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Reflections on Advocacy and Leadership from the Mass Housing and Shelter Alliance Team (Part II of the MHSA Story)

Interview by Alexis Schroeder

After speaking with Joe Finn, President and Executive Director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, about MHSA’s history, current work, and the Housing First movement (click here to read the interview), I sat down with more MHSA staff to ask some of the bigger questions about what it is like working on such a cause as ending homelessness every day. In this interview, you’ll hear from Joe Finn; Erin Donohue and Nicole Silva, both in Development and Communications; Pat Walsh, Policy and Advocacy Director; and Kaye Wild, MHSA’s Vice President.

NPi: What have you all learned by doing this work?

Joe Finn: In terms of the nonprofit world and working on an issue like poverty, one of the things I learn continually is how much both of these things are like everything else that happens in the world. There’s a common mythology out there that the nonprofit realm is different from the for-profit realm in the sense that it’s somehow nobler in purpose, etc… The human condition is universal… Also, idealism is one thing, but actually creating something in time and space is quite another.

Pat Walsh: I worked on homelessness for over 30 years as a state employee. Having come from state government before working in the nonprofit world—and they are two entirely different worlds—I’ve learned an awful lot that I wish I had known earlier. What I’ve seen is that from a resource point of view, paying for shelter (which when I was a state employee was the only way to go because we wanted to make sure people weren’t homeless) was actually a bad road to go down. We created this whole population of homeless people who have now taken on a life of their own and have benefits and resources attached to them. They’ve become a subset within the larger realm of poverty. Government, in my opinion, is [reactive, not progressive]. I think one of the nonprofit world’s challenges is getting government to say, listen, there’s a better road to go down… and in the long-run everybody is better served—the tax-payer, the clients, society.

Kaye Wild: I would say, if everybody likes you, you’re doing something wrong.

Nicole Silva: You can get a lot accomplished when you don’t mind who takes the credit. I’ve noticed that this comes up a lot when you’re working with people providing direct services as opposed to doing advocacy at a higher level.

NPi: What is something you’ve learned from the communities you’ve served that has surprised you?

Kaye: People always ask me why are people homeless… Are they all substance abusers, etc. I’ve learned that everyone has a completely different story. Certain elements of the stories are the same, but everyone has such a completely different story, which is kind of inspiring and kind of daunting. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution or program that will help people.

Pat: I’ve learned that advocacy has many nuances to it, maybe it’s a bit cynical, but I don’t necessarily think that people who say they are homelessness advocates are advocating for the homeless. In a lot of cases they’re advocating for their own particular interests which they think will better serve the homeless, but in reality do not… People think homeless individuals want to live on the street and in shelters and that’s not necessarily true.

Kaye: I would say not everybody who advocates for the homeless is advocating to end homelessness. We all say “end homelessness” and that would be great, but a lot of people just want to maintain the system that’s in place (shelters) because they think we’re never going to get rid of homelessness. Either they think it can’t be done or the change would require too much. People get into a way of doing things and don’t like to change.

NPi: What keeps you coming to work every day?

Kaye: I don’t want to be homeless. I don’t want to lose my job. [Laughs] Seriously though, that’s the first thing I think of because I see homeless people and they used to have jobs, they used to own their homes. I think, that could be me.

Pat: You have to have an interest in people, in working for something that’s important in the larger scheme of things. We deal with real people and real situations and real problems. You get a feel for what’s really going on in society.

Joe: You’ve got two types of people in state government: those who solve problems and those who create problems. Pat was one of the guys who actually solved problems. Now, we’re really trying to get the state to do more flexible spending. If you can’t give us more money, at least allow us to spend money where we know it will have the greatest impact.

Erin Donohue: I just believe so strongly in MHSA’s mission. I know that there’s nobody else in the state that’s doing the work that we’re doing, so for me it’s a combination of feeling passionate about the fact that I think it’s atrocious that homelessness exists and then being able to work in an organization that’s truly working to end homelessness.

NPi: What is a lesson you’d pass on to other leaders or would-be leaders?

Joe: We’re not dealing with rocket science. We lose focus when we get off of an action-based model for what we’re trying to accomplish. Leading is not just about process; leading is about doing. “Home and Healthy for Good” did more good by doing it than all the theoretical talks and workshops in the world. I think that’s what leadership requires, and I wish we had more of that on the state side right now. When shelters started it wasn’t like people said, OK, we have the money to do it; it was one commissioner who just said I’m going to do it. We can criticize the shelter system now, but if he hadn’t done it, people would have died on the streets. Who was that by the way.

Pat: Chuck Atkins.

Joe: It’s keeping that focus on action, which can be frustrating for folks particularly when you’re going 90 miles per hour and you don’t have control of the steering wheel. I’m not opposed to planning, but I do think we can get hung up on process too often.

Erin: Also, not to be shy. Just talk to people and put yourself out there. Do informational interviews. I think hearing from a diverse group of people in different occupations is very helpful in terms of figuring out what direction you want to go. And take risks when you’re starting something new.

Joe: Erin and Nikki have made such ground in terms of re-imaging homelessness. We’re just starting to get some traction. We’ve always been good on the public side, and we’ve had some private support, but not what I refer to as popular private support, which I think we’re just starting to get now thanks to their efforts.

Pat: And they’ve engaged a younger generation.

Kaye: Pick your battles or you’re just going to wear yourself out… I don’t know if it’s wisdom or instinct or what, but you have to know what you need to stick to your guns about and what you need to let go of a little. Don’t drive yourself crazy over something that you really should let go of so you can focus on something else.

Nicole: One of the things that I hear people say a lot about our Housing First tenants is meeting people where they are… there’s some young professionals who just want to write a check and some who want to get more involved. One of the things we do is think about who the people are who want to come to every single meeting and giving them that opportunity, and then thinking about who the people are who may just want to come to one or two meetings and giving them that opportunity, too. Meet people where they are.

Related News:

MHSA’s Home & Healthy for Good was chosen as a 2010 Social Innovator by the Root Cause Social Innovation Forum. Click here for more details.

How to Get Involved:

Become a MHSA member, make a donation, become an advocate, attend one of MHSA’s events, or join MHSA’s special events committee. Click here for more information.

 

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