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Sunday Providence Journal Features Profile on Anne Nolan

Mark Patinkin: Anne Nolan, R.I. advocate for homeless, on a new path after Crossroads

Fifteen years ago, after decades in the corporate world and feeling burned out, Anne Nolan handed in her resignation…with no idea what to do next.

She was in her early 50s and had one unusual priority she explained to friends this way: “I wanted a job that would make me cry.”

Someone made a suggestion, and in March 2000, Nolan drove to Providence from her Cumberland home and walked into Traveler's Aid, which served the homeless.

It was a grim storefront location on a downtown side street. Nolan was escorted to the community room, where she found a sea of people with nowhere else to go.

“Their pain,” she recalls, “was palpable.”

She spoke with a few, and it happened — the moment got to her and Anne Nolan broke down. That, she decided, is how she wanted to feel about a job. The following January, 2001, she was hired as president of Traveler's Aid.

Since then, Anne Nolan has been a force that has changed the way Rhode Island fights homelessness.

She gave Traveler’s Aid the new name of Crossroads Rhode Island, moved it to the old YMCA building on Broad Street, quadrupled its budget to almost $13 million, and built it into the biggest force against homelessness in the state.

At the end of this month, at age 67, Nolan will be retiring, so I decided to stop by.

The first thing I noticed upon walking into her office was a dog bed under her desk. I asked what it was for.

“Once in a while I get sleepy during the day and like to take nap,” she told me.

In fact, it’s for her dog, Bubby, but the remark says a bit about Nolan. She takes her job seriously, but not herself. When I first called about an interview, she asked if I was sure, telling me it would be a boring story.

Hardly; spending a few hours with Anne Nolan helped me see homelessness in a new way.

I used to think it was mostly people chronically on the street or in shelters, but that’s only 20 percent.

The majority, Nolan said, are homeless once in their lives; folks just getting by who are suddenly hit by job loss, illness — even divorce can do it.

Most, she said, find a place to live in four or five months and are never homeless again.

Karen Santilli, 48, is Crossroads' chief marketing officer and will be replacing Nolan as president. I asked her to sum up Nolan’s legacy.

She said that’s a long conversation, and for starters, she pointed to some numbers. The Crossroads staff of 140 now serves 3,500 a year. In 2014, she said, they put over 1,200 homeless people in stable housing.

As a different kind of legacy, Santilli pointed to how Nolan brought a sense of business discipline from her corporate past — including the banking world — to a nonprofit.

Indeed, Nolan told me that in her first years at Traveler’s Aid, she felt it was too unfocused, seeking to do too much — a noble but misguided approach common to social-service agencies.

“A chicken in every pot,” said Nolan, “peace on earth, end of world hunger, a garage-door opener for every garage.”

Nolan decided to prioritize what they do best — putting roofs over people’s heads — and stop doing what others do better.

For example, Crossroads ran a health clinic because the homeless need that to get back on track. But it wasn’t the agency’s expertise, so she partnered with the Providence Community Health Center to run it for them.

They had a childcare center in their North Kingstown facility, but that wasn’t their expertise either, so Nolan brought in a for-profit childcare center to manage it.

Then, as a mission statement of sorts, she came up with a primary focus that may sound obvious, but it added laser clarity to what Crossroads does. Nolan explained it to me this way:

“The cure for homelessness,” she said, “is housing.”

In the past, that was one of many priorities mixed in with things like counseling and skills training. But she explained that people can’t do the things needed to get back in a home — like finding a job — if they’re worried about where they’ll sleep that night.

“Housing first,” said Nolan. “Then you can deal with everything else.”

The former YMCA building where we were talking is a good example of Crossroads' priority: 200 people now live there — 176 in rooms and 14 in efficiency apartments. All were once homeless, and for cohesiveness, all are single without children.

The building also has several shelters with space for 60 and a community room where up to 20 more can sleep on the floor. Crossroads has a family shelter on Broad Street and units around the state — they just completed 104 townhouse apartments off Navy Drive in North Kingstown.

And yes, they do offer social services, including job training in areas like nursing and janitorial work.

I asked Nolan about the 20 percent who are chronically homeless. She said those involve multiple issues like mental illness, substance abuse and incarceration — with a high number having grown up in the foster-care system, never internalizing the concept of a stable home.

Does she have many success stories in that category?

She mentioned a man who used to panhandle near the Crossroads building. One year, she said, he had 387 alcohol-related visits to the ER — he’d pass out on the sidewalk and the rescue would have to take him for rehydration.

“We housed him,” said Nolan, “and in the next six months, he had only four visits.”

Then she talked about the 80 percent who are homeless just once, saying it's often overwhelming to hear about the hardships that put them on the street.

“I often say to myself I wouldn’t survive the lives most of them have lived,” Nolan said. “The courage they have to endure it is remarkable.”

Nolan grew up in Springfield, Mass., went to Westfield State College, got a master's in counseling at McGill University, then a doctorate in organizational development at the University of Illinois. She's the grandmother of two, and has one grown daughter, Laura Haines, 45, a librarian at the University of Vermont Medical School.

I asked Santilli, who was sitting in on the interview, for other examples of Nolan bringing focus to Crossroads.

“Anne,” she said, “brought four words that weren’t here before. Safety. Respect. Effectivness ...”

Then she mentioned the fourth, which struck me as odd, so I repeated it.

“Did you say, ‘fun’?”

Santilli nodded and Nolan said there’s a serious reason for it.

“This is a business,” said Nolan. “But it’s not a pleasant business — our business is human suffering; people in pain at the bottom of their lives who need help getting through.”

That, she said, can drain the staff.

“We work hard at taking care of our clients,” said Nolan. “We need to make sure we take care of ourselves.”

So she instituted a “rejuvenation day” where each staffer has to give a plan to their supervisor for a day off strictly for personal refueling.

Crossroads also has a “fun committee” that comes up with quirky things to add some pizzazz to the day — like a “beach party” with blow-up palm trees in the dining room in the midst of winter, and on another day, a rolling chocolate-sundae cart serving people at their desks.

Nolan brings the same idea to something Crossroads is famous for in Rhode Island’s nonprofit world — a 600-guest annual fundraiser at unusual locales, one year at an airport hanger, another at McCoy Stadium, and once an outdoor “Beach Ball” on tons of sand trucked into the parking lot of The Providence Journal, one of Crossroads’ major donors. The annual event usually raises around $600,000.

I asked Nolan if she’s seen homelessness change in her 15 years in the business. She nodded.

“It used to be the stereotype 45-year-old white male drinking out of a paper bag,” she said. “Now we have every possible face; it’s almost 50-50 men and women.”

There are also more elderly.

Her theory: “I think the sense of community out there used to be stronger. People took care of each other. Families took care of each other.” Today — that's more frayed.

I asked for examples of cases that get to her.

She remembered a moment at a recent Christmas party at the Crossroads family shelter on Broad. Santa came with modest presents for the kids, including a toy truck for one little boy — a cheap thing, said Nolan, that you might find at a gas-station store.

“And he was so excited,” she said. “I have a vivid memory of him holding the truck and running around saying this is the best present he’d ever gotten. It broke my heart.”

I asked if she's ready to leave or sad about it.

Mostly sad, she said. She feels all organizations need new leadership, so that’s why she’s moving on. But, she said, she misses it already.

“I love this organization,” said Anne Nolan.

She also loves how it still gets to her.

Like the other day when she walked into the Crossroads community room and saw a set of parents there with two babies — and nowhere to go.

Briefly, Anne Nolan broke down yet again.

Which is what she had always hoped to find in her work.

http://m.providencejournal.com/article/20150510/ENTERTAINMENTLIFE/150519974/14022/NEWS

 


 



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