In a past career, Daniel Stover worked in construction. He was assigned to the night shift but had to resign when he couldn’t find anyone to watch his 6-year-old daughter. One thing led to another, and Stover found himself homeless.
He and his daughter, Nirvana, were bouncing between friends’ and family’s homes when he found Shelters to Shutters through a workforce development program. Stover, 34, started working as a maintenance technician at an apartment building in Rockville, Md., in early July of last year and moved into the Gables Upper Rock later that month.
The job is hard — fixing appliances and air-conditioners — he said, but he enjoys it and has bonded with the property’s management.
“My mission was not to let them down, because they took a leap of faith for me,” said Stover, a Northwest D.C. native.
About 200 people have transitioned out of situational homelessness through Shelters to Shutters since it was piloted in five cities in 2015. The Vienna, Va.-based nonprofit launched a program in the D.C. area in 2017 and now operates in a dozen cities, including Atlanta, Houston, Nashville and Portland, Ore.
The program is the brainchild of real estate executive Chris Finlay, who said he read a magazine article about homelessness and saw a need that property management companies could fill. Half of entry-level real estate employees leave their jobs within a year in search of better opportunities, he said, creating a constant demand for workers.
Shelters to Shutters screens job candidates recommended by local nonprofit partners and refers them to property management companies that hire them for maintenance and leasing positions. The model is meant to push people toward self-sufficiency by offering full-time employment and discounted housing at the buildings where they work.
About 10,480 people in the Washington region were homeless in January 2018, according to the annual point-in-time count. Homelessness can be situational — sparked by a financial, career or health-care crisis — or chronic, which occurs when a person has a disability and lacks housing for a year or for four periods of time that total a year. About 83 percent of homelessness is situational, Finlay said.
Shelters to Shutters’s clientele and its approach to homelessness stands in contrast to the federally sponsored “Housing First” policy that prioritizes helping the chronically homeless into housing before resolving other issues, like mental illness or problems with addiction, and then helping them find work. Most governments in the D.C. region have adopted the housing first model, said Hilary Chapman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Finlay pushes for a different solution: His program identifies largely well people who are situationally homeless and connects them with property management companies, facilitates training and monitors their progress.
For some homeless people, that process, he said, can break the cycle.
Nan Roman, the CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said because Shelters to Shutters also provides immediate housing, it could still be considered a type of “housing first” model, but one aimed at people who don’t first need mental health or addiction services before being able to work. The program “is for people who don’t need the treatment in between, which is a lot of homeless people, so that’s a very good model," Roman said.
Employees can advance from groundskeeper to maintenance technician to regional maintenance supervisor and beyond, Finlay said. About 9 in 10 Shelters to Shutters participants get a raise in their first year of work, the organization estimates.
The property management companies directly pay participants, who earn the same wages as any employee in their position. Pay and housing discounts vary between properties, with some management companies initially offering free housing and others requiring all participants to pay a portion of their rent. Locally, participants are paid $14 per hour to $24 per hour and rents for participants range from $330 to $850 per month, depending on apartment size, property location and type of building.
Shelters to Shutters’s administrative operations are funded by its board of directors, corporate philanthropy, individual donations and private grants.
People experiencing homelessness who want to join the program have to fill out an application, undergo a background check and participate in an interview. If they have an addiction in their past, they have to have been clean for at least a year.
Vernon Suggs, who found his maintenance job in Northwest D.C. through Shelters to Shutters, said the nonprofit’s strategy differentiates it from other anti-homelessness initiatives.
“It’s contingent upon you being the best you can be in terms of your health, your work ethic and doing what you’re supposed to do — the things that you haven’t been doing in the past,” said Suggs, 60.
If someone fails to do those things and loses his job, he is forced to part with his housing discount. Shelters to Shutters participants have to be physically and mentally capable of fulfilling their work responsibilities, Finlay said.
Mary Frances Kenion said she helped two people apply to Shelters to Shutters when she worked as a programs director at Bridges to Independence, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit that supports homeless people. One applicant was accepted, Kenion said, but their personal struggles prevented Shelters to Shutters from placing them in a building.
Finlay acknowledged that some people who are homeless might face challenges, like addiction, mental illness or a history of trauma, that make them unready to work. He said he hopes to keep educating the business and real estate communities about how to serve a broad group of people.
“As we’re growing, we’re going to take the easiest candidates first,” Finlay said. Many participants come in with prior skills, but others have no particularly relevant prior knowledge. The program’s new employees receive the same training as other new employees, specific to the position.
Other residents of the buildings, and even the on-site property managers, do not necessarily know that an employee was hired through Shelters to Shutters. This practice eliminates the stigma that would otherwise be likely to follow participants, said Leo Horey, the chief administrative officer for AvalonBay Communities.
Shelters to Shutters participants at AvalonBay properties start with a rent-free month and then get increasingly smaller discounts on their housing, Horey said, until eventually they pay the same rent as other employees.
“Do they get some special hand-holding? Yes,” Horey said. ”But the goal is for them to be fully functional without the [extra] housing benefit over a couple-year period.”
Andre Segears’s apartment in the Avalon Potomac Yard high-rise in Alexandria, Va., is a big upgrade from the Northeast D.C. shelter where he lived last year. At 43, he said he was tired of being in such proximity to dozens of other men.
Segears attended a hiring fair that Shelters to Shutters hosted in October. A month later, he had a job and a home.
Segears had been taking building-maintenance classes at So Others Might Eat, an anti-poverty social services organization, and working as an electrician at La Casa, a rehabilitation housing program. Now he would earn discounted rent, a salary and benefits in exchange for 40 hours a week of fixing thermostats, reprogramming locks and resolving any number of other mishaps that might happen in his building’s more than 300 units.
“When you have a trade and you have some skills,” Segears said, “you don’t have to settle for less.”
Segears has been a maintenance technician for only five months, but he already has his eye on a long-term goal. He wants to be a manager.