New leaders for persistent problems

Improved services, continued cooperation aim of food bank, homeless council directors

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 
photoAndy Silver is executive director at the Council for the Homeless. Although the council's housing hotline number remains the same, 360-695-9677, calling it gets you the council’s new Housing Solutions Center, providing deeper, more detailed attention and help than just a quick search for a place to crash.

(/The Columbian)

Buy this photo

Even if you've never experienced them, it's not hard to grasp something of the misery of hunger and homelessness.

"You have a feeling for it. Maybe you fear it," said Alan Hamilton. "And if you think the guy down the street is threatened, that may really motivate you."

That's why two local nonprofit agencies that tend the poorest among us — the Clark County Food Bank and the Council for the Homeless — have seen little but community support and success amid an economic malaise that has dragged on for years.

The food bank last year completed a $4.2 million capital campaign and built its own facility — headquarters, state-of-the-art warehouse and cooking/nutrition classroom — on its own land. This year, the agency hired its first executive director: Alan Hamilton, a Lake Shore-area resident and former executive at First Independent Bank.

Also this year, the Council for the Homeless hired Andy Silver as its executive director. Silver, an attorney who fought homelessness on all fronts in Washington, D.C., means to expand the council's front-end telephone screening system so people in crisis get more than just shelter: they'll get plugged into all the services that'll help them climb back out of homelessness.

"What is unique and wonderful about Clark County is the collaborative spirit among service providers," Silver said. "There are not too many places where working together like this isn't painful — in fact it's a pleasure."

Gone tomorrow

The Columbian caught up with both busy new executives over the past couple weeks. We visited Alan Hamilton at the new Clark County Food Bank, on Northeast 47th Avenue, a few days after the annual mail carriers food drive stuffed the building with crates of goodies.

The towering stacks were impressive to contemplate — but the nature of food banking, Hamilton pointed out, is just like hunger itself: It's cyclical.

"What's there today is gone tomorrow," he said. "There's no one-time fix for hunger."

Hamilton, 51, has been on the job a handful of weeks, and he's still learning "the world of food banking," he said. It's been quite the learning curve, involving everything from government commodities and industrial supermarket donations to the complex and always-changing patchwork of local frontline food pantries — their meager staffs and armies of dedicated volunteers.

"Those people are the real feet on the street," Hamilton said. The Clark County Food Bank's job is to keep those smaller food pantries fed. Approximately 4 million pounds of food came in and went out over the course of 2011, Hamilton said, and some of that in the form of 10,000 emergency food boxes per month; those are new records, set during a time of widespread layoffs and foreclosures.

Feeding the needy may seem a simple matter of collecting and redistributing, but Hamilton is eager to attack the problem on a larger scale. He loves the teaching kitchen in the new food bank headquarters, where people who need good nutrition but may be more accustomed to fast and prepared foods can learn to cook healthier.

"Education is really important to me and to our mission," Hamilton said. "Food boxes are great, but we've got to think about root causes too." Hamilton wants to strengthen the food bank's partnerships with food- and nonfood-related charities and social service agencies, he said, out of recognition that hunger is usually the end result of bigger problems.

"If someone is lacking food they are likely facing other challenges too," he said. "Employment, housing, health — if someone is hungry there have to be good reasons. I have a great interest in preventing hunger, in getting ahead of the game."

Hamilton is a Southern California native who attended Christian colleges — Biola University and its Talbot School of Theology, where he did coursework toward a Ph.D. in divinity. He pastored at a "big church" but left to work on personal matters, he said, and wound up in Clark County, doing project management for Applied Motion Systems.

During that time, he said, he and family and friends started hosting a Thanksgiving-holiday road race called the Turkey Trot. The friendly, informal event quickly grew into a serious charitable enterprise drawing dozens of runners every year, and Hamilton went looking for corporate sponsorship. Not only did he secure the backing of First Independent Bank, he also snagged a job as the bank's first vice president for community investment and marketing -- in other words, its charity wing.

"I've always had a heart for reaching out, for connecting people and making the community a better place," he said.

Now, Hamilton has pursued that passion into the nonprofit sphere. "This is a fabulous collision of my experience, skills and values," he said. "It's really too good to be true."

Hamilton has been married for 26 years and has three children — a son in college, a son in high school and a daughter in eighth grade. His food bank salary is $80,000.

"I never want to lose sight of the values that drive us," he said. "It's not the amounts of food, it's not the money. It's the fact that we care about people. We don't want to lose sight of that. We love people and we want to care for them."

Housing first

Andy Silver, 31, grew up in Bangor, Maine, attended Tufts University in Boston and then Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. But it was a high school trip to visit his brother, who was studying abroad in South Africa, that really affected him.

Touring massive shantytowns built out of cast-off cardboard "was the first time I'd seen inadequate housing like that," Silver said. Years later he was an intern at a legal clinic for the homeless in D.C., where he attacked the problem on all fronts — from political lobbying, to courtroom representation of the mentally ill homeless, to guerrilla actions such as papering the streets with fliers overnight.

Best of all, he said, was coordinating numerous nonprofits to press for what they called a "fair budget" — one that would create an effective safety net rather than undermining itself through uneven support for some needs at the expense of others.

Now, as executive director of the Council for the Homeless, he'll provide that same coordination, support and policy expertise for numerous local direct service providers.

Silver definitely champions, and wants to accelerate, the "housing first" approach to ending homelessness that's growing popular across the nation and has met with some success here. "Housing first" holds that the essential building block of a stable life is a stable place to live; it's best to get homeless people into housing first, and start supporting them with services such as case management and addiction treatment, rather than requiring them to jump through those hoops before they can hope to get roofs over their heads.

That turns decades of conventional thinking on its head, Silver said, but it also makes sense. "It's really hard to overcome personal challenges when you don't have stable housing," he said. How does a person who's toughing it out in the woods all winter find the strength and resources to fight addiction, get an education, look for work?

"That person will do far better, and it'll be far better for the community, if that person is living in an apartment and we provide 'wraparound' services," he said.

Before there's a truly widespread embrace of "housing first," he said, more community education needs to take place. "A lot of people have a lot of fear," he said — fear, for example, of discovering that the renter next door is formerly homeless, unemployed and struggling to get clean.

The fact is, Silver pointed out, "There are tons of people who deal with drug problems, mental illness, all the problems that can lead to homelessness. They're our neighbors and our family members. Sometimes they're us."

Coming soon, Silver said, is an expansion of the telephone intake process at the council's Shelter Clearinghouse phone bank. People working the phones won't just screen and fill emergency requests for shelter; they'll do in-depth assessments of callers' needs and start lining up all the programs and services that apply. "We'll do it all right at the front door," Silver said. That should result in greater efficiency and effectiveness — rather than making clients go hunting for one service at a time.

It'll build on one of Clark County's strengths, he said: a history of collaboration between nonprofits. Clark County and the city of Vancouver were "way ahead of their time" when they created the interagency Council for the Homeless in 1989, he said.

"You have a amazing foundation here that goes back decades," he said. "I want to take it to the next level."

Silver's salary is $63,500. He and his wife live in north Portland.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://www.facebook.com/reporterhewitt;http://www. twitter.com/col_nonprofits or scott.hewitt@columbian.com.