Many of us know John O’Brien, the New England regional cordinator for the USICH. John’s son runs an emergency shelter in Maine, and the Portland Herald recently profiled him:
Shelter director wins wide praise By TOM BELL, Staff Writer March 2, 2009
PORTLAND – Outside the Oxford Street Shelter on a recent night, a crowd of men form a line as they wait for the doors to open. Many look disheveled, the outward signs of lives in disarray.
Inside, the shelter is as orderly as a Marine barracks. Every pillow on each of the 154 bed mats is precisely arranged. Josh O’Brien adjusts any pillow that seems at all out of kilter.
“The pillows have to be square right up to the edge,” explains O’Brien, director of the city-owned shelter, the largest homeless shelter in Maine. “That creates a sense of order. These men are asking, ‘Am I going to be safe? Is it going to be clean here? Will the staff respond to my needs?’ It takes away those fears.”
O’Brien, 37, has been director now for four years, and the men who come here say they see results of his efforts. They say the shelter is safer and quieter, and there appears to be a bigger effort now to help them find permanent homes.
The high praise for O’Brien is echoed by his staff, who say they are inspired by his dedication. His colleagues in other agencies say he has effectively built relationships with them to help get people off the streets. His supervisors say he is a compassionate leader with a passion for his work.
The accolades for O’Brien’s efforts come at a challenging time for people working with the homeless. Statewide and in Portland, the number of homeless people appears to be on the rise, advocates say. And the faltering economy is making the challenge of finding them jobs – a key to ending chronic homelessness – even more difficult.
O’Brien is undaunted. In his conversations with men who come here for help, O’Brien is upbeat, with an easy smile and gentle manner.
“He’s down to earth. He’s fair. And you can count on him,” says Sean Hamel, 57. “I think he has respect for a lot of us. He knows what we are and what we used to be.”
“He treats us like human beings,” says Ed Storer, 53, sitting in the shelter’s day room one night last week. “He doesn’t treat us like we came off the street.”
PARENTS SET EXAMPLE
When the men sleep at night, staff members walk through every 30 minutes and count every man. They also clean the bathrooms every 30 minutes. Both are practices O’Brien introduced.
O’Brien also imposed a no-profanity rule on grounds that aggressive language leads to aggressive behavior. Above the water fountain, there is a suggestion box, installed recently so the men can give O’Brien their ideas right away rather than wait for the weekly discussion meetings he holds.
He’s often the first to arrive at work and the last to leave. If need be, he cleans the toilets.
“I would not ask someone to do what I wouldn’t be able to do,” he says. “I try to go the extra mile to be ready to work, to be compassionate and always show someone a smile and be as effective as I can.”
Both of O’Brien’s parents have had long careers working to help the homeless and battered women.
His father, John O’Brien, is the former director of a Boston shelter and currently the New England regional coordinator at the U.S. Inter-Agency Council on Homelessness.
His mother, Kate Cloud, is a former director of Respond Inc., a domestic-violence shelter based in Somerville, Mass.
As an infant, Josh O’Brien lived with his parents at a home for adolescent girls, where the couple worked. His parents divorced when he was young. On weekends, he often visited his father in Boston, where he worked at a halfway house for alcoholic men. He befriended some of the clients, whom he called “uncles,” and joined them on outings.
“Our family job was to help people who needed help,” O’Brien says.
John O’Brien said his son was never intimidated by the men at the shelter. Later, as a young man, Josh O’Brien landed a job working at a shelter that helped chronically homeless men who were often drunk in public, one of the most challenging populations to work with.
“He just took to it. It amazed me,” John O’Brien says.
Josh O’Brien met his wife, Michelle O’Brien, while they both worked at a shelter in Boston. The couple now have two young children.
‘AN AMAZING GUY TO WORK FOR’
O’Brien began working at the Oxford Street Shelter in 2001, starting as a weekend supervisor and moving up the ranks.
Today, he supervises 35 full- and part-time workers. Three or four people are on duty every night.
The shelter has a capacity of 154 men, with an overflow room that allows for 25 additional beds. In the summer months, when demand is higher, there’s an off-site facility for another 75 people.
Unlike many other shelters in other cities, there is no limit here on how many nights a man can stay.
However, staff members are constantly encouraging their clients to take steps to find permanent housing. They hand out vouchers for Dunkin’ Donuts and Metro bus passes to those who achieve certain goals, such as obtaining a birth certificate or applying for general assistance.
It costs more than $2 million a year to run the shelter. Three-quarters of the funding comes from the state or the Maine State Housing Authority, and 22 percent is paid for by the city of Portland.
Robert Duranleau, Portland’s social service administrator, says the shelter staff places about 35 to 40 people per month in permanent housing, compared to about 25 a month six months ago, though the number of homeless people is increasing somewhat in Portland, as it has across the state.
O’Brien, he says, appreciates when shelter residents take the small but important steps toward independence.
“Josh is dedicated, he has a lot of energy, and he really cares about what he’s doing, and it’s fun to work with him,” Duranleau said.
Others who work at the shelter say O’Brien’s leadership has raised their own level of professionalism.
“He’s an amazing guy to work for,” says Rob Parritt, a housing counselor. “He’s very inspirational. He makes you want to follow his lead.”
Several of the homeless men say they have noticed the changes under O’Brien’s leadership. They say they are more relaxed while staying at the shelter. They feel safer.
“This place used to be a zoo,” says Nick DeConso, who has been sleeping at the shelter on and off for eight years. “There used to be a lot of yelling, screaming and fighting. That’s not happening anymore.”