This morning, our Board Secretary, Dr. Caitlin Ryus, joined Mayor Justin Elicker and Amistad Catholic Worker House’s Mark Coville and Suki Godek on WNPR’s Where We Live to discuss new models for providing temporary shelter, as well as the health challenges faced by unhoused people. It’s a robust and moving discussion, with Dr. Ryus’s interview toward the end (starting at 37:20). Listen to the whole interview here.
And in most places around the country, cities rely on shelters to accommodate people who are unhoused. But those who’ve lived there say this model isn’t working. Families are separated. There’s a 90-day stay limit. There’s little to no security for personal belongings. And at dawn, everyone’s asked to leave, rain or shine.
Their tents are provided with electricity. Everyone has lockers for personal belongings. And they say their health has improved. Residents are hoping to live in prefabricated tiny homes set up on site so they can live safely.
Later, we talk about the health impact on people without housing.
Suki Godek: an unhoused activist living at Rosette Village
DESK has grown a lot in recent years. When I first started working here in 2017, all the work was carried out by one fulltime kitchen staff, one parttime maintenance specialist, an intern, a few hundred volunteers, and a Board of Directors that had shrunk to six people. Today, we have 23 people on payroll, as many as half-a-dozen interns at any given time, nearly two thousand volunteers, and a fourteen-member Board of Directors!
To give you a better sense of who works here and how we’re organized, here’s a chart:
A few items to note about this chart.
First, it’s backwards … at least compared to most hierarchical staff structures. At DESK, we put our Board and Executive Director at the bottom of the structure in order to emphasize (and remind us!) that the role of leadership is to support those doing the work on the frontlines.
Second, we include our “Clients” at our Drop-in Center, our “Guests” at our Dinner program, and “Shoppers” at our Pantry program at the top, as those we serve. But, we also include at the bottom. As members of the broader New Haven community, the people we serve help to inform our leadership, so that strategic decisions include all relevant input.
At DESK, we often say that our staff “wear a lot of hats.” We try to avoid being too strict with everybody’s role. Despite our recent growth, we’re still a small organization, and so we really do rely on people to step out of their comfort zone from time to time. That’s why everyone’s job description includes, among their responsibilities, “other duties as assigned.” (And if you don’t believe me, just ask Val, our Warming Center Assistant Manager, about my skills behind the café last Christmas!)
The other duty everyone’s job description here includes is “volunteer supervision.” DESK began as volunteer, grassroots, community-based organization and — even after more than 35 years — much of the day-to-day work on the frontlines is accomplished by volunteers. We’re fortunate to have almost 2,000 volunteers who come through our doors each year, all coordinated by Ashley Burkell, our Volunteer Coordinator. Ashley’s job is to match the right volunteer to the right duties, serving as the liaison between our program staff and the ready-and-willing community. But then, it’s up to our staff on-the-ground to work with and supervise those volunteers.
Finally, our chart includes our Board of Directors (none of whom are paid), as well as our Program Interns, who are receiving either course credit or paid compensation through their internship program.
It’s been wonderful to watch our staff grow in recent years, in terms of both size and roles. I can’t wait to see how we can continue to grow in the years ahead, all in greater fulfillment of our mission!
Got questions? Leave a comment below!
Steve Werlin has been the Executive Director of Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen since 2017.