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Welcome back, folks, to the ever exciting world of housing and homelessness! This past week I toured the South Wilmington Street Center (SWSC), the County’s homeless shelter for men, and spoke to the director, Frank Lawrence. Many of the Housing Division staff previewed the Center for me by saying “it’s unlike any other shelter you’ve seen or heard of,” so I was prepared to be taken aback.

Traditional shelters provide what is (currently) termed ‘Emergency Housing,’ a fitting name : guests come in during the night, and are given a bunk, maybe a meal, and they may be able to keep their possessions at the shelter during the day. Everyone probably has the same image in their head, something akin to disaster relief photos of bunks laid out in rows and columns. The shelter is as synonymous with homelessness as camps under bridges and people standing around barrel fires. SWSC originated from that model of Emergency Housing, but in the past few years Mr. Lawrence has attempted to make the Center more proactive than reactive. This confused me at first, how can you be proactive as a shelter? The service is defined by reacting to the crises of its guests; it’s called Emergency Housing for a reason. Yet somehow, Mr. Lawrence transformed the Center, from seeing only 100 of its guests a year placed into permanent housing, to meeting a regular annual goal of 500 guests placed in housing.

If I had walked the halls of SWSC without a guide, I wouldn’t have known its impact on the lives of its guests. There’s four separate dorms, one large barracks style like the traditional model, and three others with quasi-cubicle bunks. There’s a large meeting room with a bank of computers on one side, and a dining hall that looks like it could serve around 300-400. There’s showers and laundry. As Emergency Housing goes it’s above average, with more than just a bed and a meal. But as I’m seeing all of this my guide is telling me about the extensive programming: job training, primary health care, mental health assessments, group therapy and counseling, case management, and maybe my favorite thing, the Guest Advisory Council or GAC. Mr. Lawrence has overlaid a message of accountability, self-reliance, and community integrity onto the Center. The resulting program not only helps its guests survive their crises, but seeks to provide a foundation for them to find their footing coupled with a community which celebrates individual successes and places a premium on individual responsibility.

The GAC is one of the clearest expressions of Mr. Lawrence’s strategy of providing as many tools as possible, and holding guests accountable for their commitment. Every two or three months the guests elect their own officers who then conduct weekly open meetings where they discuss current guest issues and set goals for the Center. Mr. Lawrence attends the Council meetings to hear concerns and answer questions, but they are run by the Council themselves. Also any guests who are new to the Center that week have to attend.

There are so many things I love about what the SWSC is doing. Going beyond just taking care of guests to enable and empower clients to take care of themselves. The Center treats its guests three dimensionally, helping them work on their employment situation, their physical health, mental health and substance abuse. Most of all the idea of building a community entrances me, the blooming of democracy at the smallest level, it just revs me up. There are so many problems government can’t address, no matter how efficient and willing and well funded. To see initiatives that emphasize that we are neighbors, we are part of a society and a culture that at least nominally loves self-governance, it all brings me hope in an otherwise discouraging time to be an American.

This shoulda been my 4th of July post, dangit.

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