When the best answer to life’s problems is a steady job

Liam Cunningham
Spare Change News

As many recent college graduates can tell you, finding a job in the current economy is no walk in the park. This process is exponentially harder when you are a person who has struggled with homelessness, incarceration, mental illness, and/or substance abuse issues.

At the St. Francis House in downtown Boston, one particular program prides itself on helping these struggling populations to find employment. The program, called the Moving Ahead Program (MAP), is founded on the belief that regular work is a critical component to leading a happy, healthy life.

That contrasts with some other recovery and re-entry programs that rely on group therapy sessions and discussion; MAP believes the best way to help people is to get them a job.

During their enrollment in the 14-week program, MAP students have access to a variety of services. The program allows students prepare for entry into the workforce by teaching things like resume writing, interviewing skills, but “also standards of workplace behavior and other social skills that may need reinforcement” (from the St. Francis House website).

Fred Smith was hired 16 years ago to run the MAP program, after a variety of jobs led him to the doors of the St. Francis House.

“I have done many wonderful things in my life. I have been a business owner and a historian, but my real passion is to help people. That phase of my career began in the early ’80s when I worked for the Legislature, where I worked in constituent services. I moved into human services more directly and began working developing job opportunities for the homeless, people with mental illnesses, and people on welfare. A series of jobs like that led me to Saint Francis House,” said Smith. “I was hired to start the Moving Ahead Program (MAP), which is a life skills and career development program for the homeless, the post-incarceration population, and people with substance abuse issues. I ran that for about 12 years.

Speaking about the highly successful MAP program, which he has directed for over a decade, Smith believes that the most important aspect of the program is helping people figure out what they are really interested in. Smith himself has dove headfirst into his fair share of career paths, including once desiring to be an auto mechanic until he worked in a garage and realized he couldn’t stomach the smell of grease.

“MAP is a 14-week life skills and development program, and historically all about helping people figure out what they want to be,” he said. “We didn’t invent the concept; we borrowed the curriculum material from Columbia University. We believe that you can circumvent a lot of career development programs if you figure things about yourself first.”

While enrolled in MAP, students attend class five days a week. The St. Francis House finds housing for students during the program and pays for this housing. Students also receive a small stipend for living expenses. Furthermore, according to the SFH website, students have access to “image consulting services” through our unique Studio Shine boutique, and also have the opportunity to participate in an internship in their specific field of interest with one of Saint Francis House’s partner organizations. But for Fred Smith, the first and most important component of the program is helping students figure out what they are interested in, and what they are best at.

“If you know things about yourself, you can weed out a lot of things that aren’t going to make you happy. MAP is really about figuring out what you’re really interested in. It’s critical to figure out your skills and abilities; the things you were born with/acquired in life. This is important because often these things can be transferred into certain careers. Finally, it’s necessary for our students to figure out their values and what they really want in life. Understanding your value system and how it applies to work is most important,” said Smith.

Speaking from experience, Smith says that once these pieces are put together, the goal of finding employment for these oft-troubled students becomes much more realistic.

“Once a student puts these things together in MAP you usually find a dozen to 20 career options. If you want to get some other training, the choice is yours. MAP is about free choice, choosing where you want to go,” said Smith.

In recent years, due to changes in the economic climate, Smith has been put in charge of developing new, innovative programs that are extensions of MAP.

“A few years ago I was allowed to go in a different direction and develop new programs designed to serve our clients as best we can. The new programs to respond to landscape of changing funding and serve the people who need it most. In recent years we have observed a shutting down of employment opportunities for people we serve. A lot of this has to do with the use of technology to screen out employment opportunities,” said Smith.

Smith added: “I’ve been working to launch new business initiatives at SFH and within the hearts and souls of our guests. We are running a sort of an incubator for people to develop these ideas and launch them into careers. Right now we have five or six things percolating here that have come to full fruition.”

These current programs in development include:

— A possible restaurant at the St. Francis House, which would utilize the ideas of the many restaurant entrepreneurs at SFH and look to capitalize on the rapidly changing and developing neighborhood where SFH is located.

— Temp department employment agency called “Hire Power.” This program will enable businesses willing to take a chance with people a little protection. For the first 2-3 months SFH would compensate the employee, and if the business is comfortable with them they roll right over onto the payroll.

— A light manufacturing business that will take burlap bags used to store coffee and repurpose them making them into items people want: Grocery bags etc. It would be a small but popular product line that allows people to employ themselves putting them together, stitching them, etc.)

— “Dream Ventures,” which is an entrepreneurial incubator. This is a 10 week process where the entrepreneur will be able to develop a business plan and have access to funding. As long as the enterprise is legal, those at SFH will people develop the best possible model. It allows the people at SFH to employ themselves and control their own destiny.

All of these extension programs are interwoven with MAP, and they all work together towards the common goal of finding employment for those enrolled. Historically, MAP has been extremely successful in realizing its goals. The following statistics are from St. Francis House’s website:
— 76% of MAP enrollees completed treatment and the 14-week program.
— 78% of graduates secured permanent housing within 6 months.
— The recidivism rate among former offenders who are MAP graduates is 10% as compared to state and national averages that range from 40-60%.
— For every 1% reduction in the recidivism rate the Commonwealth saves $1 million each year.
— Every dollar “invested” in treatment saves $10 in the cost of prosecution, incarceration, and supervision of offenders.
— MAP costs only $11,000 per student, whereas incarceration costs the Commonwealth $47,500 per person annually.
These numbers are especially impressive when taking into account the struggles most MAP enrollees have had to deal with in their lives prior to coming to the St. Francis House. According to the same web page:
— The mean age of those enrolled in MAP is 36 years.
— The number of times those enrolled have been homeless is 2.3.
— 80% of MAP students have received prior treatment for drug abuse.
— 70% of MAP students have received prior treatment for alcohol abuse.
— 50% of MAP students have received psychiatric treatment.
— 84% of MAP students have prior incarceration and involvement with the courts.
— MAP has a waiting list of close to 100.
Smith attributes MAP’s high degree of success to its curriculum, along with the philosophical, psychological, and spiritual elements the program is founded upon. Spirituality is extremely important in helping MAP students deal with past mental problems.
“The program takes 14 weeks. During that time there is a lot of introspection and wellness training. A lot of people we work with are in the situation they are because they couldn’t manage stress and ended up turning to alcohol and drugs. There are answers: Meditation, yoga, spirituality. All of these things play a role in how we can feel emotionally and physically. Wellness is a big part.”

Smith went on to explain that in reality, MAP is a program designed not to last for 14 weeks, but for a lifetime.

“MAP is about hanging out with people for as long as they need us. We try to never let go of our alumni. Many stay in contact with us as they make their way through life. That’s really what it’s all about. MAP is an excuse to develop and maintain a relationship with these people,” Smith said.
In 2010, MAP graduated its 110th class. Now, more than 1,100 formerly homeless people are now MAP alums and are able to access the resources offered by MAP and St. Francis House at anytime.

Regarding MAP’s incredibly high success rate, Smith attributes much of it to Dr. Howard Schaffer, who helped Smith devise the psychological and philosophical ideology that drives MAP.
“In the early going, around 15 years ago, I had the good fortune of forming a good relationship Harvard Medical School Division on Addiction. The Director of that Division who is still there, is Dr. Howard Schaffer,” Smith said. “Howard Schaffer taught us many things, most importantly what works in this program. He taught us that you can have all the bells and whistles with the curriculum but what it all boils down to is relationships.”

Schaffer taught Smith and others at SFH, that in creating and successful running a program like MAP, love and work are the most important things, a concept developed.

“Schaffer told us the one thing Freud got right: “The essence of humanness is work and love.” Work and love are the twin pillars of humanness. By this he meant that in running a program like MAP, it is all about imparting in people pride in ownership in the work they do. Work in the sense of productive human activity. Humans in particular are oriented to needing something productive to do and having people who care about them. Love and work are the key pieces,” Smith said.

In the MAP program, the employees of SFH work to create an atmosphere that is completely judgment-free. Most importantly, Smith and his co-workers simply work to be a helping hand to the resilient spirit within all of their students.

“MAP and the staff of St. Francis house have allowed us to develop these important relationships with people. The human spirit can overcome most everything, but it needs a helping hand. That’s why the other essence of being a human is that we are social animals – We can’t do it ourselves, we do need help, a fellow traveler – MAP is about going on the journey for the 14 weeks they are here and hopefully well beyond that. We are devoted to improving it because the world is changing around us.”

MAP has been recognized multiple times for its excellent by various organizations, and its model replicated in other locations in the United States. According to the SFH website: In 2000, the program was recognized by the Congressional Black Caucus for excellence, and in 2001 MAP was selected by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Education Development Center (EDC) in Newton, Mass., to serve as a “best practices” model for other HUD-funded programs in eight U.S. cities that were considering replicating the program. MAP-Topeka (Kansas) was launched in 2003, MAP-St. Louis (Missouri) was launched in 2004, and several other replications are currently under development.

To learn more about the St. Francis House and the MAP program, visit their website at http://www.stfrancishouse.org. Or visit its facility at 39 Boylston Street.
LIAM CUNNINGHAM is a writer and editor for Spare Change News.