Why a Visit to TROSA Changed Everything…


Photo Credit: TROSA Staff

Photo Credit: TROSA Staff

If you live in the Triangle, especially in Durham, you’ve probably heard of TROSA (Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers).  The organization partially supports itself through its various businesses – moving, landscaping, a used furniture store, a frame shop, and Christmas tree lots.

I was lucky to hear CEO Kevin McDonald speak fifteen years ago at an event in Chapel Hill when I was just starting my first job, fresh out of graduate school.  A dynamic and passionate speaker, Kevin told the audience how he fought his own addiction, and used his recovery to inspire, lead, and innovate at TROSA.  I was extremely drawn to his missionary zeal, but the timing was wrong.  I made a mental note to reconnect later on.

Fast-forward fifteen years. At the Veteran’s Annual Stand-Down in May 2012, Annemarie Maiorano (Director of Housing, Wake County Human Services) and I were brainstorming employment opportunities for homeless men at the Wilmington Street Men’s Shelter.  She suggested I connect with TROSA to see if I can learn from its profit-making ventures – maybe even replicate one of them in Wake County.  Kevin spoke at UNC in November, and I asked him if I could visit TROSA.  He graciously agreed.

Kevin R. McDonald, CEO of TROSA Inc. Photo Credit: Steve Exum

Kevin R. McDonald, CEO of TROSA Inc. Photo Credit: Steve Exum

On December 7th, 2012, Mike Balsamo gave me the tour of the TROSA facility, after a brief video introduction.  I thought I knew all about TROSA – but nothing could prepare me for the scale, scope, and depth of this organization’s work.  It’s stunning, humbling, and awe-inspiring to see the human transformations that take place here on a day-to-day basis.

During the tour, we visited an office where residents call companies to solicit in-kind donations.  Residents stood up, introduced themselves, and described the addiction journey that brought them to TROSA.  As I was doing research on homelessness, I asked them some specific questions on how to approach homeless individuals at the shelter with substance abuse issues.  One of the residents said, “I lived in the Wilmington Street shelter so I know exactly whom you are talking about. Don’t push too hard, just let them know what’s available.”  Another disagreed, “I would have never taken the initiative without a little push, and TROSA is the best thing that happened to me.”  A graduate of the TROSA program happened to walk in and she shared how she went from being homeless to a contributing member of society.  “I have a job at a hotel and my kids look up to me… they look up to me now…” Another resident whispered, “I hope one day my kids will look up to me too.”  Tears welled up in his eyes.  The others gently reassured him.

Photo Credit: TROSA Staff

TROSA Resident Cutting a Frame for a Customer Order / Photo Credit: TROSA Staff

TROSA is not an easy experience but you walk the road from addiction to recovery with those who understand what you’re going through. Addiction is treated as a disease and psychiatrists apply an evidence-based clinical approach to each individual’s unique situation.  In TROSA’s model, the community plays a huge part in the recovery process.  Mike Balsamo described all-day and all-night sessions where groups of TROSA residents focus on one person and help him or her get to the root causes of addiction.  This could include identifying personality traits and emotional trauma.  This community helps you see the self-destructive behaviors that trigger addiction, and has the credibility to call them out — something your friends and family can’t — because they haven’t walked in your shoes.  Sympathy doesn’t compare to empathy.

I’m an unabashed admirer of leaders like Kevin – it takes a force of nature like him to get things off the ground against great odds.  He reminds me of an Indian humanitarian I was lucky to meet, study, and write a book about — Baba Amte, who did amazing work with leprosy patients.  But what struck me during the tour were the photos of the entire TROSA team on the conference room wall.  You’ll see it too when you come for a tour:  it takes a heck of a leadership team and hardworking staff to pull off a vision so expansive.  I saw their work manifested in the way the organization operates.

Many people admire the fact that TROSA generates half its operating budget from its various businesses.  I have to admit, that’s what I saw from the outside too.  But when you walk the halls and meet the residents, you realize the skills, self-confidence, work experience they acquire are equally impressive.  TROSA graduates leave with a set of marketable skills and a proven work ethic.

After the tour, I spent an hour or so with Kevin and Mike, and it became clear to me that applying TROSA’s business model to help the homeless men and women who live in Wake County shelters would be challenging.  Kevin gave me examples of others he has helped in the past, and openly shared his perspective about why those ventures failed.  Because of the transient nature of the homeless population, it is very difficult to run a professional business.  Though it was not exactly what I hoped to hear, it was critical to know this upfront.

After meeting with Kevin, I realized that in order to build a social enterprise that has a chance of succeeding, it may be wise to start with graduates of substance abuse programs (like TROSA and The Healing Place) and/or foster kids aging out of the system.  Both these groups are likely to be ready for employment.  We may also be able to employ veterans who are at risk for homelessness, and some of the homeless families that human services agencies feel are ready for work.

TROSA Auto Repair Shop / Photo Credit: Neesha Mirchandani

TROSA Auto Repair Shop / Photo Credit: Neesha Mirchandani

In preparing for my visit to TROSA, I spent a lot of time researching the organization.  Many academics have written case studies and articles.  One particularly caught my eye because it explored why other social entrepreneurial organizations had replicated and spread, but TROSA had not.  The professors who wrote the journal article are associated with Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE).  I’ve thought a lot about replication and TROSA since my meeting exactly a month ago with Kevin.  I studied the Delancey Street Foundation’s replication strategy.

While TROSA could replicate or franchise its model, based on Kevin’s advice, it may be more useful to first create an institutional memory by recording the collective wisdom of its most experienced leaders.

This TROSA ‘insider’s guide’ would insure its long-term survival beyond the lifetimes of the current leadership team.  It could later be used as a kernel for an online university where academics, researchers, substance abuse professionals, social entrepreneurs, impact investors, and philanthropists gather and learn from TROSA’s real-world laboratory.  I see a wealthy person who has experienced the ravages of addiction funding such a resource as a legacy gift. It would be a no-brainer because TROSA knows how to deliver impact.  Reality isn’t pretty – it’s full of compromises and fixes.  But that’s also what makes the lessons powerful and invaluable. Ivory-tower strategic plans don’t always work in the real world.  In fact, TROSA’s journey defies all the odds and breaks many business- planning rules (for example, it was severely under-capitalized to begin with).

What’s not to like about TROSA?  For one thing, because much of the food is donated, you’ll see unhealthy donuts, cakes, cupcakes, and other sinful treats all over the place.  But as I watched the kids from a nearby school shoot hoops in TROSA’s indoor gym, and noticed a couple of exercise machines in the corner, I realized the sugary snacks on site was probably not the whole picture – I wonder what they serve at meal times?

Some may find the discipline at TROSA too strict.  As Martha Quillin writes in her recent N&O piece, “At first, many TROSA residents balk at all the rules, which govern everything. Keep your shoes lined up under your bed. Make your bed. Walk in pairs when you’re on campus. Be on time, every time.”

TROSA Living Quarters/ Photo Credit: Steve Exum

TROSA Living Quarters/ Photo Credit: Steve Exum

I’ve also heard that some find the two-year program too long.  I personally could not imagine being separated from young children for an extended period of time. As Mike Balsamo explained, “Residents can communicate with their families by mail after thirty days and by phone at ninety days.  There is one family day visit (held every October) that falls somewhere in a resident’s first year and this is the first face-to-face visit.  At one year, a resident’s family can come spend one Sunday afternoon on campus.  At 14, 16, 18, and 21 months they get to go home for a visit but they do have to take one of their peers along with them.”

Not seeing your child for ninety days sounds harsh, but as one of TROSA’s current residents remarked, “I was in prison before I came to TROSA.  I spent two years away from my baby while incarcerated.  It may sound cruel but there is a reason for this requirement.  Healing from substance abuse requires us to be separated from the triggers that caused us to be in this situation in the first place – and family is one of those triggers.”

For Many Residents, TROSA is a refuge.  Photo Credit:  Neesha Mirchandani

For Many Residents, TROSA is a refuge. Photo Credit: Neesha Mirchandani

I was lucky I met Kevin at a local event and he took the time to help me.  If we could share TROSA’s knowledge online, someone in the Philippines could learn how to set up a substance abuse program, or a social entrepreneur in New Orleans could replicate TROSA’s landscaping business to help ex-prisoners or foster care youth ageing out of the system.  The possibilities are endless.

I see videos, case studies, ‘what not to do’, ‘pitfalls to avoid’, how-to guides and much more as part of this online resource.  Later, it may be feasible to include some hands-on practical training on-site for serious social entrepreneurs: an internship that is a win-win for both sides.  To replicate TROSA’s model in its entirety, you have to walk the halls, do the work, and immerse yourself in the culture.  I liken it to the way I learned French: after four years of academic study, I couldn’t string one cogent sentence together though I knew all the grammar and a lot of vocabulary.  After only three weeks of immersion in Chambery, France in the home of a French family and 24/7 with my French friends, my spoken French improved dramatically – I was dreaming in French!

TROSA could charge students for this education.  In my view, this type of hands-on “immersion” apprenticeship is as valuable as a graduate education in social entrepreneurship at a leading university – if not more. My Northwestern graduate education cost me over $20,000 a year (plus room and board).  Why can’t TROSA earn the same for imparting its wisdom to students?

A Building on TROSA's Campus / Photo Credit: Neesha Mirchandani

A Building on TROSA’s Campus / Photo Credit: Neesha Mirchandani

Running TROSA is more complex than most people realize – a bit like a duck – calm on the surface but paddling like the dickens underneath (paraphrasing actor Michael Caine).  Till you come here, you won’t get a sense of what makes TROSA special.  Its internal culture is so unique that in many ways, it is the driving force behind the organization – and a key reason for its success.  Yes, of course, the ‘each one, teach one’ philosophy is part of it, but it’s more than that.  You can tell that TROSA represents a fresh start, a sense of hope, and a refuge, all wrapped into one.

If you have pre-teen or teenage kids, a visit to TROSA could actually serve as the best prevention strategy against addiction.  In fact, when your friends and family come to the area, show them the Duke Chapel and the Gardens, but also consider scheduling a TROSA tour.  Years later, your guests may or may not remember the chapel or the gardens, but they will remember TROSA.

TROSA in the Community / Photo Credit: TROSA Staff

TROSA in the Community / Photo Credit: TROSA Staff

TROSA earns half its revenues through its business ventures, holds its residents accountable to the highest standards, and teaches a superior work ethic.  It helps addicts become functioning and productive members of society. It is probably one of the few impact nonprofits that both fiscal conservatives and liberal democrats find appealing – and everyone in between.  Now that’s pretty extraordinary.

January 25, 2013


Project C.A.T.C.H.: 7 Reasons to Love This Amazing Child-Centered Project

Yesterday I attended a workshop for families experiencing homelessness organized by Project CATCH in collaboration with the Wake County School System, and Marbles.  Girl Scout volunteers were also involved — they collected books for the kids and oversaw child care.  The event inspired me to write this post. 


7.  PROJECT CATCH IS GLUE:  In a fragmented homelessness care system, this is one group that bridges the gaps between service providers with a single-minded focus on taking care of children experiencing homelessness.  Project CATCH cares about making sure kids don’t get neglected in the ‘system.’ Think of them as the glue that brings whatever children facing homelessness needs to survive and thrive.  They use a partnership strategy working with the Wake County School System, HeadStart, various homeless shelters, literacy and child care programs.  Most of these agencies have specific missions so they are hamstrung by resource constraints,  but they are happy to plug in their piece of the puzzle.  Anyone who knows how how agency-focused things are (by virtue of how funding works) knows this is… BRILLIANT.  This coordination glue Project CATCH provides families facing homelessness is extremely valuable even if most people undervalue its significance.

6.  PROJECT CATCH IS LIKE PREVENTING CANCER INSTEAD DIAGNOSING IT IN STAGE FOUR: When a parent is experiencing homelessness, it’s difficult for them to see the effects on the child.  Imagine you’re homeless and you’re looking for employment.  How do you deal with all of the things you need to do AND be a parent at the same time?  It’s very very hard.  Project CATCH does a thorough evaluation of the kids to pinpoint any physical, mental, and emotional needs.  Being homeless is a huge stressor – this is a known fact.  Yet, if you’re a child, it’s also a very scary experience.  Project CATCH proactively addresses the stress issue – I wish every homelessness system in America did this.  By the time children act out in school or at home, it’s sometimes too late to do anything about the underlying root causes.  If you identify problems when they are seeds, they can be weeded out before they become ‘too big to solve.’

School Bus with Stop Sign

Credit: Planet Citizen

5.  PROJECT CATCH ACTS TO END INTER-GENERATIONAL HOMELESSNESS AND POVERTY: If you’ve experienced homelessness as a child, it’s highly likely the cycle will repeat in adulthood.  Knowing that fact, it is incumbent upon us to do something.  Project CATCH organizes workshops (like the one I attended yesterday) so parents learn how to help their kids succeed in school and go to college — even if they never had the opportunity to do so.  By tapping into every parent’s dream of giving their kids a better life, Project CATCH stops a family’s inter-generational propensity to stay mired in poverty and homelessness.  This is the type of social change the federal government should be funding because affects the economic prosperity of the families concerned — and the country as a whole.  I learned so much about navigating the public school system yesterday, and what the common core curriculum entails, and how to be a proactive parent, that I was blown away by what Project CATCH had the foresight to do here for the moms in the room.   Instead of funding another research study to prove (again) that inter-generational homelessness occurs, federal dollars should fund a solution like this — doing its best to stop it in its tracks.  Enough research already.

 Free Stock Photography: Reading Boy Picture. Image: 217977

© Photographer sherrie smith | Agency: Dreamstime.com


When you work on homelessness issues, you quickly realize how hard it is to collect useful data.  Many families leave the area or are forced to move (you can only stay at a shelter for limited periods of time).  So it’s challenging to track the progress of any one program in a longitudinal study.

But Project CATCH seems to have a more evidence-based approach (at least in terms of data collection) than other projects I’ve seen.  Peter Donlon explained why, “The project was the dream of the local Young Child Mental Health Collaborative (YCMHC) – a multi-disciplinary group that helped design and get the program funded following a two year process of research which included some observational studies and focus groups convened at some of the Raleigh-based shelters.”

Even so, I’d like to see a control group set up so we can get some scientific evidence on how well the program works.  Or at the very least, look at before/after tests to measure how the kids and their parents benefited from the program.  These impact studies would tell us whether the program is adding value, and how.

3.  PROJECT CATCH IS RUN BY A DEDICATED AND LEAN TEAM OF THREE.  You had to be there yesterday to see how well organized it was.  Anyone who thinks that an event like that is easy to pull off without a dedicated team working night and day to make it happen is kidding themselves.  If children experiencing homelessness is your area of passion, send me a note (homelessincarolina@gmail.com) or get in touch directly with them via their website.

2.  PROJECT CATCH DOES WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE: For some funders, this may be a negative because they only want to fund measurable outcomes they can point to and say, “See our money did x and y.”  But the sad truth is, when you work with children experiencing homelessness, it is not so black and white.  If you are committed 100 percent to doing whatever it takes for that child in front of you, sometimes you are a chauffeur — getting the mother and her child to the doctor’s office, sometimes you are a friend — listening and comforting a child who’s weeping about how another kid in school teased him for living in a homeless shelter — and sometimes you are a social network — calling in personal and professional favors in here and there and everywhere to line up resources (childcare, psychiatric services, tutoring, whatever).  Who’s brave enough to fund all of the above without nit-picking about measuring the impact of each line item?  Taken together, all these micro-actions, onerous and pull-out-your-hair frustrating as they may be, add up to a collective impact we can all get excited about.

Free Stock Photography: Playtime Picture. Image: 17867
© Photographer Dana Rothstein | Agency: Dreamstime.com

1.  PROJECT CATCH MEETS A REAL NEED:  Some projects can disappear and nothing happens.  Either there are other service providers who pick up the slack, or the need was never really that urgent to begin with.  I have the sense that if Project CATCH loses its funding next year (it runs out June 2014), it could potentially impact the kids who enter the homelessness system next year.  If nothing else, perhaps the funders who’ve generously supported this program should track kids who went through the program and those who do not to see if literacy, stress levels, school performance and other indicators are affected — and by how much?


I left the meeting yesterday wondering if there is a sustainable way for Project CATCH to generate its own revenues to fund its work.  I’m exploring two options.  Ideas? Email me at homelessincarolina@gmail.com or post below.


Stock Photo: Pink Piggy Picture. Image: 35120
© Photographer Johanna Goodyear | Agency: Dreamstime.com

If your family has benefited from Project CATCH and you’d like to write a testimonial or do a video, please do get in touch also.  Your words could make all the difference… Because of confidentially issues, Project CATCH can’t really videotape or share any personal information.  This makes it hard for donors to support the work, because they can’t ‘see’ it.

Tell your story and pay it forward!  It could help a ton of kids in Wake County. Email me at homelessincarolina@gmail.com or write a comment on this blog and I’ll put you in touch with the Project CATCH team.

What I learned After One Year of Research on Homelessness


In February 2012, I started down this road to understand homelessness.  I learned a lot of things:

Social Networks Matter a Whole Lot. I learned that most people end up homeless because their social networks have fallen apart due to a crisis or series of life events — or they never had solid family or friend structures to begin with.  A good example is foster kids who age out of the system.

Housing Goes to Those Who ‘Qualify’: I saw first hand how rental subsidies to the ‘cream of the crop’ because you need an income to pay rent, and most of the chronically homeless don’t have an income – or at least a steady income.  So, agencies have budgets they can’t touch, and homeless clients they can’t help.  The system is so convoluted.

A Homeless Client Navigating the Maze of the ‘System’  If you are homeless, there’s no one case manager whose job it is to help you.  You essentially go from pillar to post till you find the right agency for your needs.  For men, it may be the Wilmington Street Shelter or the Healing Place.  For housing, Passage Home, CASA, or DHIC.  For certain kinds of families, Salvation Army or Raleigh Rescue — for others, WHIN. For single women, Helen Wright or The Women’s Center or The Healing Pace.  It took me a year to figure this out — and every day I learn something new.  Even the service providers don’t know all of the other service providers’ services so making referrals is very hard. They do try their best using their various personal connections.  Section 8 vouchers or public housing vouchers — the wait list is 3000+ long. Nothing wrong with the nonprofit agencies– they’re stuck as much as the clients are.  They have donors and funders to satisfy.  There’s no easy way out of this.

You Can’t Help Everyone.  Unless someone is ready to get mental health services or substance abuse treatment, there’s nothing anyone can do to help.  As one resident at TROSA told me, “You can take the horse to the water, but you can’t make it drink.  I had to hit rock bottom before I got help.”

Where Do I Go From Here?  For more than a year, I spoke to a lot of people and did a ton of research.  But I still couldn’t figure out where I could add significant value.  I knew it was in the area of employment and social enterprise.  Recently, things came together when I got an email from the folks at the Wilmington Street Shelter…. More about that in the next post. cropped-mooresquare-woman-with-walker.jpg

PLM Families Together Takes Families From Homelessness to Independence

Beth Bordeaux, Executive Director PLM Families Together

An Executive Director With an Infectious Optimism, Beth Bordeaux

I met Beth Bordeaux through a chance meeting.  She is the kind of person who warms your heart because despite the challenges of running a human services nonprofit in an era of budget cuts and uncertainty, she’s not jaded.  In fact, she inspires you to believe in her cause with her infectious optimism.  Don’t get me wrong: she understands the reality on the ground better than anyone.  She lives it every day.  But where some folks talk about the people they help as ‘the homeless population’ or the ‘working poor’, Beth refuses to label people.  She connects to their humanity.

PLM Families Together Isn’t Afraid of Change

PLM Families Together isn’t a huge organization, but it’s been around quite a long time.  You can read its history on the new website launched recently, but what stood out for me was the ability of this organization to meet the need of the times, and evolve over the years.  Many nonprofits get stuck and refuse to change as society’s needs change.  PLM Families Together adapts quickly and nimbly, and makes brave decisions when confronted with challenges.  I’ve always believed that a strength of an organization is revealed in its toughest moments.  Do you reduce your program by two-thirds because it’s the right thing to do and move in a new direction?  Or do you falter because change scares you?  This video does a great job of charting the organization’s path over the past 30 years.

What This Organization Does

Today PLM Families Together offers short-term housing for families facing homelessness, and re-housing to low-income families who are barely getting by.  Their Mentor Advocates coach these families, and provide after-care services to prevent them from falling back into homelessness.

It costs around $5,000 to move a family into permanent housing.  The research indicates that homeless shelters are not as effective in ending homelessness, and kids don’t do well in shelter environments if they live there for extended periods of time.  In fact, it is becoming very obvious that the Housing First model works exceedingly well when a family receives one-on-one assistance from a Mentor Advocate.  Beth is especially happy that PLM Families Together is able to provide after-care to clients.  She believes it is the reason why most of the families helped retain their housing in the long-term.

PLM offices

PLM Offices & Apartments for Families

PLM’s offices are on the first floor of an apartment complex building on Plainview Drive. The team doesn’t have fancy digs — they seem to be focused on keeping their overhead low.  But don’t judge this book by its cover.  What goes on inside these humble offices is pretty impressive.

The rest of the apartment complex is dedicated to housing families.  The organization also works with landlords around the city to house its families.  In helping families have positive relationships with landlords, it teaches conflict resolution and inter-personal skills.

Why Funds PLM Families Together?

“We get approximately 50 percent of our budget from donors and 50 percent from grants, including federal and county funding,” Beth said. “We were able to find safe and affordable rental housing for 70 previously homeless families in Wake County this past year because of our generous funders,” she added.

The Typical Family PLM Helps

PLM Families Together Client

PLM Families Together Client

Screen shot 2013-03-08 at 12.45.38 PMMost PLM clients are hard-working mothers and fathers who often work 50-60 hours a week in healthcare, fast food, or other industries, but barely scrape by on minimum wage paychecks.  All it takes is a health care emergency or a car breaking down, and they find themselves behind on the rent — then evicted — and eventually homeless. “So you help the working poor,” I asked Beth. She hesitated, “We prefer not to use such labels.  Our partnership with the families we serve is rooted in empathy and mutual respect.  If you only saw how hard they work and how much they want to do better for their kids…  some of them blow us away with their courage, resilience, and work ethic.  They are willing to work two jobs just to make ends meet.”  She reminded me how flawed all of us are.  Who are we to label anyone?

Why Beth is Such an Optimist

I suddenly understood the source of Beth’s optimism: when you help take 70 families a year from a life of heartache and uncertainty to one of stability and security, you probably do wake up with a spring in your step, and a desire to do more.  You can’t help advocating for the kids you’ve met who slept on park benches, in cars, in motels or spent years couch surfing while their parents work hard but can never catch a break. I saw a sweet little note written by one of the kids PLM Families Together helped. This is what keeps Beth, her staff, her donors, and her volunteers motivated.  When a little boy thanks you for helping his family, what more inspiration do you need?

I think Beth is Lucky 

Long-time Supporter of PLM, Marianne VanTassel

Long-time Supporter of PLM, Marianne VanTassel

She has visionary supporters who are tired of putting band-aids on problems.  Her donors know that till a family goes from homelessness to independence you haven’t solved the problem.  You’ve just delayed the solution.  I think you have to serve a few turkey dinners on Thanksgiving before you realize there has to be a better way to chip away at the homelessness problem in America.  Short-term programs for the homeless have their place: they meet an urgent need, especially for those who have no income. Homeless shelters and day-centers meet emergency housing needs.  But imagine for a moment, you are a working mom parent living paycheck to paycheck and you’ve lost your housing, would you want to move your kids around from one temporary space to another — or work with an agency like PLM Families Together to secure a permanent place to call home?

Dreams for the Future

Beth wishes PLM could do more:  create employment opportunities for clients, do more for the kids, and create a peer-support network for families going through the program so they can be there for each other.  She tries to implement whatever she can within her limited resources.  I wonder what this group could do if it had more resources?

PLM Families Video

What’s Next

PLM Families Together is working on an annual campaign to invite the public to learn about its work and support it.  This wonderful little nonprofit packs a powerful punch in combatting homelessness.  Now that the capable and experienced Julie Sager is on board, I know Beth will have the breathing room to take on the next chapter in PLM’s continued evolution as an agent of change in our community.

I found myself smiling while walking my dog yesterday.  I was thinking of that little kid’s thank you note on PLM’s corkboard.  Though Beth was really articulate and animated about her nonprofit, that simple thank you note actually brought her points home for me. I think I have a little extra bounce in my step too!  If believe in sustainable solutions to social issues and you’d like a little bounce in your step, get in touch and see if PLM is a good vehicle for your philanthropy.  Tell Beth and the team at PLM I said hi!

PLM Families Together

PLM Families Together

Love Wins: A Conversation with Hugh Hollowell

On December 5, 2012, I sat down with Hugh Hollowell who runs Love Wins Ministries, a nonprofit in Raleigh that approaches homelessness through a unique lens.  Hugh explains it best in his TEDx video:

Hugh tries not to impose his own worldview on those who find themselves homeless for one reason or another.  He makes a conscious decision to build a relationship with each person.  He rejects an aid system that imposes its own values and prescriptive steps — “there are three kinds of relationships, parent-child, teacher-student, and peer-to-peer,” Hugh explains. “When the aid community works with those who are homeless, it rarely chooses to engage in a peer-to-peer relationship.”

As I listened to Hugh, I realized that though this concept is a simple one, it is extremely difficult to implement. There is an innate tendency to see someone who hasn’t had a shower in several weeks or reeking of alcohol as someone ‘lesser than’ but Hugh doesn’t agree.  He reminds me that just to survive on the streets takes quite a bit of talent and resourcefulness.  Hugh finds things to admire and respect and most of all — love.  So then, instead of trying to change someone, he’s walking alongside them on their journey.  Some of them will choose change, but if they do, it will be on their terms, not because Hugh imposed that change on them.

Love Wins Ministries is in a small house near Glenwood South, and half a mile from Cornerstone.  It has no security system, anyone can walk in, get a cup of coffee and a peanut-butter sandwich.  There’s a small reception area, a living room, and a chapel.  But Hugh says religion is never forced on to visitors and people of all faiths are welcome.  The chapel doesn’t look particularly ‘Christian’, it’s more of a meditation space.  A man is asleep on a chair as we walk through.

I found it really hard to write this blog post.  I found Hugh’s argument very logical.  It fits with our understanding of human psychology.  We’ve all heard the axiom, “You can bring the horse to the water, but you can’t make him drink.”  None of us want to be ‘changed’ or told what to do. We have a natural instinct for self-determination. At the same time, I wonder if there would be some benefit to exposing someone to inspirational stories of others who have walked in their shoes and escaped the brutality of the streets?  For example, in work I’ve been involved in, we showed children with disabilities in India videos about disability rights leaders from around the world, and how they changed regulation by demanding accessibility to public buildings, jobs, and education.  By watching those videos, the kids were exposed to another way of being — another empowered reality.  We didn’t tell them what to do, but we did show them a world they hadn’t even imagined existed.  In India, when you are disabled, you are told it is karmic punishment for sins committed in previous lives.  You are conditioned to accept your disability and not question discrimination.  I think the key is even if you feel compelled to educate, it must be done from a place of non-judgement and non-attachment.

I agree that survive on the streets, you need to be super resourceful.  The same is true for the disabled kids I worked with — to be a disabled child in India is brutal.  But seeing valid role models in that video made a huge difference in the way they saw themselves and their own potential.

Hugh reminded me to take my ego out of the equation.  The homeless don’t need our help, they need healing.  Loving them, building a relationship with them as peers — as equals — is the first step.  If you see someone as your friend, of course, you’ll give them a hand when they need it.  But the duality of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ is missing from that equation.  He works with people who aren’t yet ready to change — they are okay with being on the streets — and that’s okay with him.  He doesn’t attach himself to getting them off the streets or any other tangible goal. Hugh’s only goal is to be a trustworthy friend.  He related an incident about a man he had befriended for five years, who finally decided to register with the ‘coordinated intake system’ and get services. As the person to call in an emergency, he listed Hugh Hollowell and under Relationship, he wrote, ‘The Only Person I Trust.’

Hugh and I talked about many other things.  For example, I mentioned TROSA, and he asked a provocative question, ‘When people hire TROSA’s moving or landscaping services, is that because they want to ‘help’ people who have substance abuse problems or because TROSA is the best company around?’  What does that mean for the self-respect of the people doing the work? I never actually thought about the issue that way.  I explained all the benefits of TROSA’s income generating activities. Hugh pointed out that I was looking at things from TROSA’s point of view — not the folks in the program who are actually doing the work.

The fact that Hugh always looks at social programs from the recipient’s point of view is interesting.  Most presentations about social enterprises I’ve seen have been from a donor point of view.

Here’s a link to Hugh Hollowell’s blog.  Let me know what you think… do you know any models of social enterprises that work on a peer-to-peer basis?  Evergreen Coop?

Plant the Pavement 2012: Inter-Faith Food Shuttle and Growing Power / Will Allen

Food Shuttle Workshop - Pave the Pavement 2012This past weekend, over a hundred people gathered at the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle warehouse on Hoke Street in Downtown Raleigh for Plant the Pavement 2012 . I was there to learn about growing mushrooms and composting — to see if I could find some social enterprises for my homelessness job-creation project.  I don’t have a green thumb so to say I went with some trepidation is an understatement.  I figured if I can do it, anyone can.

Though this post is not directly about the homeless or homelessness, it is about the possibility of creating a sustainable social enterprise that is good for people, good for the earth, and financially stable.  It is also about the magic that happens when you put like-minded, committed people in the same room, and then unleash a focused hands-on learning agenda.

Post Halloween Pumpkins Donated To the Food Shuttle

Post Halloween Pumpkins Donated To the Food Shuttle

Anyone who’s lived in the Triangle area of North Carolina (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and thereabouts) knows about Inter-Faith Food Shuttle.

They collect surplus food from grocery stores, food service distributors, farmers, and restaurants, and get it to the homeless, the hungry, and the poor in our community.  Some may also  be familiar with the Wake County Teaching Farm or Cooking Matter nutrition program, or have heard of the  Culinary Job Training Program or Catering for a Cause, an income-generating project run by the capable Chef Terri.

But what you may not know is that Inter-Faith Food Shuttle and Raleigh’s Longview School have now collaborated to become a Regional Outreach Training Center for Growing Power, a nationally acclaimed nonprofit founded and run by MacArthur Genius Award winner, Will Allen.  As part of that collaboration, Inter-Faith Food Shuttle organized 4 days of workshops this November – two days for youth at Longview School and two days for the wider community at the new IFFS Training Center in Southeast Raleigh. This workshop series presented a unique opportunity for Will and his team to spend quality time in Raleigh teaching us how to replicate the Growing Power model locally.

Sun Butler, Inter-Faith Food Shuttle

Sun Butler, Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, Farm Educator

Not only did the staff (Shosha Capps, Sun Butler, Maurice Smalls, Neal Wisenbaker, Elizabeth Newman, Lara Khalil),do a terrific job of organizing the workshop, they also created an atmosphere where informal connections happened.

Growing Power and Will Allen

Will Allen, Growing Power Founder

Will Allen, Growing Power Founder/CEO Teaching the Workshop on Composting

As described in Time Magazine’s Time 100, Will Allen symbolizes a growing movement in America:

At one time, the term urban farm sounded like an oxymoron. No longer.

A new movement is sprouting up in America’s low-income neighborhoods. Some urban residents, sick of fast food and the scarcity of grocery stores, have decided to grow good food for themselves.

One of the movement’s (literally) towering icons is Will Allen, 62, of Milwaukee’s Growing Power Inc. His main 2-acre Community Food Center is no larger than a small supermarket. But it houses 20,000 plants and vegetables, thousands of fish, plus chickens, goats, ducks, rabbits and bees.

People come from around the world to marvel — and to learn. Says Allen: “Everybody, regardless of their economic means, should have access to the same healthy, safe, affordable food that is grown naturally.”

The movement’s aim is not just healthier people but a healthier planet. Food grown in cities is trucked shorter distances. Translation: more greenhouses in the ‘hood equals less greenhouse gas in the air.

Just as important, farm projects grow communities and nourish hope. The best ones will produce more leaders like Allen, with his credo “Grow. Bloom. Thrive.”

Will Allen and his team from Growing Power did not spend too much time pontificating on urban farming or the thousands of miles our food travels to get to our grocery stores.  Instead, we learned hands-on how to build an aquaponics system, how to grow shitake and oyster mushrooms and micro-greens, how to compost, and how to add value to compost through vermiculture.  And I almost forgot, we built an entire hoop house (basically a greenhouse without a floor) in only two days!  Attendees chose the sessions that interested them. Sarah, Saint and the rest of the crew really knew their stuff.  It was nice to see that Will is good at delegating responsibility and though his aura permeated the workshop — he’s a towering presence for sure, his team shone equally.

Workshop Attendees Hard at Work

Workshop Attendees Hard at Work

Will Allen presented a 1000-slide presentation with photos of his operation — rural and urban farms, solar powered hoop houses, anerobic digesters, hoop houses on vacant lots, and so much more.  It was so clear that what we learned in this workshop was just the tip of the iceberg and Growing Power had much more to teach.  It’s heartening to see that they don’t just keep their knowledge to themselves.  Instead they’ve built a robust sharing capability and by setting up regional centers like the one in Raleigh, Will Allen’s legacy will continue for decades in the people his organization has trained across the nation and the world.  Even if you don’t agree with his methodology, the fact that he’s willing to share is worth admiring.

Aquaponics system

Aquaponics system

For example, some vegans and vegetarians often take offense to aquaponics, but the fact is the market buys fish from somewhere and Growing Power facilities appear to be a better alternative to the factory farms we’ve all heard about.

Compost from Brooks Contracting

Will Allen believes that everything begins with good soil and he loves worms!  He claims he has 120 million worm employees who work for him.  He uses compost in creative ways, heating his hoop houses in the dead of winter with compost piles that are over 150 degrees on the four inside corners and along the outside perimeter.  The compost used in the workshop was generously donated by Amy Brooks of Brooks Contractor.

Amy Brooks of Brooks Contractor, explaining how her compost is made

Amy Brooks of Brooks Contractor, explaining how her compost is made

Amy didn’t just donate the compost, she also made herself and her team available to learn from Will, share ideas, and offer her expertise to the attendees. We are lucky to have businesses in the Triangle like Brooks’ that not only compost commercial food waste, but also understand the importance of supporting groups like the Food Shuttle. Hopefully, there will come a time when ALL food waste is diverted away from landfills into composting or vermi-composting facilities.  At the moment, it is still a very small percentage — Rex Hospital, Duke and UNC are some of the large facilities that compost today via Brooks.

In his presentation, Will Allen shared that those who’ve succeeded in replicating the Growing Power model have very little money but lots of passion.

Will Allen’s Practical Advice 

  • Farming is hard but gratifying.
  • Do your research.  Where are your clients currently buying product from?
  • Always over-produce – never let your clients down.
  • Be patient.
  • Let the work speak for itself.
Attendees building a hoop house with Saint and his team.

Attendees building a hoop house with Saint and his team from Growing Power

As I watched Will speak, I realized that he’s a one-in-a-million gem, and we were extremely lucky to benefit from his pragmatic advice and visionary zeal. For someone who is so famous, he was down-to-earth but doesn’t tolerate laziness or mediocrity.  He pushes everyone around him to be as smart and resourceful as he is.

So Why is the Triangle Area Lucky?

People are tired of buying and eating food made 6,000 miles away and shipped across the country.  Farming is changing and a new revolution of “doing more with less” is on its way.  Will Allen has worked very hard to figure out his way of doing things — and has created his own food ecosystem — one we can learn from, and perhaps replicate here.

Sarah W. teaching us how to grow oyster and shitake mushrooms

Sarah W. from Growing Power teaching us how to grow oyster and shitake mushrooms

We are lucky that Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, which is only a mid-size nonprofit with limited resources, has decided to take on this leadership role in bringing Growing Power’s innovations to the Triangle.  It is a big leap of faith.  If the Mayor of Raleigh, the Wake County Board of Commissioners, the State of North Carolina and business leaders in this region support this effort, the Triangle could become a center for urban and sustainable farming on the East Coast.  Will Allen told us that the Mayor of Milwakee makes himself available via phone, and helps them move regulatory hurdles out of the way.  So does the city of Cleveland and its leaders, where Growing Power has set up a successful regional center.

In fact, the amazing Green in the Ghetto team came down from Cleveland to tell us how the Growing Power model can be replicated.  It was reassuring to know it’s been done before and successfully!

The Green in the Ghetto Team.

The Green in the Ghetto Team who have successfully replicated the Growing Power model in Cleveland, Ohio with support from their city leaders!

A logo that tells a story, green in the ghetto

(I was so impressed by the Green ‘n the Ghetto T-shirts that I had to take pictures:  the logo tells their story — is the perfect conversation starter.  As a marketing geek, their ingenuity and creativity just blew me away).

The Triangle area is so fortunate to have an organization like Inter-Faith Food Shuttle.  The impact of this workshop will be felt for a long time to come as attendees disperse into their communities and implement what they’ve learned.  My sunflower seeds are sprouting away, and they remind me daily of the weekend past.

What we participated in, witnessed, and hopefully took away from the Plant the Pavement workshop, will benefit thousands of people in the area — especially if Inter-Faith Food Shuttle can scale up its urban agriculture operations on Hoke Street.

People were sharing, cross-pollinating ideas, and helping one another.  There is no way to document or fathom the inter-personal and community relationships forged at this workshop.

I watched Will Allen inspire and advise a young aspiring urban farmer.  His years playing basketball had taken a toll on his left knee and he was just recovering from knee surgery.  How can you not admire a man who picks up a shovel — in spite of his pain — just so he can show you how to turn food waste into black gold?

He even shared simple nuggets of wisdom such as the importance of having enough tools for volunteers in a community garden:

This holiday season, if you’re looking for an organization to support in the Triangle that’s doing something to further locally grown, sustainable food systems, I would recommend you rush your donation to the Food Shuttle. www.foodshuttle.org

If you have no clue what Growing Power is, or have never heard of Will Allen, you may want to start here: www.growingpower.org

After witnessing the unbelievable Growing Power team teach, build, share at superhuman speed, I decided I may too one day have to make a trip to Milwaukee to see their facility for myself.

“A typical farmer will tell you how many acres he has.  I think of productivity per square foot.  We earn $5 per square foot in our hoop houses.  How many farmers do you think can say that?”

– Will Allen, November 10th, 2012, Raleigh, NC

Workshop Attendees Building a Hoop House

This is what a finished hoop house looks like (took two days)

November 16, 2012, Raleigh, NC

homelessincarolina (at) gmail.com

P.S.  MUCH better pictures at http://www.flickr.com/groups/2135128@N23/pool/

Recycling, Composting, and Upcycling Businesses

Since I started on this journey in February, I have spoken to many people who directly or indirectly serve the homeless population in Wake County (and the Greater Triangle Area).  Read my interviews on this blog and you’ll see there’s a lot going on here locally, and some wonderful people doing great work.

The question I asked myself is where can I add value?  It’s clear that one big hole is in the area of employment.  Unless you have a job that pays enough to make rent, you find yourself homeless again.  So I started looking for ways to fill that gap.  I’ve always been upset about the amount of waste we throw into landfills, so I thought why not start recycling, upcycling, and composting businesses?

Business idea #1:  We accept food waste from businesses and government institutions (earn a tipping fee), and sell the compost at retail locations around the Triangle.  Citizens support our training services by buying our brand of compost (locally made).

Business idea #2:  We work with churches and other public service organizations to collect electronics (especially higher-end electronics such as smart phones, computers, and servers) and resell them in the e-waste marketplace.

Let me know if you have better ideas — maybe easier to execute or otherwise smarter — I’m open to all your suggestions!  I would love to have some micro-franchising or micro-entrepreneurship business ideas.

It will be more fun if we can collaborate in public-private partnerships to make this happen.  I really love what the Food Shuttle has done with its culinary training program, and we need more of those types of initiatives.

Working on this blog has been a wonderful learning experience and I can’t wait to get started…

Social Entrepreneurship as a Way to End Homelessness

This is close to the model I have in mind for our Wake County Project (a few excerpts, read the whole speech at: http://www.doe.org/ventures/socialEntrepeneurshipSpeech.cfm )

We recruited our first program participants for Ready, Willing & Able right from Grand Central Terminal. We entered into a contract with 70 homeless men and promised them that if they gave up drugs and went to work, The Doe Fund would be there to support and open doors for them.

“After a while, a refrain began to emerge in my conversations with these men and women that seemed to fly in the face of conventional perceptions. I heard it over and over again: they appreciated the sandwich, but what they really wanted was “a room and a job to pay for it. A room and a job to pay for it.” They weren’t asking for a handout, they were asking for a hand-up, an opportunity to build better lives. And isn’t that the promise of America? Isn’t that what our forefathers, and every immigrant since, came to this country in search of – opportunity ?”

We recruited our first program participants for Ready, Willing & Able right from Grand Central Terminal. We entered into a contract with 70 homeless men and promised them that if they gave up drugs and went to work, The Doe Fund would be there to support and open doors for them.

To keep our promise we had to provide decent, drug-free housing and, most importantly, paid work. Both came through the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. (You can’t write government out of the equation completely!) The Doe Fund won a contract to employ homeless people to renovate city-owned low-income housing and a separate contract to purchase and renovate a building for them to live in.

From day one, our crew of formerly homeless construction workers exceeded the performance expectations of the city work contract. From the revenue earned, we paid their wages, hired staff and implemented social services that helped them stay drug free and on the right track.

By 1994, Ready, Wiling & Able was thriving. We had helped 90 men leave the streets behind, get full-time private-sector jobs and their own apartments. They had proven that when given a good opportunity homeless people would seize it and succeed. But, later that same year, a change in city housing policy pulled the rug out from under us. Our work contract was slashed by more than 60%. Suddenly, there was no money and no work.

This was a decisive moment in the history of The Doe Fund and an invaluable insight into the danger of over-reliance on government funding. Even though our work contract, which was the sole source of funding for the program had been cut, I was determined not to break the contract we had made with the men of Ready, Willing & Able. I would not make them homeless again.

At the time, our city was losing its battle with litter. Overflowing trash cans were a common sight throughout Manhattan. Back at the residence in Brooklyn was a workforce of 70 men who were more than able to clean up New York, while they cleaned up their lives in the process.

But, could I really send these men out to sweep the streets they once slept and panhandled on? Would Upper East Siders accept them into their communities? While my staff and even the men in the program were unsure, I was certain that they would.

We bought bright blue uniforms and had the American Flag sewn on the sleeves. I wanted passers-by to recognize our men – and I wanted our men to feel they were part of something larger than themselves.

We started with one crew, on a small stretch of East 86th Street. Harriet wrote letters to neighborhood residents explaining who these “men in blue” were and asking for financial support. The response was extraordinary and it came immediately, in the mail and even in envelopes slipped under our front door. As the donations grew, so did the areas we cleaned. In just three years, we went from being a start-up operation, cleaning only one mile, to a small business cleaning 25. Today, ten years later, we clean more than 150 miles of New York City streets and sidewalks every day. We are the largest street-cleaning project, not just in New York City, but in the nation.

Over the years we have grown tremendously, and because we are social entrepreneurs, we have not depended on donations or on government alone to do so. We have actively sought and won many private cleaning contracts with city council members who want their districts clean, community associations who want to improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods and BIDs looking to attract more tourists and shoppers to their areas. Today, our street-cleaning operation brings in nearly $8 million a year — $5 million from grateful New Yorkers and $2.6 million from paid contracts.

Social Entrepreneurship.