“If somebody came to you and said, ‘Look, it’s going to cost you nothing, but you can change somebody’s life.’ Would you do it? Of course you would. It’s a no-brainer.
In December of 2012, Shelters to Shutters Founder, Chris Finlay, was reading Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine when he came across an article profiling homelessness in Asheville, North Carolina.
“What struck me in reading that article that didn’t occur to me before was the number of people that really want to work. And yet, if you’re homeless and you don’t have an address, how do you get a job?”
As an owner of a property management company, Chris knew he was uniquely positioned to find an answer to this plaguing question. He started envisioning a model that would pair industry professionals with homeless individuals who wanted to work—offering a “hand up” and a pathway for economic independence. It was from this concept that Shelters to Shutters was born.
Shelters to Shutters educates real estate and property management professionals and encourages them to engage and make a difference in their communities. It also works with local service organizations to identify homeless individuals in need of a job who are ready and willing to work.
By partnering with both industry leaders and non-profits, Shelters to Shutters is able to match employers with ready-to-work homeless individuals, while also resourcing them with housing and training opportunities necessary for long-term success.
The Face of Homelessness
Over the course of a year, 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness; 40 percent of whom are children.
Many homeless individuals and families have experienced an unexpected life-altering event, such as a job loss or domestic abuse, which has them facing circumstances they never thought they would be—without a home.
On any given night, more than 500,000 people experience homelessness in the United States. That’s 500,000 faces and names—individual people with individual stories. The homeless community is often discussed as a homogeneous group, but the causes of homelessness are varied.
It's Not What You Think
Drugs and mental illness are often thought to be driving homelessness. While these issues are very real for many, they are not the primary causes of homelessness.
Unlike most perceptions, less than 30 percent of homeless have drug or alcohol dependency issues or are mentally ill. That means that 70 percent of homelessness arises from some other cause.
Most homeless are able and willing to work and want to return to a life of self-sufficiency. But their ability to do so, in part, depends on the world’s perception of them as capable and willing – as someone worth giving a chance.
Causes + Factors
So, if drug abuse and mental illness are not the primary cause of homelessness, then what is? A closer look reveals that poverty, unemployment and housing costs are all intricately connected.
For those living in poverty or close to the poverty line, a sudden life change can thrust them out on the streets. Without a safety net, the loss of a job, loss of a loved one, or even a circumstance as seemingly small as a broken down car, can interfere with a family’s ability to make payments or cover their bills.
According to Family Promise, the majority of families with children have cited loss of a job as the cause of their homelessness, followed next by a lack of affordable housing, poverty, low-paying jobs and domestic violence.
The face of homelessness is not as simplistic as it may seem to the outside world. Instead, each story of homelessness is usually the product of a complex combination of factors, circumstances and decisions.
The cost of homelessness is a human one, to be sure, but there are also financial, economic and social costs to be considered.
Studies have examined the cost of shelters and homeless services along with indirect costs (referred to as externalities in economic terms), such as hospitalization, medical treatment, incarceration, police intervention and emergency shelter expenses. The National Alliance to End Homelessness provided the following assessment based off some of these studies:
According to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine, homeless people spent an average of four days longer per hospital visit than comparable non-homeless people. This extra cost, approximately $2,414 per hospitalization, is attributable to homelessness.
According to a University of Texas two-year survey of homeless individuals, each person cost the taxpayers $14,480 per year, primarily for overnight jail. Often, time served is a result of laws specifically targeting the homeless population, including regulations against loitering, sleeping in cars, and begging.
A study from Los Angeles, CA – home to ten percent of the entire homeless population – found that placing four chronically homeless people into permanent supportive housing saved the city more than $80,000 per year.
The Address Factor
"But the people I met—and the misery they experience—were very real. They were not the lazy alcoholics and drug addicts I’d assumed them to be. They were ordinary people looking desperately for jobs but not getting them, mainly because they had no permanent address. Many had kids whom they called from payphones. All were ashamed of their situation.” ~ Will Harlan, Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine
Without a home address, those who are homeless struggle to get a job. The very thing that could lift them out of their circumstances – a job – is the thing they cannot obtain because of their circumstances. Many within the homeless community are both ready and willing to work, but founder Chris Finlay asks this critical question, “If you’re homeless and you don’t have an address, how do you get a job?”
A Dream Come True
Odessa’s story is one of courage and triumph, of overcoming adversity and rediscovering who she is and what she could be. After a series of unexpected circumstances, she found herself living in a shelter with baby twins in tow.
She never expected to be homeless. “It’s hard to admit that, and it’s even hard for me to say that because I’ve always been stable,” she says. But she finds hope from a helping hand.
“Shelters to Shutters is, to me, a dream come true.”
Promise for the Future
Shelters to Shutters is making a significant difference in the trajectory of people’s lives.
For so many individuals, the missing link is quite simply opportunity – or more tangibly, a job and a home address. And the two are so inextricably linked that it can be extremely difficult to get to the other side without a helping hand.
Shelters to Shutters is that hand, and one transition at a time, formerly homeless individuals are rediscovering hope, dignity and opportunity:
Ronnie, an Air Force veteran, had always held a steady job until the economy started to turn. He slowly used up his savings and tried to survive moving from job to job, but eventually found himself unemployed and his pockets empty. Soon, his choices were few: Live out of his car or go to a homeless shelter.
Ronnie decided to seek out a shelter and connected with a program for veterans. Ronnie made it clear from the start, he didn’t want a handout—he wanted to work. With his can-do attitude, his veteran representative knew Shelters to Shutters would be a good fit and could provide employment and housing.
Ronnie has taken on his role as a groundskeeper with tremendous enthusiasm and dedication. His hard work and upbeat personality quickly endeared him to his coworkers. After meeting Ronnie, Property Manager Ashley Victory knew he would be an asset to her team: “He’s ready. He sold the process for me. He’s so motivated and has such a great drive to succeed,” she says. Ronnie helps wherever he can, preparing apartments for tenants or assisting with electrical work. He believes that Shelters to Shutters has provided an opportunity for him to learn and excel professionally—just what he needed.
Before his struggle with homelessness, Joe was a successful Navy veteran who held a steady 13-year career as a machinist. But Joe struggled with drug addiction, one that cost him everything—his job, his relationships, and even his home.
Mired in addiction, Joe moved in with his sister and tried to pick up the pieces on his own, but continued to spiral. Finally, his sister had enough and said, “You’ve got to go—you just gotta go.”
During his darkest hours, Joe approached his church for help. Joe told his Pastor “I’m homeless, I need long-term treatment.” Thanks to a supportive faith community and a long-term treatment program, Joe was able to successfully treat his addiction. “I was able to get off drugs and change my life around,” Joe says.
A local organization that assists homeless veterans noticed Joe and his commitment to recovery. This veterans service provider then recommended him for the Shelters to Shutters program. Ideal candidates display a strong drive for employment, and Joe’s professional background fit the mold.
Today, Joe is no longer living in a shelter but has his own apartment. He is now a full-time groundskeeper, working on advancing to the position of Maintenance Technician. His supervisor, Property Manager Leisa VanHoose, says “Joe is so grateful and genuine… he’s got an energy about him that’s contagious.”
“Shelters to Shutters has given me a career and a nice place to live.” Joe states as he proudly shows his new home. “There’s a great need for programs like Shelters to Shutters. This journey has been a long and rocky road, but it’s turned out really good.”
Before being introduced to Shelters to Shutters, Edward was on the streets for five years—panhandling for money by day and sleeping under bridges and on benches by night. Having grown up in a family of alcoholics, he hadn’t seen many alternatives. Addiction overcame him.
Edward’s first step towards a new lifestyle was enrolling in a comprehensive addiction counseling program. He’d been in it for sixteen-months when one of his counselors told him about Shelters to Shutters and the opportunity to utilize his electrical and carpentry skills in the property maintenance industry.
“I gave him my information and a couple days later I got a call asking if I could come for an interview. And now here I am.”
Even though Edward had been homeless and on the streets, he is very skilled with a lot of experience, which has made him a valued addition to the maintenance staff. He has hit the ground running and has proven to be a reliable and valued employee.
“He has a knowledge base, and I think I’ll learn from him, as well as he’ll learn from me,” says service manager, Orel Saunders. “I think this will be really good for him. He’s real energized and real hyped to get to work and get it done.”
“It drives me nuts to see something that’s broken and I know I can fix it, you know what I mean? I’m repairing my life.”
Pathways for Change
The Shelters to Shutters concept is about transitioning people currently living in shelters to their very own shutters.
The issue is fairly simple and straightforward – those who are homeless need a home. Yet, obtaining a home is most often dependent on acquiring a job. A homeless single mom needs a paycheck in order to pay rent. She will likely need a job to even make it past a credit check for an apartment. She might need some source of financial support to put down a security deposit or make the first payment required before moving in.
But for those without a home, employment can be hard to come by. Jobs usually start with an application, and an application generally requires a home address. For many who are homeless and actively looking for employment, their search ends before it has even begun simply because they lack numbers and a street name – a permanent address.
So what comes first? The chicken or the egg? The job or the house?
Shelters to Shutters steps in and answers this question – and its answer is both. By partnering with multi-family property management companies, the program provides both housing and a job.
As an apartment owner and operator, we have housing AND jobs. It's that unique combination that's so impactful.Chris FinlayFounderShelters to Shutters
Real estate and property managers can do something most employers can’t: It can make housing accessible to the homeless without giving them a handout. It can hire them for a job, knowing that the individual will also have housing, and vice versa (providing them housing, knowing they will also have income).
The keys to a home also open the door to employment. Shelters to Shutters and its partners hand off the keys and meet them on the other side of that open door.
Collaboration + Support
Shelters to Shutters has identified a simple recipe for resolving many cases of homelessness: one part home + one part employment = sustainable life change.
Partnering with local nonprofits and industry professionals, the organization is working to implement this recipe and help bring homeless individuals out of shelters and into homes and meaningful employment.
The program is not a solo effort – It partners with local service organizations supporting the homeless community to identify individuals who are ready and willing to work. Through this collaboration, they are able to vet candidates that will be committed and reliable.
Shelters to Shutters also partners with industry professionals to educate them about the value and readiness of the homeless community and to engage them in providing job and housing opportunities for these individuals. Case workers then continues as a part of the process by offering additional support, training, accountability and counsel for those individuals who are a part of the program.
This one-on-one investment in the candidates helps set them up for success. Relationship lays a foundation of support and creates a safety net that helps program participants stay on the right track. Even those who have the desire and the will to work may need support and accountability – Shelters to Shutters provides just that.
Career Pathway + Economic Self-Sufficiency
Shelters to Shutters partners with a network of property management specialists who have seen the value of interviewing program candidates and matching these ready-to-work individuals with open positions.
These jobs are more than an entry-level job; participants are set on a career path. Performance leads to advancement and opens up doors for new opportunities, helping set the homeless on a permanent path to self-sufficiency. The Shelters to Shutters program is not a short-term solution – it is a long-term path.
For example, one program participant who started as a Groundskeeper is now being groomed for the position of Maintenance Technician. Candidates have access to mentoring, educational and training opportunities in order to prepare them for further advancement.
The goal is to see future company leaders come from this program -- Maintenance Supervisor, Regional Supervisor. The upward mobility for a career is real, and property management is a professional skill that has value and relevance anywhere in the US.
Companies are finding tremendous loyalty in Shelters to Shutters program participants because they fully appreciate the opportunity – the value of employment AND housing. When the program began, the focus was on how industry would help these individuals who needed a ‘hand up’ not a ‘hand out.’ But after ten months of operation, it has become quite clear that industry is benefitting from the caliber of candidates coming through the program.
"This program makes sense for industry – not only are we helping homeless who want to work, we are saving industry money by providing vetted, qualified candidates and limiting turnover. Shelters to Shutters is a ‘win-win’ for any property management company."
Shelters to Shutters is currently operational in Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Nashville, Greensboro, Austin and Dallas, and the program utilizes a model that can be replicated in any city in the US.
With aggressive plans to scale the effort nationally, Shelters to Shutters is always looking to establish new partnerships with service providers and real estate management companies.
For now, the most personal and helpful thing YOU can do is welcome a Shelters to Shutters participant into their new home and job by donating a Welcome Kit to them. Welcome Kits include the most basic new-home needs: linens, pots and pans, dishes and silverware, shower curtain, etc. These expressions of support and love go a LONG WAY toward encouraging Shelters to Shutters participants along their newfound path.
The Shelters to Shutters story is an easy one to tell. Simple ideas change lives, creative solutions address deeply rooted problems, and needs are answered in the most practical of forms – a home for the homeless, a job for the jobless.
What I love most about this story is that it’s not the narrative of a lofty dreamer or grand visionary. Instead, it’s a story about one person seeing a problem and joining together with others to become the solution. It’s about encountering a need and responding to it.
Sometimes I feel a heavy responsibility to dream up a way to change the world – to conjure up some magical antidote to the problems that have plagued society for centuries over. And for me, the Shelters to Shutters story is a good reminder of what is often the most effective kind of solution – the one that, at its most basic level, is a simple response of human compassion to an encountered need. It’s not a field of study or a career path, it’s an answer that arises from a decision to be present, to recognize the needs of a neighbor and do something about it.
Shelters to Shutters is one organization’s answer to the needs of the homeless community. It has not eradicated homelessness, nor will it ever. But it has restored Ronnie’s pride and dignity, helped Joe get off the streets and out of addiction, offered Edward an opportunity to repair his life. And for Odessa, well it has likely changed the trajectory of not only her life, but also the lives of her children.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly