Many people, from staff and board members to conference attendees and members, work with the Coalition to help us achieve our mission. “Advocates in the Spotlight” celebrates different types of advocates, from people in the field to those behind-the-scenes working in our office every day. We continue this series by interviewing an advocate who has been doing a lot of spotlighting of his own, Michael Dahl of St. Paul, Minnesota.

As part of his “Talk About Home” project, Michael has been interviewing a wide range of pedestrians walking around the Twin Cities about the meaning of home and their response to the extreme levels of homelessness in their state. Videos of the interviews are posted on his website, which he hopes help make affordable housing and ending homelessness major issues during the 2012 election.

Our Communications Project Manager Sarah Brundage recently got Michael to take some time off from interviewing people on the streets of Minnesota, and got him on the other end of the camera to ask him a few questions of her own about his hands-on advocacy work.

The man behind the camera

SB: “Talk about Home” is a really exciting and engaging project. What does advocacy mean to you and how did your personal experience of advocacy inspire this idea?

MD: Advocacy has always been my thing and my drive has been to work on affordable housing issues. My advocacy has also been very drawn to being participatory…. We’re not going to get major change on issues unless we involve the public in a way we’re not doing right now. The reason we’re not doing that is because [we think] housing is so confusing and people won’t understand what we’re talking about. I wanted to put that to test and so I started thinking about what would happen if I went out and interviewed people.

When I started interviewing individuals it was beautiful in some ways; in other ways it was heart wrenching. I just decided to keep that up, and hopefully learn some lessons that I could teach advocates about how to communicate with people about housing in a way that they can understand it.

And while people do talk about housing differently, when they talk about affordable housing and homelessness they have a really good sense of it. People might not use the same words that we use but they know how to make sense of the problem.

SB: We were excited to see that you had used data from NLIHC’s annual Out of Reach report to help introduce this project on your website. You referenced Minnesota’s Housing Wage of $15.50 to show how low-wage workers cannot afford to live in that state. As a long-time affordable housing advocate, what role has Out of Reach has played in your advocacy work?

MD: Ever since I’ve been aware of Out of Reach I’ve been using it, and I’ve been using it a lot. It’s a really simple way to talk to anybody – whether it’s people on the streets, people living in housing or politicians – they understand that someone has to work to afford housing in most cases, and that full-time work often doesn’t pay for what we would consider quality housing.

SB: Unfortunately the state of affordable housing as described by Out of Reach has not improved much over the years. Do the report and the Housing Wage still surprise you?

MD: In some respects it’s what I’ve grown to expect since the numbers haven’t changed dramatically over the past few years. Even though they’re not headed in a good direction, I want to know that we’re not moving the ball forward enough right now, and that we need policies to do that. The Out of Reach report is a really good indicator of, “Are our policies being effective or not?”

The reason we’re not being effective enough isn’t because we don’t know how to do policy or because we don’t have answers or because we haven’t gotten politicians to pay enough attention to what the solutions are so far…. They key to getting politicians to pay attention is to not have just me talking about affordable housing, homelessness and Out of Reach data, it’s to have the public talking about it.

Two or three times a week, Michael “panhandles” for videotaped interviews about the meaning of “home”. While most of those interviewed are from Minnesota, he’s also talked to people from at least a dozen other states as well as visitors from Britain, Venezuela, and Costa Rica.

SB: You have interviewed over 100 individuals already. What would you say is the greatest take-away?

MD: I have people identify what they think about home and do they have particular memories, and it doesn’t matter if the person is well off, has an intact family or is homeless, I’d say 98% of them identify home as something they really love. We have this common good feeling about home, and when I ask people about those memories and I get them to think about the bigger issue they start to think, “What would it be like if I didn’t have this security, that place to go to, if I never cooked with mom, what happened if I lived in a car?” I’ve seen people grappling with the fact that what they have if they’re doing okay right now is not something that a lot of people have and it’s getting worse. And if they’re homeless, they still realize how important stability is, and how they’re not able to get out of their homeless situation because of the lack of stability.

So my advice, my punch line, the thing I want to get to for advocates and politicians that care about housing issues is… we’re still going to have to use the acronyms and the legislative speech in certain circles, but if we want to get the public behind us on a major policy initiative, we need to talk about how people can’t rely on home as a place of safety, as a place to go back to. Those are important things to people and a lot of folks don’t have it.

I hope that we find a way to talk about this in ways that really resonate with the public because as the interviews show, they’re ready to talk about this. They understand it.

Click on the image to watch one of Michael’s favorite interviews featuring Timothy, a man experiencing homelessness who gave an “extremely thoughtful and empathetic interview.”

Watch more interviews at and stay tuned for tips from Michael on how you can start your own “Talk About Home” project locally, coming soon!