First the Homeless, Now the Jobless

A funding crisis forces Camillus House to issue seventeen pink slips

Brother Paul Johnson, executive director of the venerable homeless shelter Camillus House, says he's never had a problem firing people. During the seventeen years he has led the charitable organization, he has canned employees for a variety of reasons, from shoddy work to theft. Never, though, has he been forced to lay off anybody because he couldn't pay them.

Never, that is, until Friday, September 12.
Between sunrise and sunset, Johnson sacked seventeen employees throughout the charity (which includes a food line and shelter, a medical center, rehabilitation programs, and transitional housing), in both the medical wing and the shelter. The drastic action gutted the agency's staff by nearly one-fifth, dropping the number of full-time, paid workers from 86 to 69. It didn't come easy to the 60-year-old member of the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd, the lay religious order that operates Camillus House. "It was one of the most difficult times of my entire life," Johnson says. "I didn't sleep for three nights prior to that."

Camillus executives blame a budget shortfall of $500,000 for the terminations, and they point to a marked decrease in both private donations and government grants as the cause of the deficit. Johnson has a theory to explain the decline in private philanthropy, which, he says, accounted for more than half the shortfall. "I don't have any hard proof of this," he muses, "but it seems to me that when the economy is good, we're supported less by private contributions. I think there's a feeling that there's less unemployment in this country." Also, he notes, late summer is traditionally the "driest time of year" for fundraising.

The dip in public assistance is another story. According to Dr. Pedro Jose Greer, Jr., medical director of Camillus Health Concern, the organization has had a difficult time securing funding for its day-to-day operations. "Everybody wants to fund us for new projects," he says. "No one wants to fund us for what we do." In addition, he explains, there's more competition among homeless agencies for fewer public dollars, particularly after the creation in 1993 of the Community Partnership for Homeless, the not-for-profit corporation financed by public and private funds and mandated under the county's homeless plan to build and operate three homeless-assistance centers. "It's very significant when [Camillus], the largest provider, has to downsize at a time when social-welfare changes are going to increase the population of those who are poor and homeless," he asserts.

But Camillus can't blame only outside sources for its plight. Johnson admits that his aggressive fundraising for a two-year-old capital fund may have drawn donations that otherwise would have gone to the daily operations of the charity. "Along the way," the director says, "we asked people who had traditionally supported Camillus House if they would be interested in donating to the capital campaign." At the top of the list of scheduled capital projects is the construction of permanent housing for 47 indigent single parents. "In the case of at least three major donors," Johnson continues, "they said that this year they wanted their donations to go toward something 'permanent.'" Those three donors, along with a host of minor contributors, wrote about $100,000 worth of checks to the capital fund and none to the operating fund. (Johnson also reserves some blame for the agency's grants writer: "He was not doing a good job," the director says. The grants writer got axed.)

Johnson reveals that he and Camillus's other executives and directors had known since this past spring that the organization was plunging into the red. After seeking the advice of a labor consultant, they decided to do their bloodletting all on one day instead of through sequential beheadings in order to minimize eroding morale among survivors.

Still, the organization somehow didn't know that its capital fund campaign would detract from its operating campaign. "It's very difficult to predict patterns and very difficult to predict what people will do," Johnson admits. "We didn't predict this would happen." Adds Andy Del Valle, chairman of the board of the charity: "It was a real, real goofup."

According to a national expert in the field of health care for the homeless, the cuts in donations and staff at Camillus mirror trends throughout the nation. John Lozier, executive director of the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council in Nashville, reports that 25 percent of the nation's federally funded homeless health care programs have had to eliminate staff in the last year. "Federal funding is flat and hasn't kept up with the inflation of care costs," he explains. Additionally, 30 percent of the nation's homeless health care agencies have reported a decrease in the amount of private, state, and local funding. "We're taking it on the chin," he says.

As for the the specific travails of Camillus House, which served more than 378,000 free meals in 1996, Lozier comments: "Those are huge cuts for a place as busy as they are. Camillus has done a really good job using volunteers and medical students, but you need core staff."

The Camillus House dismissals were inauspicious, particularly at this moment in its 38-year history. This was supposed to be a time of celebration and growth: Contractors are on the verge of completing a new three-million-dollar, 36,000-square-foot headquarters for Camillus at the corner of NW Fifth Street and Third Court in Overtown. (Money for that project came entirely from federal funds specifically earmarked for construction.) Camillus executives had been planning to relocate by December. Johnson says the shortfall and the staffing cuts will postpone the move from their aging building at 726 NE First Ave. until at least January.

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