In From the Storm: Resident Leadership
David Brown spent twenty-five years homeless on the streets of Philadelphia before coming into Project HOME’s James Widener Ray Homes in 2013. It wasn’t an easy transition. “I slept on the floor of my new place for three weeks before I would get in my bed,” he says. “After two decades on the streets, I was only comfortable on the floor.”
It’s a compelling metaphor. For many of our residents, the journey begins by coming inside. Once in, self-empowerment and leadership are the next challenge. “You have to want to make that transition, because it’s easy to stay where you are,” comments David.
Project HOME’s vision is to empower every person in our community to grow in capacity and agency—residents as well as staff. It is a core conviction of Project HOME that every person has gifts and potential to offer the community.
In recent years, the growing leadership among our residents is changing the face of the organization. Our residents bring life experiences and their own perseverance through tough times. Both are powerful forces for building community within Project HOME. Their stories make them compelling educators and advocates for the general public. Our focus on empowerment also demands that our staff grow, unlearning many “staff-client” attitudes popular in the professional caregiver world.
Residents play an important peer-to-peer role in inspiring others to come off the streets. They encourage new residents to get involved in all that Project HOME offers. Most important, many grasp the recovery process, the fruit of which is an ability to forgive and to give second chances. Some have joined our staff, and are amazing coworkers.
Our residents have been on our Board of Trustees from the beginning, but a few years ago, a separate Resident Advisory Board (RAB) was created to work with our Board of Trustees and executive team. Our RAB is a great sounding board for policies and the implementation of our strategic plan. It works to ensure that resident concerns are addressed. The RAB’s last retreat in Sea Isle City was attended by fourteen members from seven Project HOME residences. These are some of our core leaders.
Yet our RAB is only one place we see resident leadership. The courage residents model in sharing extremely personal stories with the broader public through our speaker’s bureau inspires all of us to be more vulnerable. The men in our St. Elizabeth’s Recovery Residence (SERR) say that mentoring by peers often makes the difference between recovery and relapse. SERR has given us some of our strongest interns and most powerful advocates. “St. E’s has a strong structure because we are a recovery house. A lot is expected of us. There is accountability and a focus on being honest, open, and willing,” says resident Brian Kane.
Deborah Savage, program manager at St. Elizabeth’s, sees empowerment as the cornerstone of her job. “The most critical part of empowerment is to help residents see and build on their gifts and strengths. They have to do an honest assessment of themselves, including the negative, and focus on turning things around.”
“People with addictions have had to be very creative, intellectual, and analytical,” she continues. “Here they take that gift and channel it into positive things. It’s important to let them make their own choices and see that they can make the right ones. We start with the most simple and basic needs, recognizing and building on strengths. Empowerment is a process.”
Resident leaders helped us surpass our goals in the recent, highly successful Mercy and Justice campaign. They canvassed the streets for advocacy. They talked to people living on the Parkway about the upcoming events and safe places to be. They worked endless hours greeting visitors at our Knotted Grotto art installation.
Meanwhile, residents at Ray Homes have become engaged in their neighborhood and are slowly changing the atmosphere of that block. They are responsible for an amazing garden and workout space created from scratch in the back lot. Recently, they helped pull together a block party and provided water ice.
Through our advocacy committee, residents host meetings with public officials. One leads a monthly movie night, complete with thoughtful discussion and popcorn. Many participate in the street counts, trying to get others inside. Our young adult leaders are advocating for young people on the streets.
David Brown reflects on his past few years: “People say what a good leader I am now. It’s not about me being a leader. It’s about me wanting to be part of something. I tell new residents: ‘You are home now, and you need to make this your home. Project HOME has taken the first step and now you take the second. You have been through the storm. You are strong and ready. Take advantage of all that it offers.’”
It is a great gift to the Project HOME community that so many residents have chosen to do just that. It has changed us all.