I’m joining the Haven as the Director of Shelter and Clinical Services during a time of opportunity and challenge. The ongoing pandemic continues to shape our response to operating our shelters safely. The extremely tight housing rental market challenges our abilities to help people find places to live. Rising costs impact everybody who comes to the Haven for help. Fortunately, I was thrilled to find a great team in place here that achieves amazing outcomes every day.
The recent proposal to open a low barrier shelter by the Haven, as well as a new apartment building spearheaded by Twin Pines Housing, have revealed gaps in communication between the Haven and its valued neighbors. Though we cannot turn back time to begin the process again, we have learned valuable lessons to help us heal relationships and rebuild trust. I’ve been asked to lead that effort for the Haven.
One of my first tasks is to identify a path forward for partnership between the Haven and the community. Given the role of the Haven, this includes not only the local neighborhood, but also all of Hartford, and the broader region.
I recognize that this will be challenging. But this mission isn’t new to me. I spent the past seven years as a multi-sector, county-wide coalition leader in the Northampton area of western Massachusetts addressing one of our nation’s greatest public health concerns- the opioid overdose crisis. The successes we built there give me confidence that we can be successful here too.
Convening a community to focus on issues in which people hold varying opinions of the “right” solution can be tricky. My approach has been to create space to facilitate educational events and community dialogue, including the voice of those who are personally impacted by decisions that community leaders make. I have seen positive outcomes when communities take time to weigh both the strengths and unintended consequences of a strategy to inform decisions. Through these collective conversations, people who might carry preconceived ideas about each other get to know one another’s experiences, knowledge, and concerns. Essentially it gives us a more complete picture of how to move forward for community issues that have no easy answers.
In our current challenge, I believe it’s also important to remember that the concerns facing people experiencing homelessness or food insecurity aren’t simply a Haven issue, they’re community issues. This is why my approach will be similar to my past work. I’ll emphasize the importance of developing strong community engagement and partnerships. To that end, I’ve begun to talk to neighbors and other key stakeholders in town. And I have many more people to meet who represent diverse communities and interests.
So far, here’s what I know. The Haven, its close-by neighbors, and the larger Hartford and Upper Valley region all have the same long-term goal – to create a safe and healthy community. My goal is to make sure that everyone, including people who are unhoused or precariously housed, are included in this community. I recognize to reach this goal the process involves healing past experiences, while simultaneously looking to the future together. I can’t promise I won’t make missteps. The art of relationship building can be messy. It takes time. But it’s necessary to build a stronger foundation that allows us to move us forward.
In my previous job, I ended all community discussions with a tagline that also applies to my work here: We are all part of the solution. If you’re not sure what that means for you, let’s talk and we’ll discover it together.