August 2016 marks Susan Ban’s 25th anniversary as ShelterCare Executive Director, an amazing accomplishment in a challenging field that typically sees fairly high employee turnover. We took this opportunity to talk with Susan about the past 25 years and, more importantly, to look forward to the challenges and opportunities facing her and ShelterCare in the years ahead.
“Executive Director.” That sounds important—but exactly what is it that you do?
ShelterCare is a community-owned organization governed by a volunteer board. My primary responsibility is to make sure that the mission and values adopted by the board are reflected in every element of our service delivery and organizational life. The board adopted a new strategic plan in January 2016 and my priorities are governed by that plan: Being the preferred provider serving vulnerable populations with high-quality services; being a strong, sustainable, adaptable organization able to grow and accountable to our mission and plan; using analyzed outcome-driven data to inform decisions and services; and engaging the community to support and find solutions for Lane County’s most vulnerable populations.
Think back to 1991. The U.S. fought the Gulf War. The Soviet Union crumbled. South Africa ended apartheid. What about ShelterCare—what did the agency look like in those days?
In 1991 the agency was named Eugene Emergency Housing (EEH). Structurally we were a very young organization and there was no organized management structure. EEH had grown rapidly since 1985, adding several programs that doubled staffing and stabilized finances. In 1991 EEH operated a sheltered employment resale store called Touch of Class and a licensed residential program called West 11th. Both have since closed. In 1991 the emergency shelter on Highway 99N served only homeless families; today there are just six units for families at what is now called the Housing, Health and Wellness Program. The Royal Avenue Program was in its fifth year of offering crisis respite services. That site is now the home of ShelterCare Medical Recuperation. The Uhlhorn Program celebrated its first anniversary. Both Hawthorn Apartments and Brethren Housing had programs; today those locations are part of Supported Housing.
I’ve heard you say that when you accepted the job you thought it would be a short-term assignment—yet here you are 25 years later. What prompted you to stay?
There were four goals I identified for myself and the agency when I took the job. To accomplish those goals and build on them we needed the support of the whole community—board members, employees, donors, community advocates, funders and service recipients. Very quickly I learned that the community that supported the agency was passionate, committed and deeply caring. We had a tagline— “Creating a Caring Community.” That is work that is hard to step away from. It is deeply satisfying.
This is a tough question because so much has been accomplished, but what stands out in your mind as the agency’s signature achievement over the last 25 years?
We have been willing to look critically at the services we provide and recognize the gaps and flaws. I remember an impromptu conversation with Evelyn Anderton, who was Development Director, about the centralized wait list we managed for emergency shelter for families. We knew that 25 percent of the households calling for emergency shelter were calling from their own home but facing eviction and homelessness. After sketching out the details on the back of a napkin, we started what became our Homelessness Prevention Program using private grant funding. This was several years before homelessness prevention was funded by public dollars. Today that program is thriving, supported by multiple funding streams and serving more than 600 individuals per year.
Are there any missed opportunities that you wish you’d pursued?
We made a choice in 2006-2007 to respond to a state grant opportunity by asking for Housing First funds to serve chronically homeless individuals with serious mental illness. While I don’t regret supporting the Housing First project, we did miss the opportunity to use these funds to launch an “ACT” (Assertive Community Treatment) team. Having an ACT team would benefit our consumers. We would also benefit from having greater integration with medical services and psychiatric prescriber services.
Let’s look forward, at the next five years—what do you think will be the biggest challenges facing Lane County and ShelterCare during that time? What will be the big opportunities?
Housing, housing, housing. There is a significant lack of affordable housing and, in particular, access to housing for difficult-to-house individuals. Many of the people we work with have barriers to housing such as poor credit, poor (or no) rental histories and criminal records. Our opportunities in this area are to cultivate creative collaborations with existing affordable housing providers and perhaps be assertive about acquiring our own units for supported housing purposes. Another exciting development is the increasing linkages between silos and systems. Health and housing are talking together. Child/youth systems and adult systems are collaborating to support successful transitions. There are many examples of cross-system efforts focused on specific social problems and applying unique and evolving solutions. A great example is the collaborative FUSE project—Frequent User System Engagement, a national best-practice model—now being launched in Lane County. At the FUSE table are the courts, the criminal justice and public safety systems, behavioral health, hospitals, housing agencies, fire and emergency, crisis response, and the coordinated care organization. Finally, ShelterCare is developing capacity to have data-driven decision making. Our data-gathering systems are being updated and we are becoming more proficient at interpreting this data. We will use the results to communicate about our service outcomes and redesign our services to address deficits identified in the data.
Homelessness remains a persistent problem in Lane County and in communities around the country. There is a lot of anxiety surrounding the issue and differing opinions on a “solution.” As a voice of experience, what message do you have for people regarding homelessness in America?
Poverty and homelessness have consistently expanded as social ills since the 1970s. Public policy changes in the 1980s exacerbated homelessness as the federal government disinvested in affordable housing programs. There are intransigent social and economic conditions that will not easily or quickly be ameliorated. There is no quick fix that will magically move every hard-working household into a middle-class safety net. A revision of attitudes and expectations will allow us to incorporate and accept new and unconventional solutions. The alternative housing models (like Square One Village) are hopeful. Similarly, “asset building” for lower-income working households shows promise. We will also, as a society, need to look at childcare costs, transportation costs, and how to nurture community supports for households. For serving individuals who need targeted supports to live successful independent lives, we are expanding the tools available to us. Every success illustrates a pathway of hope for others. We cultivate and celebrate successes as we continue to move individuals and families into stable housing.
Susan, on behalf of everyone who cares deeply about ShelterCare—staff, consumers, supporters and community partners—I want to congratulate you on reaching this milestone and thank you for your service. Your hard work, wisdom, and kindness are unsurpassed. We are all very fortunate to have had the opportunity to take this journey with you. We look forward to many more years of working alongside you to make this community a better place to live…for everyone.
If you would like to share your memories or well wishes for Susan, please write them in the comments below.