. “And it is because of my people that I am able to push through. Being in the work, boots on the ground, can be extremely triggering. When I can’t hold on anymore, my community holds me up. I am so proud to be fighting alongside my team and my community, fighting to end homelessness.”

Jae and colleagues Sharonne Finch-Dendy and Sherrille Greene have also started the B.A.S.E Foundation, which stands for Building A Safe Environment and works to connect individuals with resources and services they need for long-term stability. Jae was also one of 15 selected for the Virginia Housing Alliance’s BIPOC Leadership Institute.

At Marsha and Marian’s Neighbors, Jae was a peer navigator and now works as a direct service specialist.

“My favorite part about the work that I do is simply having the opportunity to show up consistently in ways that matter,” they said. “That may mean I am teaching someone how to cook, helping them apply for benefits, teaching them how to navigate Richmond’s services or even just being a listening ear for whatever heavy things they may be carrying at the moment. I will always strive to be the case manager that I wanted and needed while experiencing homelessness. For me, this is personal.”

A photo of a person sitting on a bench and smiling.
In May, Jae was named an Emerging Leader by the Virginia Housing Alliance during its annual awards. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

With staff and program participants, or “neighbors,” all sharing lived experiences, there is a strong community.

“Having such a diverse staff, we are constantly learning from one another and teaching each other best practices based on things we have learned in life, school or from other organizations,” Jae said. “Our young people, on the other hand, teach me something new almost every time we meet. They also come from very different backgrounds and have so many different things to offer their community.

“What I would like to amplify about that population is that oftentimes, people believe that they know what is best for those around them. But here at Marsha and Marian’s Neighbors, we believe in honoring autonomy. Especially at this age, when our young people are still figuring themselves out, while they are navigating through all of the trauma they have endured, it is vital that we listen.”

Jae emphasized that final point: “Listen to your community, no matter the age; they will tell you exactly what they need. And if they can’t, it is not our job to try and figure it out. It’s our job to stand in solidarity with them, uplift them, support them while they figure it out.”

That kind of support was crucial for Jae when they were experiencing housing instability and homelessness. It ultimately led them to connect with Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., VCU associate professor of social work, and Nichele Carver through Advocates for Richmond Youth. Wagaman co-founded ARY, a participatory action research team focusing on ending youth homelessness, and Carver was then program manager for Virginia’s Homeless and Special Needs Housing unit and an ARY ally.

“I am one of their chosen moms, and they are one of my chosen children,” Carver said of Jae. “I am immensely proud of what they have accomplished as a student, who has their own nonprofit and a full-time job serving others with co-raising a young child. Jae is truly a rising star who works hard to center the voices of those they serve and ensure that the systems Jae had to navigate are less complicated for others.

“As a person who has 27 years in the field … I appreciate having a front-row seat to watch their ascension into being a national leader in the homeless space,” added Carver, who is now senior regional advisor with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.  

Wagaman and Carver “pushed me to continue to grow my passion for helping people,” Jae said. “They knew all along that I was a social worker. They both even asked, several times, when would I consider starting school for social work. I put off school for as long as I could, but once I started working within the social work school here at VCU” – as the grant administrator for Marsha and Marian’s Neighbors – “it was a sign. That is when I decided to pursue my degree.

“I am a person of and for the people,” Jae added. “My entire existence has been in service to others.”