Novel program gives homeless people jobs in apartment buildings – and housing, too

Andre Segears is a participant in Shelters to Shutters. He lives at an apartment building in Alexandria, Va.

WASHINGTON – In a past career, Daniel Stover worked in construction. He was assigned to the night shift but had to resign when he couldn’t find anyone to watch his 6-year-old daughter. One thing led to another, and Stover found himself homeless.

He and his daughter, Nirvana, were bouncing between friends’ and family’s homes when he found Shelters to Shutters through a workforce development program. Stover, 34, started working as a maintenance technician at an apartment building in Rockville, Md., in early July of last year and moved into the Gables Upper Rock later that month.

The job is hard – fixing appliances and air-conditioners – he said, but he enjoys it and has bonded with the property’s management.

“My mission was not to let them down, because they took a leap of faith for me,” said Stover, a native of northwest Washington.

About 200 people have transitioned out of situational homelessness through Shelters to Shutters since it was piloted in five cities in 2015. The Vienna, Va.-based nonprofit launched a program in the Washington area in 2017 and now operates in a dozen cities, including Atlanta, Houston, Nashville and Portland, Ore.

The program is the brainchild of real estate executive Chris Finlay, who said he read a magazine article about homelessness and saw a need that property management companies could fill. Half of entry-level real estate employees leave their jobs within a year in search of better opportunities, he said, creating a constant demand for workers.

Shelters to Shutters screens job candidates recommended by local nonprofit partners and refers them to property management companies, who hire them into maintenance and leasing positions. The model is meant to push people toward self-sufficiency by offering them full-time employment and discounted housing at the buildings where they work.

Roughly 10,480 people in the District of Columbia were homeless in January 2018, according to the annual point-in-time count. Homelessness can be situational – sparked by a financial, career or health care crisis – or chronic, which occurs when a person has a disability and lacks housing for a year or for four periods of time that total a year. About 83 percent of homelessness is situational, Finlay said.

Shelters to Shutters’ clientele and its approach to homelessness stands in contrast to the federally-sponsored “housing first” policy that prioritizes helping the chronically homeless into housing before resolving other issues, like mental illness or problems with addiction, and helping them find work. Most governments in the Washington region have adopted the housing first model, said Hilary Chapman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Finlay pushes for a different solution: His program identifies largely well people who are situationally homeless and immediately ready to work, connects them with property management companies, facilitates trainings for them and monitors their progress.

For some homeless people, that process, he said, can break the cycle.

Employees can advance from groundskeeper to maintenance technician to regional maintenance supervisor and beyond, Finlay said. About nine in 10 Shelters to Shutters participants get a raise in their first year of work, the organization estimates.

The property management companies directly pay participants, who earn the same wages as any employee in their position. Pay and housing discounts vary between properties, with some management companies initially offering free housing and others requiring all participants to pay a portion of their rent.

Shelters to Shutters’ administrative operations are funded by its board of directors, corporate philanthropy, individual donations and private grants.

People experiencing homelessness who want to join the program have to fill out an application, undergo a background check and participate in an interview. If they have an addiction in their past, they have to have been clean for at least a year.

Vernon Suggs, who found his maintenance job in Northwest D.C. through Shelters to Shutters, said the nonprofit’s strategy differentiates it from other anti-homelessness initiatives.

“It’s contingent upon you being the best you can be in terms of your health, your work ethic and doing what you’re supposed to do – the things that you haven’t been doing in the past,” said Suggs, 60.

If someone fails to do those things and loses his job, he is forced to part with his housing discount. Shelters to Shutters participants have to be physically and mentally capable of fulfilling their work responsibilities, Finlay said.

Mary Frances Kenion said she helped two people apply to Shelters to Shutters when she worked as a programs director at Bridges to Independence, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit that supports people who are homeless. One applicant was accepted, Kenion said, but the person’s personal struggles prevented Shelters to Shutters from placing the individual in a building.

Finlay acknowledged that some people who are homeless might face challenges, like addiction, mental illness or a history of trauma, that make them unready to work. He said he hopes to keep educating the business and real estate communities about how to serve a broad group of people.

“As we’re growing, we’re going to take the easiest candidates first,” Finlay said. Many participants come in with prior skills, but others have no particularly relevant prior knowledge. The program’s new employees receive the same training as other new employees, specific to the position.

Other residents of the buildings, and even the on-site property managers, do not necessarily know that an employee was hired through Shelters to Shutters. This practice eliminates the stigma that would otherwise be likely to follow participants, said Leo Horey, the chief administrative officer for AvalonBay Communities.

Shelters to Shutters participants at AvalonBay properties get smaller discounts on their housing over time, Horey said, until eventually they pay the same rent as other employees.

“Do they get some special hand-holding? Yes,” Horey said. “But the goal is for them to be fully functional without the housing benefit over a couple-year period.”

Andre Seagers’ apartment in the Avalon Potomac Yard high-rise in Alexandria, Va., is a big upgrade from the Northeast D.C. shelter where he lived last year. At 43 years old, he said he was tired of being in such close proximity to dozens of other men.

Seagers attended a hiring fair that Shelters to Shutters hosted in October. A month later, he had a job and a home.

Seagers had been taking building maintenance classes at So Others Might Eat, an anti-poverty social services organization, and working as an electrician at La Casa, a rehabilitation housing program. Now he would earn discounted rent, a salary and benefits in exchange for 40 hours a week of fixing thermostats, reprogramming locks and resolving any number of other mishaps that might happen in his building’s more than 300 units.

“When you have a trade and you have some skills,” Seagers said, “you don’t have to settle for less.”

Seagers has only been a maintenance technician for five months, but he already has his eye on a long-term goal. He wants to be a manager.

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