photo by Katy Yoder
photo by Katy Yoder
A favorite quote by author Arundhati Roy sums up Mandee Seeley’s work advocating for people experiencing houselessness in Sisters Country: “There’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Seeley is a woman with grit and passion, who’s been a housing advocate in Sisters since 2016. That’s the year her family of four moved to Oregon and became houseless themselves. Her family, including two young children, had to move every 14 days. She describes the experience in one word: “brutal.” For seven months they lived in the forest in a tent. Not in the same tent, but several. That’s because one was chewed by an animal and the others didn’t hold up to the elements.

Her family moved to Oregon from Florida. Seeley said living in an RV, even with cold, mountain winters, was easier in Oregon than Florida.

“That’s because of the extreme heat and the people who are against houseless people,” she said. “There was little kindness and no forest land to park on, but we did it.”

Seeley is a proud member of the Residents Organizing for Change (ROC), a statewide network committed to advocating for safe, stable, and affordable housing for all Oregonians. After she lost her job due to COVID in April of 2020, she committed to the cause full-time. ROC fit well with her lived experience and passion for helping people without a house.

She was recognized by the Sisters Country Vision Implementation Team who sponsored the 2021 Community Champions Awards. She was honored as a Livable Community Champion, for her ongoing work to help make Sisters Country a more livable community. She is an original committee member of the Sisters Cold Weather Shelter and helped restart the Sisters Houseless Networking group.

Prior to working with ROC, Seeley hadn’t met another person who was fighting to end houselessness and had also experienced housing instability in Central Oregon.

“ROC introduced me to a network of others like me. That really fueled my passion and made me want to fight harder for all of us,” said Seeley.

ROC has been a gateway for Seeley, opening doors and expanding her understanding of the complexities involved in solving houseless problems in Sisters and beyond.

“In my short time with them, I have gained confidence as a constituent and grown a deeper appreciation for policy work, which has taught me that my story and perspective is necessary when talking to legislators representing my community,” she said.

She’s participated in a national housing justice narrative fellowship with other advocates with lived experience across the country, creating more connections and a unified voice as they work to end houselessness and housing instability.

“I was asked to join the Project Turnkey Advisory Council that provides funds to Oregon organizations to turn motels into housing for wildfire victims and others experiencing houselessness,” she said.

Seeley has also learned how to help others share their story by speaking to future members at ROC’s virtual Housing Opportunity Week.

“None of this would have happened without ROC. I’m so thankful to call myself a member,” she said.

When she was a houseless advocate, COVID added challenges like virtual meetings.

“I was getting kicked off during meetings and calls and missing meetings, because of difficulties finding WiFi. All the groups I worked with were patient and understanding.”

Now that her family is in a house, she’s doing more to support people facing houselessness

“I still have the cheapest Internet offered so it’s not ideal even in a home,” she said.

Receiving an award for her work was a welcome accolade.

“It felt awesome and I was surprised to be recognized. I’ve felt appreciated with the feedback from people I work with even without receiving the award,” she said. “On a community level I’m very proud of it.”

Having lived experience qualified her for the work she’s doing, but Seeley is still deciphering acronyms and vernacular her cohorts use.

“Even after five years doing this, I’m still learning and catching up to know what we’re talking about half the time,” she said.

“There are people without personal experience, who just don’t get it and say things that are offensive and hurtful. There’s been quite a few times I’ve felt like just saying forget it, and it’s not worth doing anymore. But being in this community makes it better. This community embraced our family. We never experienced the level of discrimination I see happening for the houseless folks in the community now. I think if I’d experienced that in the beginning, I wouldn’t be sitting here doing this work now.

“Being houseless can be incredibly isolating because of the stigma of being without a home. I want our neighbors in the forest to know that people in this community care, regardless of what they may hear or see around town or on Facebook, which is incredibly toxic in Sisters.”

Seeley learned quickly when she shared her story and perspective, that people really appreciated hearing it.

“They got past their fear. I did a talk with a few others in the community on homelessness, and when I mentioned my husband and I spent seven months in a tent with our children, there were shocked reactions from the audience. When we arrived in Sisters, I heard people say, we don’t have a homeless problem and I’d think, ‘Yeah, you kinda do!’” she said.

Assuaging people’s fears and seeing the difference in certain community members who were concerned about what homeless folks in the woods were up to has helped.

Every person has a story and reasons why they’re houseless.

“For the last 20 years of my life I’ve been that angry person because of things that happened in my life,” Seeley said. “I’ve been the addict. I’ve been the criminal and have experienced mental-health challenges. This community changed all that for me. And because I’ve been all of those things, and was able to change my life with love and support, I understand that we should be showing everyone the same level of kindness. Who knows what they can accomplish? Some people just need a little more help than others. These aren’t bad people, they’re struggling people, but they’re still people, first.”

Seeley can be reached at 458-206-1927.