No one I’ve ever known woke up one morning and decided to become homeless. Rather, life happened. Sometimes life crashes down in the form of one catastrophic event, like the loss of a job. In other instances, it evolves through time rooted in the deep crevasses of intergenerational poverty. Regardless, whatever the trigger, the condition of homelessness cannot be considered any human being’s fate, any more than our good fortune can be thought of as ours.
Consider my dear friend, Ray, who is the human being responsible for my involvement with people who are homeless. I passed Ray many times on my way to work in 2014. There this old man would sit in his wheelchair behind the St. George, Utah, library. The image of this guy with long greasy gray hair aswirl, clothes shredded and filthy, slumped over asleep in his chair followed me through my days as Volunteer Director at the Southwest Utah 5 County Organization. Ray was never far from the center of my attention.
Finally, one cold fall morning, my curiosity won out over my need to get to work on time. I stopped to talk to this human being, whose name I learned was Ray. I asked what had happened to cause him to end up in a wheelchair (which I could see needed repair) sleeping behind the library. His answer was as devastatingly simple as it was profoundly shattering. Five years earlier, he’d lost his wallet. Read that sentence again. He lost his wallet. His wallet contained his ID, and what little money he had at his disposal. From there evil destiny took over, and he’d ended up homeless, without the resources to rectify his deteriorating circumstances.
I didn’t think twice. I didn’t imagine how stacked the odds were against this man. I didn’t turn away from Ray’s stench and filth, although my stomach was rebelling. I didn’t possibly imagine that I was altering the course of my life as I determined I would do my best to change his. Instead, I loaded Ray into my car and transported him to my office where I introduced him to my two coworkers. “We need to help Ray find a home,” I told them, and the three of us set to work. We didn’t know what we were doing, really. We were just being kind to another human being.
We made dozens of phone calls that day. And, within seven hours we had Ray cleaned up and settled into housing for the first time in a very long time.
What I learned from my fateful encounter with Ray changed me. It lit in me the fire of belief that homelessness is not inevitable, nor is it unsolvable. It showed me that by being kind, by listening, by seeing through to the individual wrapped in that ugly outer shell, we can solve homelessness. We can solve it one individual, one step at a time.
Ray was my switchpoint. I became his.
At that time not many people outside of retired railroad men and hobby model railroaders knew what a switch point was. Now, “switchpoint” is burgeoning as the rallying cry for how we can and must behave when we see someone in need. A switch point is a mechanism on a train track that, with a little bit of a turn, sends the train in a completely different direction. With the slightest of adjustments, a train, or a life, takes off headed toward a new tomorrow.
In the summer 2014, my staff, volunteers, and I opened Switchpoint Community Resource Center in St. George, Utah. We believed that we could help people, and believe me, we have. We knew then, and it is daily reinforced, that we must begin by listening. We must listen to what people in dire need have to tell us about their lives. What they were like before they became homeless, and what they dream of becoming again.
It quickly became clear that gaps in the available service delivery system in Washington County were contributing to ongoing impoverishment in the community. By identifying those gaps through thoughtful listening, and then designing programs and services to address them, Switchpoint grew organically to meet the needs of those we serve. Since opening, we have added a housing assistance program, a Community Soup Kitchen, Crossover Recovery residential treatment facility for men in poverty with a substance use disorder, and a 55-unit affordable housing complex. Most recently we broke ground for a 24/7 child care center, designed to meet the needs of parents who work graveyard and split shifts.
In the course of our growth, we began to recognize that solving homelessness wasn’t a deep, dark, convoluted mystery. Rather, there were certain commonalities that, when applied thoughtfully, rendered a stalwart framework for how to proceed. We call it the Switchpoint model. We’ve found that if the model’s four pillars are judiciously erected and tended, the result will be a community in which all may flourish, one life at a time.
Pillar One: Focus on the Individual. There is no such thing as a blanket solution to any social problem, of course. Homelessness, by its very nature, exemplifies that truism. In the Switchpoint model, we begin by listening to each person’s story: their past, their pain, their hopes, and their dreams. In addition to arranging for emergency shelter, our case managers place our clients within a support system individually centered on addressing each client’s issues and propelled forward by the effort of the client. For example, many of our clients report that money, when they can get their hands on it, slips through their fingers. We offer and arrange for that client to attend money management classes. When a client reports that they have been evicted for unhealthy living conditions we enroll that client in safe and sanitary living classes. If a client reports sequential job loss, with the client we assess strengths and weaknesses, and help the client secure appropriate, supervised on-the-job training experience. Moreover, we arrange for a relationship-based, community-driven solution to poverty. Circles groups meet regularly with clients in a social setting, often over a meal, to both render support and receive information about how the client is progressing on her/his journey out of poverty.
Pillar Two: Engage Partnerships. No one person—any more than one organization—can solve homelessness. Just as no two persons experiencing homelessness have arrived there in the same manner, no one source can provide the path out for our clients to full self-sufficiency. In Switchpoint speak, “It takes all of us.” It takes social service agencies to rise beyond their own turfdom and weave together a support system that fills the gaps through which the individuals have fallen. It takes governmental units that have identified helping the most vulnerable in our communities as a top priority. It takes entrepreneurs and millionaires to recognize that they have a moral obligation to reach out and help. It takes churches and service organizations and neighbors to step up and reach out. Without a vast and growing web of partnership, homelessness will continue to spread unchecked.
We never miss an opportunity to invite partnerships. Everyone has something to give.
Pillar Three: Embrace Innovation. “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” Albert Einstein said. Homelessness has thwarted far too many well-intended efforts. Innovation and creativity are key to finding new ways to charge through the barriers presented by homelessness. Old methods won’t work anymore. Take for instance an intractable obstacle we encountered in St. George. We found many clients were being offered jobs that could only be performed during swing or graveyard shift hours; stocking shelves at big box stores, for instance. While our clients were more than eager to accept such work, many who were parents could not, because they could not provide safe, affordable child care for their young children. Family members were either absent or unreliable. We listened to the parents. We partnered with individual donors and government agencies, including the Department of Workforce Services, to arrange for vouchers for child care. We created an innovative solution. Shortly after the New Year 2022, we will open a 24/7 child care center, the first of its kind in southwest Utah. When clients accept work, they will be eligible for DWS vouchers for childcare services which we will offer at our new, state-of-the-art facility, Stepping Stones.
It is through innovation that we ask the question “What if?” No solutions are rejected out of hand. In this creative phase, no consideration is given to cost, government regulation, or societal bias. We dream first, and then we plan. By encouraging leading-edge thinking, we open our organization, and thereby the lives of our clients, to all sorts of possibilities.
Pillar Four: Plan for Sustainability. Even the best, most innovative program, with adequate partnership support and focused solely on individual need, is doomed to failure if sustainability is not an integral part of the process. Almost any project can survive in the short run. What prevents a “flash in the pan” fate is the ability of the project to keep itself rolling. In the case of Switchpoint CRC, our plan for sustainability is multi-pronged. It includes a move away from state and federal funding sources which are unpredictable at best; a constant, driving effort to build and maintain a stable donor base; and micro-enterprises which contribute to the operational revenue of the umbrella organization. In St. George we have started thrift stores, dog grooming facilities, small engine repair businesses, and an intensive inpatient treatment facility for men with substance use disorders. We are planning to open an industrial laundry facility and a specialized bakery. In each instance these endeavors not only contribute to our income stream, they also provide services of value to our clients.
We believe in planning for sustainability because it commits our resources to the ongoing existence of our efforts. We believe in what we do. We have a plan to make it happen in the short run, and continue to happen in the longer run.
The Switchpoint model is working in St. George, Utah, and its success is garnering notice. Within the last year, communities in northern Utah, from the urban hub of Salt Lake to the rural expanse of Tooele County have begun their own efforts to end homelessness, utilizing the Switchpoint model.
As the CEO of Switchpoint, I spend my days, and many of my evenings and weekends, teaching others how the Switchpoint model can be implemented in their communities. I look forward to working with more and more communities in Utah and beyond. If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that there are men, women, and children like my friend Ray everywhere. Each has a story. Each deserves a chance. We are their Switchpoint. And, they are ours.