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New Year, New Money, New Miracles
Today’s column is different. While it’s still about money and investing, it’s also full of hope and happy outcomes. It’s… nice.
In other words, this column is very unlike me. If you’re a regular Wells $treet reader, it’s probably unlike you, too. But let’s give it a shot. Why? Because most of us know someone, maybe even love someone, who seems beyond redemption.
They are not.
It’s mid-January. The Christmas bell ringers are long gone, and the holiday appeals for charity have died down.
So what happens to the money we donated back when we were feeling warm and fuzzy?
I give to charity, but I don’t give blindly. “Trust but verify” has always been my motto. I do my due diligence. And I’ve invested in a place where people start over, with startling results.
Santa Barbara is one of the most beautiful cities in the country, but even here, there are serious problems with drugs and homelessness. Near the middle of town is a large and pristine residential complex called the Hospitality House. It’s for those who’ve hit bottom — maybe a few times — who are willing to give sobriety and sanity a shot.
The Hospitality House is run by the Salvation Army, but if you live there, you’re not required to go to church, or even believe in God. You just have to be willing to change. Executive Director Mark Gisler calls it “a safe place to get re-established.”
I’m a cynical person, so when I heard about this “house” where the unsalvageable are salvaged, I was skeptical. What was its long-term track record? How was success measured?
I had to see it with my own eyes. That’s one reason I like being a reporter in the field instead of an anchor sitting at a desk somewhere — I get to go out and see things in person. So I visited the Hospitality House over six years ago to see if the stories were true. They were… most of the time… and what I saw changed my outlook on the risk/reward scenario for taking chances on someone at the very bottom of life’s trash heap.
Here are three examples.
Michelle Williams first came to the Hospitality House in 2015. “I was hearing voices,” she tells me. She’d been arrested for stealing a car, but the court found her incompetent to stand trial. She was in the depths of addiction and living on the streets, digging through trash to find food, embarrassed to go into a Starbucks to use the bathroom. She was that person.
Michelle spent eight months at Patton State Hospital, a psychiatric facility for inmates. After that, she was released to the Hospitality House, arriving with a mixture of relief and anxiety. “Is this something I was ready for?” she wondered. “Could I last in a place that had rules and structure?”
Michelle stayed for about 100 days, working through recovery and sobriety with like-minded men and women. Then she landed a spot in a second transitional housing program to get her one step closer to independence. Now she works as a “peer support specialist” in the mental health field. She goes to church. She takes her meds. She’s been reunited with her daughter. She got married.
And Michelle is singing again. I met her on that first visit in 2016, and she sang for me in this video. That voice!
“I was arrested for four felonies in four minutes,” says Adam Poe. The felonies were breaking and entering, assault with a deadly weapon, terrorist threats, “and I can’t even remember the last one,” he tells me. “It seems like a dream now.”
That was 18 years ago. In jail, Adam learned that the Salvation Army had a program to help him with his addiction, and that’s where he went upon release. “After about six months, I started to taste what permanent long-term sobriety could be like,” Adam says. “I never thought that was possible.”
He’s been sober ever since.
Adam went from being in a Salvation Army program to helping run programs there. He’s currently the operations manager at the Hospitality House. He’s watched people come through the doors who “barely met the minimum standards to get into the program.” But they often succeed, just like he did. “God does miracles here.”
Edwin Hamilton also came to the Hospitality House through the criminal justice system. He was homeless, hooked on meth, and he was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon. He spent three months in jail before being released. “The first thing I did was I wanted to get high,” he tells me. “I was a mess.”
But Edwin was going through a special court set up to try to stop the cycle of drug addiction and crime. He received probation on the condition that he join an inpatient program. “I didn’t want to go back to jail,” he tells me, so he made his way to the Hospitality House. “I slept by the front door until they opened.”
He got a bed, a shower, food. He sobered up and stayed two years. He learned structure and discipline. “It reminded me who I was and helped me get back on track.”
Now Edwin works at Good Will, and he has his own place through a low-income housing voucher received with help from the Salvation Army. “I feel good, I feel positive, I’m in a much better place,” Edwin tells me. “I thought I was gonna die in the streets, addicted to meth, but here I am.”
So many surprising outcomes. But they don’t surprise Mark Gisler. Mark is a Navy veteran who’s been executive director at the Hospitality House for a dozen years. He’s a big man with a no-nonsense attitude and a compassionate heart.
“It costs about $1 million to operate this place,” he says. That annual budget pays for running the home, which has 69 beds, and it covers the salaries of case managers. “We help [clients] set up resumes,” Mark explains. “We also have some programs connected with the college to help them get certificates, such as a ‘safe food handler’ certificate, which helps them get into restaurant opportunities.”
A few stats:
The Hospitality House serves 135 homeless individuals each year, and half are “chronically homeless.”
On average, 73 of those residents will transition to “safe housing,” the next step.
Most of the residents are men, and the average age is 47. One in five are veterans.
More than a third come in with substance abuse issues, and 57% struggle with mental health challenges.
In one year, the Hospitality House will serve over 44,000 meals and provide a total of 14,000 nights of housing.
A person has to be medically and mentally stable to qualify for entry into the program, and no violent offenders are allowed. Residents can stay for up to two years, though most are transitioned to more permanent housing long before that.
“Our current success rate is 55%,” Mark tells me. That means the person met the goals of the program and was able to find housing and income. Sometimes graduates are reunited with family. Here’s one story in particular that he recalls:
Most of the money to run the house comes through donations. The rest is from government and local grants, including support for veterans.
There is always a waiting list to get a bed, and Mark could always use more money. He’d love to help graduates as they move to the next stage of housing with items like new bedding or a refrigerator.
Not everyone succeeds. Some people don’t stay in the program, or they relapse after release. “I don’t focus on the failure,” Mark tells me. He thinks about people like Michelle, Adam and Edwin. “Success is possible, and people are worth it. Without us, who else is gonna do it?”
The final word goes to Michelle, who asks us to think differently and act differently the next time we see someone digging through the garbage, looking for food.
Not a bad investment, right? Better ROI than Bitcoin! Leave a comment, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information about the Santa Barbara Hospitality House can be found here.
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