Interview With Lowcountry Herald Magazine

Ending Homelessness One Magazine at a Time

 

Please tell me a little bit about yourself....where you were born, your educational background, professional background, volunteer work, etc.

I was born just north of Boston, Massachusetts and attended undergraduate school at Emmanuel College in Boston where I earned a Bachelor’s degree, majoring in English.  I was a middle and high school English teacher for a few years, then relocated with my family to the Central New York area. I returned to school there for a Master’s degree at Syracuse University. Afterwards, I worked for several years as a middle school and high school guidance counselor.

I seemed to have a talent for working with challenging students and was encouraged to pursue a PhD degree. I majored in rehabilitation psychology at Syracuse University where I specialized in individuals with psychiatric disabilities and brain injuries. After graduation, I found myself being led to the streets because so many people with these disorders were homeless.

I wanted to help and got involved in various community projects. Over time I learned that some organizations purporting to help homeless individuals did not appear to me to be very effective with respect to the disabled, chronically homeless population.

I order to learn more about what was going on, I initiated a six months long research project in Central New York State.  On our very first day in the field, my research assistant and I met a charming and talkative chronically homeless man named Steve who was found dead a month later.  This changed everything.  I began to study the death rates for chronically homeless people and learned about their often premature and sometimes gruesome deaths. Their average at time of death is 48 which was Steve’s age at the time of his death.  I became determined to help these vulnerable people, a determination that continues to this day.

What is the name of your organization? When was it founded?  Did you start it?

In order to generate public interest, I started to post information … without naming or photographing each person … about my experiences assisting disabled, homeless individuals on Facebook. Surprisingly, this led to a telephone call one day from a local business person who wanted to make a sizeable donation to my work. That offer was quickly followed by a prominent law firm’s offer to create a nonprofit organization to help support my work.

Another local businessman had been encouraging me to do just that for some time.  I contacted him as well as another attorney who had supported my work and we officially formed Cape Haven Inc in 2015. It is a proper and legitimate 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.

What does your organization do?  Do you have a mission statement?             

Our goal is to provide supportive housing options for individuals with a history of disability and chronic homelessness.  We provide intensive medical, legal and social supportive services to people who we have been able to get housed already. However, obtaining housing from homeless housing providers was often extremely difficult.  We hope to bypass these “middlemen” by building our own housing.

The disabilities that seem to most often characterize the chronically homeless population are (1) psychiatric disorders (2) brain injuries and (3) substance use disorders.  Individuals with these disabling conditions do not do well in environments characterized by (1) too many people and (2) too fast a pace.  Those with brain injuries and cognitive disorders are often unable to read, recall, prioritize or even comprehend extensive regulations.  As a result, many of them have been put out of shelters and related housing environments or they may refuse services.

We plan to continue our research projects as well as train interns in best practices for work with this disabled, chronically population.  We already work with three interns.  At this point in time, they work primarily on social media and fund raising issues.

Who do you primarily help? 

Chronically homeless, disabled individuals at very high risk of death. For the most part, these individuals have been in their late forties or older. We have also assisted many veterans including quite a few women veterans as well as a few parents with young children.

I am interested as well in focusing next on young gunshot victims, many of whom are reported to be “couch surfing.” We are located near a community which has experienced a great deal of youth violence that has been exacerbated recently by the increasing availability of guns.

How do you measure success in your efforts?

Our most important criterion is that the individual or family remains housed.  I’ve noticed a great deal of recycling in homeless services. For example, I’m assisting a Desert Storm combat veteran right now who – along with her now 9th grade son - has experienced three instances of homelessness within the past 7 to 8 years.  Moreover, she is currently in the middle of a three month long series of hospitalizations at several VA hospitals here in the Northeast. Sadly, she was evicted from her rental during her first two weeks of hospitalization.  Volunteer attorneys were unable to prevent this as she has no income at all now. She worked very hard but, in my opinion, did not receive enough medical and housing assistance to achieve housing stability.

Do you have some success stories you can share with us?

The first person I assisted was a man named Phil.  He was a very sweet man who had been homeless for about 7 or 8 years.  I often ran into him about town. One winter here in the Central New York area was exceptionally cold and snowy.  I didn’t see Phil out and about for months and started to worry about him.  I knew that he lived in the woods somewhere in the area but didn’t know exactly where.  By springtime I was especially concerned.  It was because of him that I conducted a 6 months long research project into chronic homelessness which I entitled “Finding Phil.”

My research assistant and I located him within a few weeks.  He looked so sick and bedraggled that I hardly recognized him.  Shortly after we found him, the strong and healthy looking homeless man named Steve, who we’d met on our first day out in the field, was found dead, face down in a stream. It was at that point that I became aware of the very high risk of premature death associated with chronic homelessness and set out to do all that I could to get these people housed. Although it was too late to help Steve, I became a housing advocate and started with Phil.

It was astonishing how much he improved as soon as he was housed. He looked decades younger and lived in the apartment that he selected and loved for several years. Tragically, he sustained a terrible head injury in a fall on the ice and died about a year and a half later.  He was able to remain in his home until his death, however, for which I’m extremely grateful.

I’ve heard so many fascinating stories that I’m writing a book about some of them right now. However, the book’s focus is on ways to help them get people off the streets and into housing,

What motivated you to start working for this organization (or start it)?

I was horrified by the sight of so many homeless individuals who I knew to be disabled and at extraordinary risk of death living on the streets, in abandoned vehicles, boarded up houses and other places not fit for human beings. One man slept in a large piece of water or sewer pipe.

Many deaths have been exceptionally gruesome.  Over the past few years or so, homeless people here have burned to death, been beaten to death and have frozen to death.  My hope was that I could use my disability and advocacy skills to help.

How can people contribute?

Our website is located at https://www.capehaven.org.  There is a donate button on the site which leads to Paypal. People can follow the link and donate via Paypal or, if not a member of Paypal, via their own debit or credit cards right on the Paypal link.

People can also send donations to us via check or money order made payable to Cape Haven Inc.  Our mailing address is Cape Haven Inc, Post Office Box 864, Auburn, NY 13021.

We have no storage facilities and cannot accept items like food, clothing, toiletries or sleeping bags, unfortunately, but new, clean white socks are always welcome.

How are you funded? 

We are funded entirely via private donations.  I donate my time. We receive no public funds.  We are especially proud of a children’s organization that has been raising funds for us for a number of years now.  They have also sent us many thousands of dollars of $5 gift cards over the years to places like McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway and area coffee shops to distribute to people in need on the streets.

What advice would you have for people who want to start a similar organization in their area?

Be prepared for opposition. Despite many public calls and plans to end homelessness, I have encountered significant resistance to my disability and advocacy work.  This was really shocking as I initially thought that my advocacy initiatives would be welcomed and appreciated. However, the more I proceeded, the more resistance that I seemed to encounter from welfare, shelter and housing authorities.  This continues to the present day and it is the motivation that has fueled our desire to build and provide our own housing.

I have also noticed an unfortunate lack of cooperation among some of the newer nonprofit organizations. This might be explained by competition for limited grants and donations.

Most importantly, however, this is a very stressful area in which to work or volunteer given the near constant exposure to so much human suffering.

On the plus side, we have received a great deal of compassionate assistance from are area physicians, hospitals, attorneys, court personnel including judges and generous private citizens.

Where do you primarily work?

Interestingly, my online advocacy posts have resulted in my developing many contacts all across the country, in England and in Canada.  Although I started in the Auburn, New York area, I’ve been corresponding with homeless individuals and other advocates for quite a few years now.  Although I cannot help homeless people with housing in their home areas, I’ve been able to provide advice and encouragement which seems to have been helpful.

I’ve been corresponding for so long with one recently housed veteran that I’ve suggested that she write a book about her experiences. Our messages back and forth contain a very detailed history of her years of homeless experiences.

Anything else you'd like to add about your work? 

I want to train other housing and disability advocates given that I’m at the far outer limits now of what I can do personally. I’m setting up a new blog with which we hope to accomplish this.  It should be online before the end of the year. Once it’s published, you’ll be able to find it at https://drmarymclaughlin.com.  I am also hoping that by developing advocacy training options and opportunities, I’ll be able to help fund our own nonprofit, Cape Haven Inc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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