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Leaders revise programs to move homeless men into stable lives faster

Rochester Business Journal
August 3, 2012

The situation outside the Open Door Mission's temporary housing location on West Main Street in Rochester shows Michael Hennessy just how far the organization has come.
The lines of homeless men waiting to get into the shelter, which had been common since it opened, are now gone. That tells Hennessy, executive director of the Open Door Mission, of the improvements the organization has made to serve its clients better.
Under new leadership since last year, the non-profit organization has intensified its efforts to get clients out of transitional housing and into community settings.
The Open Door Mission has strengthened its relationships with other organizations serving the homeless while still pursuing its goal of meeting not only the physical needs of its clients but their spiritual needs as well.
The organization underwent a change in leadership in February 2011, with Hennessy taking over after serving as development director and board member.
Hennessy's promotion also occurred at a fortuitous time to add talent. Teen Challenge, a Christian organization that provides residential recovery services, was leaving Rochester, and its director, Walter Thomas, came to the Open Door Mission as director of programs.
"He came on in April and began formulating a plan and literally rebuilding our life recovery program," Hennessy says.
Thomas gave the program greater structure, Hennessy notes, requiring participants to be up early and more involved in job and life skills training.
"He rebuilt that first because it had gotten to a place where it didn't have the structure we wanted," Hennessy says.
The Open Door Mission also looked at how to make improvements to its Samaritan House, which is meant to be an emergency rescue shelter but instead had the same core group of 20 to 40 men who had been occupying beds for more than two years.
The house was never meant to be a permanent solution for housing, Hennessy says, but instead a place where men spent 30 to 90 days as they moved on to more permanent solutions. In response to the problem, Thomas set up a program known as First Steps, one that combated the problem of the lingering clients while also alleviating the daily lines that formed outside the house.
Before the First Steps program was implemented, homeless men would move in a circuit between the Salvation Army, various soup kitchens and the Samaritan House, Hennessy says.
"We opened at 4, and by noon the chronic homeless guys would have their meal at St. Joe's (St. Joseph's House of Hospitality on South Avenue) and would feel like they needed to get right over to us so they could get their bed assignment," he says. "Their mentality was that they had to get here, so they would walk over and start congregating by 1 p.m."
In response, the Open Door Mission began opening the house at 1 p.m. to allow the men to get out of the elements, but it also created a long-term solution through First Steps. The program ensured that for the first 14 days a new client would be given a bed assignment, offering initial security on a path toward stability and eventually a permanent housing solution.
Next the Open Door Mission assessed the clients and strengthened its relationships with other service agencies to meet their needs, Hennessy says. Those with mental disabilities were filtered to DePaul Community Services, and clients in need of apartments worked with the Salvation Army or the various landlords with whom Open Door Mission was affiliated.

Open Door Mission officials also went to Monroe County's Department of Human Services in an attempt to foster a stronger relationship. As a result, department representatives work with clients at the mission.
"Through better case management, we've become an emergency transient shelter again," Hennessy says.
The program actually works in three phases, Thomas explains. After clients have been stabilized and connected with community services, they enter what he calls a post-graduate phase in which they give back to the community through volunteer work and establish good work habits.
All of the steps are firmly rooted in the organization's aim of working with the clients on a one-on-one basis.
"We have a holistic approach to seeing individuals recover," Thomas says. "We saw men who didn't know they had the abilities, and the more we worked with them and channeled them to take advantage of the resources available in our community, the better they did."
With the improved system, the Open Door Mission was able to move its group of long-term clients out of the facility and into more stable living environments, and it has been moving between 10 and 15 more each month.
The Open Door Mission has a different approach than many other homeless service organizations. With a strong faith-based mission, it aims to address the underlying issues its clients face rather than moving them into housing and working on the root causes of their homelessness later, Hennessy says.
The changes have brought positive results, he adds.
"We're seeing a changing culture," Hennessey says. "Guys coming in now are expecting to be in a better place soon, rather than expecting that they'll come here and stay for a couple years. They know that they will come and find better solutions to their problems."
There still is much room for growth. Hennessy notes that the Open Door Mission's facilities are no longer adequate to meet its growth and are aging. There are also unmet needs in the community that Open Door Mission plans to address. Though many organizations serve homeless men or women with children, Hennessy says, there is a gap in coverage for single women.
"We plan on being an integral part of the solution to homelessness," he says.
The organization's transformation and plans for growth come with the full support and guidance from the organization's board, Chairman Jim Paulino says. The board itself has people from many different backgrounds-including those who have recovered from substance abuse themselves-so it can lend a depth of insight, he says.
The board also sees the same room for growth that Hennessy sees, Paulino says.
"We want to expand and affect a lot more people than we are now," he says.

8/3/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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