On a mission to help change the face of homelessness, Stuart Harper has been executive director of the Buffalo City Mission for nearly five years. He sat down with The Buffalo News’ Brian Meyer to talk about strategies being used to help give people a new start. Here is a summary of some of the points in an interview in the weekly “In Focus” series. Watch the full seven-minute interview at BuffaloNews.com/video.
Harper: We love being here to be able to provide basic needs for the men and women that come to us. Food, shelter, clothing. But we can do more than that. We can really help them take the next step of ... a transition in their life, or what we refer to in our program as the Dream. That’s really to get them to say, “OK, I’m through the addiction. I’m through with living life on the fringe. I want to become part of society. How do I go about doing it?” And we can help them take that next step.
Meyer: [Some] folks who find themselves [homeless] often are very different than what the stereotypes might be.
Harper: Particularly recently, the men and women that have been coming to us are not coming off the street – they’re coming out of housing. The recent statistics for Erie County are that there are 5,000 homeless people. That’s made up of a group of people that may not be coming to the mission. They may be residing in other people’s homes ... And they’ve lost [their home] because many of them have been on the fringe of poverty for most of their lives. Then they lose a job, or they have an illness that causes them to lose their job. And that puts them over the edge.
Meyer: You alluded to it – the City Mission does far more than provide food and shelter now. You have an array of services.
Harper: [Our transitional programs] last up to 24 months. What we try to do ... is to provide an opportunity to fill the gaps that they may have. If they have an addiction, let’s deal with the addiction head-on. If they have literacy issues – many of them may be dropouts – let’s fix the literacy issues. We team up with a number of different organizations around the community ...
Meyer: You even to get into ... job preparedness. You have your own computer lab.
Harper: We believe through our faith that everybody has been gifted with something – a gift that they have been given from the Lord. It may be their ability to work with people, it may be their ability to work with their hands, things like that. Then we sit down with a local staffing agency that helps us to determine what kind of jobs would make sense with somebody with this gifting. So when they’re through with their education or their training, they will be able to go out and get a job that’s available today.
Meyer: I spoke with one of the young men who was enrolled in your program who said something to me that I thought was very telling. He said, “I learned that you have to want it – you have to really want to change.” How many people do you think come here with that kind of mindset?
Harper: Our dropout rate is about 50 percent within the first three months. I think it’s because [they ask]: “I want to change, but am I willing to do the work that’s necessary to make the change?” It takes them a couple times. So we see them coming back. Or the sadness is, we either see them coming back, or they got involved with drugs or whatever, and it ends up ending their lives. It’s sad.