The following is a conversation between Deborah Hughes, President and CEO of Brookview House, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Founded in 1990, Brookview House is a nonprofit organization led by black and Latinx women that works for justice, equity and systemic change for low-income mothers and their children living in Boston. Its innovative approach addresses the distinct needs of each family member, adults and children. Brookview’s commitment extends beyond its own walls, offering programs to families within the local community as well. And here to tell us more about their work and the impact that it has had is Deborah Hughes, the President and CEO of Brookview House.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Deborah.
Deborah: Good morning. How are you doing today?
Denver: Just fine. Thanks. Well, your organization has been in existence for a little over three decades now. Tell us about its founding and of your mission.
Deborah: Brookview was founded, as you said, in 1990, and we started in response to the increase in family homelessness in Massachusetts. At the time, there were probably about maybe 500 homeless families across the state.
So we were trying to get ahead of what we thought would be a rising problem. So we came up with a solution which for us was to develop supportive housing. So that’s housing with services onsite for moms and kids. And it was a very successful program. But what happened economically across the country is we had a number of recessions, a number of unemployment issues. And so, family homelessness has increased. Now, there’s probably about 5,000 homeless families in Massachusetts on any given day.
Denver: Let’s dig a little bit deeper than that because I think when we think about homelessness, we think about men because that’s who we see. We see them in the subway in New York or in The T in Boston or whatever the case may be. But that’s really not a true picture, is it? Give us a little bit in terms of the dimensions of family homelessness, women and children?
Deborah: Yes. Family homelessness is what we call the “invisible homelessness” because it is probably 85 to 90% women with children, and the reason we don’t see them is because they spend time… they know they can go to the emergency room, and the nurses will let them spend the night. They spend the night in bus stations. You’ve probably passed them many times because you think they’re waiting for the bus or they’re going to the doctor’s office, but many times it’s moms who are homeless, looking for a place for the night.
Denver: Yeah. And there’s the real intersection between this family homelessness and domestic violence. Correct?
Deborah: Definitely. We find that about 85% of the women and children that we serve are survivors of domestic violence. There’s a big intersection between the two.
Denver: The latest figures that I saw, I think that Boston had the fourth highest number of homeless families in the United States. I don’t know if that’s current or not, but why is it so high?
Deborah: Because Boston is a very expensive place to live.
Denver: You got me there. Absolutely. Yeah. That’s for sure.
Deborah: The average rent in Boston for a two bedroom is between $2,500 and $3,000 a month. And the folks that we serve are your essential workers, your minimum wage workers, so they’re making like $12.75 cents an hour– that’s the minimum wage in Massachusetts. So you can see how those numbers don’t add up. If you pay rent, you can’t buy food or shoes or anything. So, it’s very expensive. And utilities, because we’re in the Northeast, are expensive if you live in an apartment where you have to provide your own utilities, and there’s a limited amount of affordable housing in Massachusetts as well.
Denver: And I would imagine that the situation is just becoming more acute because, I mean, the cost of housing, not to mention the cost of gas and oil and everything else with utilities, is just going through the roof.
Deborah: Yes. In fact, that’s our… as we look towards what’s next, that’s our biggest fear. This whole supply chain issue, the whole… gas is going up, which means that eventually everybody’s going to have to pay more for everything. If you go to the grocery store, I’m sure you’ve seen… I know around here… there are aisles that are empty sometimes because the supplies just aren’t there, and the prices are going up to pay the gas, the oil to get it there. It’s going to be… looking forward, it’s kind of scary.
“The Brookview model is: We use housing as a pathway to family and community stability. What we do is we develop and build our own housing so that we can have classrooms, tech centers and places for people to learn, as well as health and wellness centers right on site that are open to the people who live in our buildings… as well as the community as a whole.”
Denver: That’s going to be a rough ride. There’s no question about it. So, Deborah, what exactly is the Brookview model? What does it entail? How does it work?
Deborah: The Brookview model is: We use housing as a pathway to family and community stability. What we do is we develop and build our own housing so that we can have classrooms, tech centers and places for people to learn, as well as health and wellness centers right on site that are open to the people who live in our buildings… as well as the community as a whole.
Denver: How many people live in your buildings?
Deborah: We have three buildings; there’s 36 units, and we also rent apartments in the community for families as well because we need more than the 36 units.
Denver: Let’s talk a little bit about your programs because you have them… this is a two generational approach. You have some programs for adults, services. What are some of those programs?
Deborah: For the adults, we have educational training programs to help them get job readiness skills as well as to get jobs. For the youth, the youth program is our largest program because as families, it’s one mom and 2, 3, 4 kids. So, our goal with the kids is to show them something different than they’ve probably seen before. And some of our biggest programs are: we do stem programming, lots of coding. We were one of the first programs to do a Girls Who Code that specifically targeted girls experiencing homelessness. We also have a boys coding program as well because when we started the girls, the boys were like, “We want to do that, too.”
So we have boys coding, girls coding, and also behavioral health is a huge piece of what we weave throughout all of our programming because the instability, poverty, the domestic violence leads to a need for mental and behavioral health services. So for us, we have mental health clinicians onsite, on staff, and it’s interwoven throughout everything we do.
Denver: Yeah, this is an extraordinarily holistic approach. Is there a challenge in trying to manage and juggle so many different elements? You know, a lot of organizations do one thing, maybe they do two. You got about 12.
Deborah: Literally. Yeah, because we respond to what the families tell us they need and try to fill in any gaps that may exist in terms of getting services or providing services. So, once they tell us, which we sort of figure out, how do we make it happen? Like the youth program started because initially, moms were like, “You know, we appreciate the services that you’re giving to us, but our kids are having problems in school.”
They’re getting suspended from school. Some kids, at a very young age, were getting expelled. Getting told, we’ve had calls back in the nineties where teachers would say, “Uh, he can’t come back.” I’m like, “Okay, so what’s he going to do for the next 12 years?”
So with that, that’s when the behavioral health piece really came into play so that we can use expressive arts with the kids to just address some of the instability and the issues that they were having around violence and just moving from place to place.
Denver: And you track everything very carefully, Deborah. What has been the impact of these programs both for adults and for the young people you serve?
Deborah: We find that about 92% of the moms who get placed in permanent housing stay in permanent housing.
Denver: That’s extraordinary.
Deborah: And 88% of our children graduate from high school, and many go on to college, which… the statistic now… when we started, the statistic for homeless kids was only about 25% graduated high school. Now there’s a national movement, so about 60% graduate from high school. So we’re at the 88% rate, and we’re trying to get that even higher.
“I think our model starts with a really committed staff, and the staff are from the communities, so they know what these folks are experiencing. We live with them. We see them in the grocery store, or we see them in the neighborhood, and we never give up on a family no matter how difficult it is. We don’t give up. You can always come back, and once you’ve moved into permanent housing, come back, ask questions. We have people who have come back and said, “Well, my landlord says, I owe him some back rent. But I have the receipts.” And I’m like, “Ah. They learn. They listen. We got you Mr. Landlord.” So we never give up. They can always come back, always come back.”
Denver: So what’s your secret sauce? I mean, if somebody were to say, “Why are these the numbers?” They’re outliers, almost 92 and 88. They’re near the top of the class, if not at the top of the class. What is the secret sauce of your model that you believe that leads to these kinds of positive outcomes?
Deborah: I think our model starts with a really committed staff, and the staff are from the communities so they know what these folks are experiencing. We live with them. We see them in the grocery store or we see them in the neighborhood, and we never give up on a family no matter how difficult it is. We don’t give up. You can always come back and once you’ve moved into permanent housing, come back, ask questions. We have people who have come back and said, “Well, my landlord says, I owe him some back rent. But I have the receipts.” And I’m like, “Ah. They learn. They listen. We got you, Mr. Landlord.” So we never give up. They can always come back, always come back.
Denver: Let me ask you a question about your staff, because this has been a very challenging time, and it can be challenging work as well. What have you done to assure the wellbeing of staff, which is, again, I think, something that every organization is concerned about over the course of these last two years?
Deborah: Yes. COVID has been very difficult, but one of the things we know is the demand for our services increased tremendously. And people were… every day, there were will calls, people at the door, people asking for help. People needed food; they needed diapers; they needed help with their rent. They needed…so we never closed our doors.
But we tried, initially in 2020, when COVID first started, we did a hybrid remote model so that half the staff would be in on one day and then they would do remote, and the other half would be onsite the next day. So it was really important for us to stress to staff: self-care.
And that’s where our mental health clinicians come into play. They remind people, days off, self-care, take some time for yourself. It’s difficult because folks are so committed. Even though, often when folks were supposed to be on their remote days, they would be at work. And I would say, “Why is everybody in here today?”
So, it’s hard– That self-care piece is the hardest piece of taking care of your staff. But we do workshops. We take a retreat day, that kind of stuff.
Denver: Cool. Are there any silver linings you see coming out of COVID in terms of the way Brookview will operate in the future? I mean, is there something that you had to initiate during these past two years that you say, “You know what? We might want to stick with that even when things get back to normal”?
Deborah: We’ve been having conversations about more that we can do for our staff. And I think, looking at what additional benefits we can give to the staff, what kind of increasing salaries– because folks deserve, as we talked about, the prices are going up; everything’s going to be more expensive.
So, we gotta look at how to add more benefits, how to attract staff, how to keep them on board. So some of that stuff, we are going to move forward on.
Denver: Brookview was recently named a Classy Social Innovation Award Winner. Congratulations on that. What are your thoughts, Deborah, about innovation, your philosophy, your approach, and on the process or methods you use to foster innovation within your organization?
Deborah: We do a lot of evaluation, a lot of introspection. We do frequently… we do analysis of what we’re doing. We ask our participants to do surveys. We do focus groups. We just look at: How can we do better all the time. We look at: How can we do better? What can we do different? We just recently did a SWOT – strength, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats – about what we’re doing in terms of programming so that we’re always trying to stay ahead of the curve. And for me, the innovation comes in listening to the people that we serve and getting them involved in the process.
Denver: Yeah, that’s good. I think a lot of nonprofit organizations believe their model is timeless. And actually, it’s probably got to change every year or two because the needs of the people you’re serving change every year or two. So as you say, the innovation comes from the listening and staying close to it and then saying, “Oh, we need to do this now. This no longer works because things have changed that quickly.” What’s your business model, your sources of revenue?
Deborah: About 50% is government funding, and the rest is foundations, corporations, and individuals. So we do a lot of fundraising.
Denver: A lot of fundraising. How could the philanthropy be more effective in supporting an organization like Brookview?
Deborah: I think the biggest thing, and there’s been a lot of conversation about this over the past few years, is just general operating support because I always say, “You know, I gotta pay that light bill. I got to pay the gas bill.” Definitely. So, general operating support so that we can pay for the basics. Program support is great, but we also need the support that keeps the doors open.
Denver: Right. Right. Program support doesn’t pay for the light and gas. They’re unsexy things, but this is the way we operate. You know, this has not been an easy time to be in charge. How do you think the nature of leadership is changing of a major NGO like yourself… nonprofit organization, and maybe how has your own leadership changed or evolved or adapted over the course of the past 24 months?
Deborah: I would say expectations for leaders have changed.
Denver: How so?
Deborah: And I think people are looking for their leaders to be more vocal about what we stand for. They’re looking for their leaders to be more visible. I think for me, a classic example was the COVID vaccine. And for all of us, the COVID vaccine was new, and our community had hesitancy about taking the vaccine.
And what we did is: vaccine clinics in our buildings open to the community, so that it would be right there in the community. And I knew that I had to be one of the first people, as a leader, to take the vaccine. So I had to stand up for what I was promoting and what I believed in. And what I knew is, the vaccine was a way to stop the COVID from spreading throughout all of our buildings and throughout our community.
Denver: Was it successful in terms of getting others to follow suit? I’m sure not a hundred percent, but by and large?
Deborah: No, not a hundred percent, but yeah, it was successful. During the first initial wave of COVID, we did very well in terms of not having a huge outbreak. We only had about four or five people who had COVID. Now, Omicron is a whole other story. Omicron was so contagious that it started to spread even to people who were vaccinated and boosted.
Denver: Absolutely right. And there’s another variant of it out there that I hear. So let’s keep our fingers crossed.
Deborah: Don’t scare me. Don’t scare me.
Denver: That’s not nice for the host to do, not at all. So what’s next for Brookview? You say you tried to stay ahead of the curve. What do you see around the corner or you’d like to be here?
Deborah: I think for us, it’s about refining and adjusting to, actually the new COVID model because COVID is, as you just said, it’s here to stay in one way, shape, or form. And for us, it’s about adjusting to it. What do we need to do for our programs and to ensure that they continue, to ensure that we reach out? I know one of the things we started, particularly in terms of our behavioral health program, is telemental health that was new for us because people were afraid to do the one-on-one, person-to-person.
So we said, how do we reach out? So we added the telemental health to the mix. One of the things we did early on was we couldn’t have volunteers in the space. So what we did is, we had a donor who gave us money to purchase large screen displays so they could still continue to teach via video and remote. The kids weren’t thrilled with that because they want their volunteers in the room. So they were really happy in 2021 when volunteers could come back. So, we know with the kids, it’s still about the one-on-one, person-to-person.
For the adults, I think the hybrid model is something we can expand upon, but we have to take a look, just do a pilot, and see how that works.
“There definitely has to be more affordable housing built and developed, and the childcare system has to be revamped and reformed because as we saw, there was a huge exodus of women out of the workforce, and a lot of that had to do with childcare.”
Denver: That’s interesting. Finally, Deborah, as we look at the issue of homeless women and children, not just in Boston, but across the country, what would you like to see done that could have a profound, positive impact on this matter?
Deborah: There definitely has to be more affordable housing built and developed, and the childcare system has to be revamped and reformed because as we saw, there was a huge exodus of women out of the workforce, and a lot of that had to do with childcare.
You know, you couldn’t go to work and have your kids at home. One of the things we did is we just went to full day learning pods. So the kids came to us so the moms could go to work. But for the large majority of our community and our population, you just can’t; they’re essential workers. You got to go to work. What do you do with your kids? So the childcare system has to be revamped, and we’re working with a coalition of folks that are beginning to address that, looking at how the childcare systems should change as well as: How do we pay a living wage to childcare providers? That’s a huge piece as well.
Denver: Yeah. They’re some of the more underappreciated and certainly under-compensated people in our society without any question whatsoever. For listeners who want to learn more about Brookview House or financially support this great work that you’re doing, tell us about your website and what they can expect to find on it.
Deborah: Our website is www.brookviewhouse.org. And on this website, you’ll see videos and testimonials from both our staff and our participants and our young people as well.
Denver: Okay. Well, thanks, Deborah, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the program.
Deborah: Thank you for having us. Thank you.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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