A quick, coordinated effort by Twin Cities-area social service agencies has saved housing subsidies for 45 homeless youth — and participants said they hope the effort provides an example for how to dismantle nonprofit organizations without harming the clients they serve.
The housing subsidies had been managed by Freeport West, a 41-year-old social services agency that provided affordable housing and street outreach for homeless youth. The Minneapolis-based agency struggled last year with financial problems and allegations of mismanagement. The board fired its executive director in March 2011 and tried to straighten out its finances, but the agency continued to lose major contracts.
By December, the board was faced with two options — try to maintain the few remaining programs that brought in money or voluntarily give up most of its funding to make sure the programs had a stable home. To give up the remaining programs would almost certainly shutter the agency, but that's what the board decided to do.
Interim Executive Director Dorothy Abellard said she recommended that decision, even though it meant that she would lose her job.
"It was incredibly hard," she said. "It was not something that any of us wanted to do, but we knew that at the end of the day, it wasn't about us. It was about the kids in housing and all the other kids that we serve."
The agency worked closely with the Minneapolis office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and local agencies to coordinate the program transfers. Lutheran Social Services took over the administration of the street outreach program StreetWorks. The Link took over two housing programs that provide subsidized housing for 45 homeless teenagers. Three case managers and a program director from Freeport West accepted jobs at the two agencies. By the end of December, the transfer was finished. Many teenagers never even noticed the change, agency staff said.
"The fact that we were all able to get our ducks lined up in a row and make this happen very quickly, I think that's what really helped ensure that there were no gaps in services, that the ball didn't fall through the cracks," said Peter Rosenblatt, executive director of The Link.
“It wasn't about us. It was about the kids in housing and all the other kids that we serve.”Freeport West's Dorothy Abellard
Forty-five units of affordable housing might not seem like a lot, Abellard acknowledged, but she said it's "a huge number" for the Twin Cities. There are just 93 shelter beds in the Twin Cities for homeless youth who are on the streets without their parents. A 2009 count by the Wilder Foundation found 108 "unaccompanied minors" and 651 people ages 18 to 21 who are homeless in the metro area. The actual number of homeless teenagers is much higher, Wilder Foundation researcher Michelle Gerrard said, because many young people who are homeless stay with friends or in abandoned buildings and other out-of-the-way locations and do not receive social services.
Much of the funding for the transferred programs came from HUD. In recent years, HUD has shifted away from funding supportive and transitional programs like the ones at Freeport West, said Sarah Bergen, a HUD staffer in Minneapolis who helped coordinate the program transfers.
Instead, Bergen said, most new HUD money in the Twin Cities is directed at permanent housing for people who are considered chronically homeless. That meant that once funding for supportive services and transitional housing was gone, it was unlikely to return anytime soon.
"There's no other way that HUD could replace that funding," Bergen said. "That's why this was so important."
Susan Phillips, director of homeless youth services at Lutheran Social Services, praised HUD's handling of the situation.
"They could've just chosen to cancel those contracts," Phillips said. "Instead, they worked really hard with the broader community to find a home for these programs."
A few programs could not be transferred to other agencies. They include a program that helps youth learn how to live independently and a program focused on health and wellness. The closing of Freeport West also meant the end of free lunches and dinners for homeless teenagers at the agency's headquarters. Abellard said she hopes youth are able to find those services at other agencies.
The Freeport West board has not formally dissolved the agency. Abellard said the group is trying to sell its headquarters to pay down debts and still hopes it can rebuild the organization with a different focus. "As you rebuild, you have to ask what is your niche going to be and what are you going to do that's as awesome as what you did before," she said.
As for Abellard, she remains out of work. The mother of two said she's looking for a new job and has no regrets about the decision to close the agency's programs.
"I always said that I'm going to get another job, but the youth that we provide services to, are they going to find more stable housing on their own?" she said. "That was a risk that I was not willing to take."