BOSTON, Massachusetts—Paul Sullivan looks normal. If you passed him on the street, you would never guess that he has been homeless, much less nearly dead from serious illness. His story serves as a powerful reminder of the forces that lead many into homelessness in this country, as well as the fact that “normal” people become homeless every day – there is no template for what homelessness look like, or for who could become homeless. His story also illustrates the importance of access to health care and both emergency and long-term shelter. Without having those needs met, Sullivan would not be alive and well today, and moving forward with his life.
I met Sullivan at the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, which recently completed the first session of its new Leadership Development Program. The 7-week program teaches formerly homeless people the necessary skills for success in nonprofit boardrooms, focusing on areas such as communication, homeless advocacy, public speaking and resumé-building. Sullivan is one of the first graduates of the program, and he told me about his learning experience with MHSA, as well as the life events which led him to the program.
Sullivan graduated from Northeastern University in 1974, and went to work in the insurance industry. He established himself in Texas, where he lived a comfortable life and was a homeowner. Self-employed, he did not have health insurance himself, and this proved financially disastrous when he became ill in the early 2000s. In 2002, he sold his house and moved back to Boston to live with family. When his mother died a few months later, he found himself with nowhere to go. Sullivan was mugged his very first night on the street, and wound up at Faulkner Hospital. He then was taken to the Pine Street Inn and then the Barbara McGinnis House, part of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. Once healthier, he moved to the Holy Family Shelter, and then to Doe House, permanent housing run by the Pine Street Inn in Mission Hill, where he currently resides.
Six months after moving into Doe House, Sullivan became severely ill again. He spent several months in the hospital. After recovering, he was asked to speak at the graduation ceremony for the Pine Street Inn’s vocational program. His public speaking ability led him to the Massachusetts Faces of Homelessness Speaker’s Bureau. He has now spoken to a variety of groups about his experiences with homelessness. Sullivan’s success as a public speaker led him to the MHSA’s Leadership Development Program. With his knowledge of accounting and business administration from his old days in insurance, he particularly enjoyed learning how to read nonprofit financial statements. He noted, “You can tell a lot about a nonprofit from its financial statement.” Of course, that only holds true for those who know how to read them, an ability that comes to him easily now.
Caitlin Golden, MHSA’s Director of Public Relations and Community Engagement, explained that many nonprofits are required to have at least two people who have experienced homelessness on their board of directors. However, she added, “Sometimes it’s hard to get people who are really engaged, and sometimes the boards are not welcoming.” Golden also noted that tokenism can be a problem, when the required formerly homeless board members are not treated as equals. The Leadership Development Program aims to change that by training its participants to be educated and effective board members who can participate fully in board decisions and voting.
Sullivan is certainly prepared to be an engaged and purposeful member of a board, a position that he is hoping to secure soon – he told me with a smile, “I’ve got two of my fingers crossed.” Thanks to the Leadership Development Program’s training, he does not need to cross his fingers quite so hard, nor will others who complete it. Seven participants will start the next session this week, to be followed by ten more in September, all of whom can expect to graduate with the skills that will help them gain new opportunities for themselves while being better advocates for those in need.
–Melanie Temin Mendez