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Opportunities & Second Chances

St. Luke’s LifeWorks undergoes a creative reinvention to live up to its longtime mission to care for the area’s homeless

Todd DuPont, director of children’s education at the Bartlett Arboretum, and a group of children are the first to check out the new space.

For years Letitia Fernandez believed she was living a charmed life. She joined the U.S. Air Force after high school, and, after being honorably discharged, the New York City native scored a high-powered job as a concierge at a luxury hotel in Puerto Rico.

But then a man with whom she had a child began abusing her, prompting her to flee to Connecticut. More recently, unable to find steady work, she fell behind on her rent payments. At the same time, a threatening former boyfriend was shadowing her, forcing her to take refuge in a homeless shelter, as unthinkable as that once might have been. “I had nowhere else to go,” says Fernandez, who in April reached out to St. Luke’s LifeWorks (SLLW), the nonsectarian Stamford institution that has cared for the homeless in the area since the nineteenth century.

But in a fortuitous turn of events, her stay didn’t last long. A new job with the Veterans Benefits Administration allowed her to save some money, and in August she relocated to a three-bedroom apartment in downtown Stamford. Her plans now include attending community college to become a medical assistant while working at local hospitals on the side.

In her quick bounce back, Fernandez could be seen as a poster child for the good works delivered by SLLW, which traces its roots to a program launched by St. John’s Episcopal Church in 1879 to aid Yale & Towne immigrant workers. In the past year, SLLW has notably changed the way it provides social services. For one, it has evolved into a one-stop shop for a variety of care. No longer is the organization content only to offer meals and beds to those who need them.

Today residents like Fernandez, while living under SLLW’s roof, are able to learn such skills as creating a résumé, dressing appropriately for interviews and managing a household budget. At the same time, SLLW is actively trying to move residents through the system more quickly, dropping the average length of stay, it is hoped, from a few years in some cases to a few months, as was the case with Fernandez.

To that end, the notprofit organization diligently tracks the progress of graduates on charts for all to see, with high hopes of encouraging all those who are still in the program to move on as well. Some of those charts were visible one recent morning, on white boards in a meeting room in SLLW’s main Franklin Street facility. On them, columns neatly listed who landed jobs and who secured housing in the past year; next to each mention somebody had scrawled in blue ink, “Way to go!!!” Keeping up with the Joneses is seen as a good motivator at SLLW.

This numbers-centric approach is in step with, if not pioneering, a trend that’s now sweeping the nonprofit world, says Carol Walter, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. “Data-driven approaches are really, really important,” she adds. “You can’t just do this from instinct.”

Number Crunching

Much of the recent reinvention of SLLW can be attributed to the vision of Jason Shaplen, the charismatic chief executive hired last year to replace the Reverend Richard Schuster, who led the charity from 1987 until his death in 2009. Consisting of both short-term shelter and longer-term transitional and permanent supportive housing, SLLW provides a home to about 500 displaced adults and children a year, which qualifies it as the largest homeless services organization in New England.

If Shaplen’s approach seems somewhat unconventional—with more emphasis on self-reliance, perhaps, than other social-service agencies—it may be because his career path has been so varied. Born in Hong Kong to Robert Shaplen, a journalist who covered Southeast Asia for the New Yorker for decades, Jason also became a reporter, counting a two-year stint at Newsweek on his résumé.

Interested in public policy, Shaplen also worked as a speechwriter for Bill Bradley’s failed 2000 presidential campaign and for a time served as a U.S. State Department diplomat to North Korea. His experience also includes a consulting job in Singapore for Booz Allen Hamilton, the global firm. “My career has been in government, diplomacy, communications and the private sector, and not-for-profit management today is the nexus of all four of them,” says Shaplen one recent morning in his office.

Wearing a tie and a purple dress shirt on his lean, tall frame, with mirror-black lace-ups for shoes, Shaplen rattles off statistics like machine-gun fire in language peppered with terms like leveraging. The effect is less soup-kitchen pep talk and more like a complex presentation one might expect from a banker in a Wall Street boardroom.

The numbers seem to bear out Shaplen’s quantitative approach. In 2010, he says without the aid of note cards, SLLW found employment for 151 clients, as compared with 17 in 2009. Sure, not everybody who gets jobs with help from  SLLW will be able to hold them forever—Shaplen says about 70 percent of last year’s placements are still working—but the jobs are a cut above fast-food line cooks. More than half of them paid $9 an hour or more, he explains.

As if in response to critics who may question the fundamental reason for the existence of a group like SLLW, Shaplen is also quick to point out how much he’s saving taxpayers—$187 million over a decade, when factoring the cost to feed, treat and house the homeless, as well as the cost for police to patrol downtown parks that might have homeless camps.

There are less tangible benefits too, he adds. That same homeless camp might, in some roundabout way, dissuade a bank like RBS from building its headquarters in downtown Stamford. Find housing for people in that camp, Shaplen believes, and the city’s economy as a whole benefits. “I feel very confident I can look any investor or donor in the eye and say they are going to get the biggest bang for the buck by investing in us,” he says.

Shaplen defends the idea that beds should be turning over more quickly, saying, “The faster you move people out, the better chance they have of staying out.”

Addressing Needs

There’s a reason to trumpet his successes. As the downturn trudges on, individual donors, who contribute about one-third of revenues, are still clinging tightly to their wallets. With less money to go around to charities, Shaplen needs to rely on sharp sales pitches to win over a smaller pool of philanthropists, a fact freely acknowledged by those who picked him to run SLLW.

“There was a need to accomplish more with the funding we did have, which was under stress because the economy was doing back flips,” says Dana Low, a civil engineer and former SLLW board chairman. “At the same time, people were living on the edge and without a home.”

Once he joined SLLW, Shaplen not only recruited a management team with as much energy and breadth of experience as he has (see sidebar), but he also tweaked the philosophy of the place so now there’s an increased expectation of self-reliance among residents, Low explains. “It’s not just about being a sponge,” he says. “They need to better themselves, which was not happening so much before, and now things are really getting better all over the place.”

For example: while SLLW ran slight budget deficits in 2008 and 2009, it posted a surplus in 2010, with about $5.6 million in income against $4.8 million in expenses, or almost $800,000. SLLW management, which does not seek to profit from its work, prefers to portray that financial cushion as a critical rainy-day fund.

Perhaps the most important part of Shaplen’s work is realized not from accounting ledgers but in the day-to-day experiences of the homeless adults and children living in SLLW facilities. For them Shaplen is undertaking an ambitious $2 million effort to refurbish housing properties and take care of repairs that had long been neglected. For instance, at McKinney House on Woodland Place, where men and women living with HIV/AIDS reside, a sagging three-level porch was recently removed, and all of its three kitchens, with their scuffed linoleum floors, are targeted for a renovation soon.

Angelo Wilkes, who runs the fifteen-bed facility, is grateful for the improvements. “I think having a clean and healthy environment improves the mentality of how people think about
the apartments they will look for once they get out,” he says. “And it shows that their well-being really matters to us.”

In addition, at the next-door women’s shelter, where Fernandez stayed, a two-room, in-house clinic was recently carved out of the basement. That clinic, which will be run by Optimus Health Care, is also an example of the new partnerships for care that SLLW hopes to foster. It sits by a new oversized three-stove kitchen offering classes to prepare people for work in the food-service industry.

Meanwhile, at SLLW’s Franklin Street headquarters, Shaplen has overseen the conversion of half of a gym into an after-school youth center. Within sight of a basketball hoop, freshly erected walls bear cheery blue and gold coats of paint. In those rooms children will now get help with their homework and meet with counselors, just downstairs from the rooms in which they live. The thinking behind this effort goes that parents can attend to their jobs knowing that their children are being cared for at SLLW instead of, say, having to duck out of work early to pick them up from an off-site after-school facility.

If the number of Fairfield County residents struggling to find work and keep their homes escalates, SLLW could find itself overwhelmed. And it’s not clear how generous donors can continue to be in the face of continuing economic adversity, which suggests that SLLW’s future is at the whim of larger forces.

Yet among those working in social services in Stamford, there’s some measure of comfort in knowing that the nets to catch the less fortunate are currently strong, says Mike Duggan, executive director of Domus, the nonprofit that provides education and care services to vulnerable youth. “St. Luke’s is such a huge part of the social fabric here,” Duggan says. And its bold rethinking of how services should be dispensed, “is a model for what can be done.”               

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