When Richard Howell was released from prison in 2009, he got turned down for housing again and again. He experienced first-hand the ways our rental and housing markets exclude returning citizens who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. “How am I supposed to be a productive citizen if I don’t have the basic need of housing?” he asks. It’s an urgent question for a state with around 5,000 returning citizens in a given year.

Rather than lose hope, his experience inspired Richard to work to find rental housing for people with felony backgrounds, while also helping them stabilize their lives.

“I wanted people to have a way to move forward,” he says.

This is one example of many where Richard sees opportunities where others see problems.  Richard sees opportunities everywhere — for connection, for change, or for new and better systems. He has launched addiction recovery programs, organized housing for people with felonies, collected resources for people to help them survive COVID-19, and now works helping young people transition from school to jobs.

Having participated in addiction recovery programs, Richard understood what had and hadn’t worked for him. He created Health Realizations as an alternative to the more common ten- or twelve-step programs.

Those “took my breath away,” he says.
“I needed something to give me breath and give me inspiration.”

Instead of messaging that can shame, Health Realizations emphasizes the importance of the journey and recognition of humanity.

 “I wanted people to have a way to move forward,” he says.

“It’s okay to be wrong sometimes, and it’s okay to make mistakes,” Richard says.


At the beginning of the pandemic, Richard teamed up with friends and colleagues, to create Surviving COVID-19, a program that raised over $30,000 to deliver support to his unhoused neighbors.

“We gave out hot meals, coats, boots, gloves, personal hygiene products, hand warmers,” says Richard. “We were like a walking Walgreens with a catering service attached!”

Richard builds relationships to help share the opportunities he sees with his community. He views his work as a means to eliminate the barriers between people and resources, creating more direct lines of access to opportunity. 


“When I go out on the streets, I don’t dictate to people,” he says. “I listen to them.”

Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero Awards recognize the significant impact four honorees have had on the state of Minnesota and its communities.


Meet the Other Heroes:

KingDemetrius Pendelton

Ruth Evangelista

Rawhi Said

Ivy Vainio: Photographer
Ivy Vainio is a direct descendant of a Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe tribal member. She has been a photographer for five years documenting multicultural and specializing in American Indian cultural, public, and social events. She has had five photography exhibitions in the last two years – four of which feature her images of powwow dancers. Her photographs have been featured in local, regional, national and international magazines, books, and newspapers. Some are featured in three public collections. She lives in Duluth Minnesota with her husband and son.
Alia Jeraj
Alia Jeraj (she & they) is a performer, writer, and educator in the Twin Cities. With support from MRAC's 2018 Next Step Fund and as a part of Pillsbury House Theater's 2020 Naked Stages cohort, Alia continues to explore their connection to the songs and stories of her ancestors. Alia's bylines include American Craft, the Twin Cities Daily Planet, and Pollen Midwest. When not singing, writing, or working to subvert mainstream education systems, you can find Alia curled up with hot chai and a book, or somewhere near a body of water.