I had the opportunity to help one of our Security Guards yesterday by taking his post in our dining room for a moment during lunch while he assisted a guest in storing his medicine in a refrigerator. As I watched over the room, one of our guests, coming in late for lunch, asked, “What are you trying to do to us?” He was inquiring about some changes we put into place last Friday, April 1st. I answered, “We are trying to keep this place open, so we do not go broke, and can continue to help everyone. We are also trying to help everyone to help themselves!” He said, “OK. Thank you!”
As you may know, if you have been following us through these challenging times, we’ve tripled the number of families, doubled the number of people housed, and doubled the number of meals served since October 2008 when the recession hit all of us hard. That kind of pressing need, coupled with our donors struggling, and lower giving, is a disastrous combination, and cannot be sustained.
I thought about changes for years, especially in our guests’ program. I came to Union Rescue Mission with a belief and a practice that people respond better when they pay part of their own way, carry their own weight, and if they have a chance to pay something for what they receive it affirms their dignity. I also believed that if you expect a lot you will get a lot. In fact, for years I shared that if you provide 1000 beds in which people can crash in any condition, you will have 1000 people crashing in any condition, but if you provide 1000 beds with accountability and an expectation for people to help themselves, you will have 1000 beds full of people trying to help themselves!
So, faced with an ever uncertain future, an ever growing pressing financial situation, and a dissatisfaction with our guest program, our Senior Leadership Team, encouraged by our Board of Directors, took 2 days away to develop a Sustainability Plan. We were encouraged by our Board to focus on Life Transformation, and that was music to our ears. We decided to allow these tough circumstances to make us think out of the box, and creatively turn these seemingly insurmountable challenges into opportunities for change.
On April 1st, motivated by the strong beliefs mentioned above, and a need to become financially sustainable, we implemented the following changes at URM:
Our 300 guest beds, provided at no charge and with little or no expectations, would be replaced by 300 Gateway Program beds, which would carry with them an expectation of sobriety, attendance at a limited number of classes including Celebrate Recovery, an ability to rest in the bed at any time, a locked foot locker, and a $7.00 per day charge – of which $2.00 per day is a personal savings plan for the participant. Everyone who receives General Relief, and that is nearly 99% of our guests, can afford this program. With the funds raised by the $5.00 per day program fee, URM provides extra case management and home finding assistance. For new participants, the first 5 days are free — giving folks ample time to decide whether to enroll into the Gateway Program or into one of our no charge, long-term recovery programs. (I’ll share more about those in a moment.) In rare exceptions, when no income is available, either I have paid the fee for a guest in rare circumstances, or we work out a volunteer opportunity for someone to serve rather than pay.
We began communicating the changes over one month in advance giving our guests ample time to prepare. A detailed memo reminding everyone of the changes was sent just days before the transition. Our Program Team, led by Chaplain Steve Borja, dealt with the details and when the transition came last week, it was smoother and better than I could have ever imagined! 300 beds in the Guest area vacated, but nearly 150 people determined to help themselves filled the Gateway Beds up!
As part of the transition, we stopped serving single men and single women guests who do not live at URM breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and moved to a lunch only format. Families with children are still welcome to come in from the outside and eat at all three meals. Our live-in guests still are served breakfast lunch and dinner. We utilize the three hour window when we open to outside guests for lunch to allow them to shower, obtain clean clothes, and we recruit and encourage folks to try the Gateway Program or enroll into one of our long-term Life Transformation Programs.
The transition and transformation was amazing! A guest from the Gateway Program thanked me in the hallway. “Andy, thank you for the changes you made! You caused the people who did not want to help themselves and caused all of the problems to leave, and you brought in people who want to help themselves!” I heard people talking in the hallways of “how the tremendous pressure is off”, and “how safe and quiet it is!”
It may sound like tough love, but here are the facts:
When someone comes in they have 5 free days. They can enroll in our Gateway Program, and pay just part of their way (the total cost to URM is $25.00 per day)
Or, they can enroll in our long term (1 year) recovery program. Instead of paying their way, they will be attending 400 hours in the learning center, hundreds of hours of Physical Education, 40 hours of Counseling, hundreds of hours of classes such as Overcoming Addiction, Healthy Relationships, Finances, Dealing With Grief, and spending hundreds of hours volunteering or in work therapy. In other words, they will be earning their keep with their efforts to improve their lives, all free of charge, in an extremely effective program.
As I drove home last Friday, knowing the results of the changeover, I thanked the Lord for a Board that prodded us to think out of the box. I thanked Him for an amazing, detail-oriented, faithful staff that carried out our vision, and I realized that Union Rescue Mission had become a huge successful model of my 1st experience in a Rescue Mission, the Door of Faith Mission in Des Moines, founded by a man who had experienced homelessness himself. George Holloway, who developed a model where the men pay part of their own way, had an expectation of sobriety, a Mission that fed men and women well so that they could go out and work hard and help themselves, and where people’s dignity was fully affirmed!
As I irritatingly say to my wife when I win in a card game, I love it when a plan comes together! God is good!