Few moments can test leaders, their businesses, and those they serve like adversity. And no matter the industry, it’s safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic is one of those moments.
Now, imagine that your clientele is part of a historically underserved population. That’s the challenge that Daniel Roby currently faces each day as CEO of the Austin Street Center, the largest free emergency homeless shelter created in 1982 to serve the city’s most vulnerable residents.
For the past 15 years, Daniel has played a significant role in supporting Dallas citizens experiencing homelessness. From day-to-day struggles with homelessness to securing long-term housing and employment, his team members all possess an unbridled passion for helping those in need.
“I love getting to do the work that I do and support the people that Austin Street Center supports,” says Daniel. With his inspiring leadership, he and his team prove that positivity, progress, and hope can emerge even during the toughest times.
The Reality of Homelessness
Before you can understand why crises often hit unhoused populations so hard, it’s essential to understand more about the community itself.
First off, most people without housing aren’t addicted to drugs or alcohol. “Around 30-35% of people who are homeless struggle with an addiction of some kind,” says Daniel. It’s not an insignificant number, but it’s also not the overwhelming amount that many people think. “And even in those circumstances, we often find addiction came about as a means of coping with their homelessness rather than the cause.”
Statistics also show that mental health doesn’t affect the majority of the homeless population. According to Harvard Health Publishing, that number is between 25% to 33% of unhoused people. “Mental health is a large contributor,” says Daniel, “but it’s not everybody.”
Also, very few homeless people choose to be in their situation. “In the 15 years of doing this and the 2,000 people we’ve served, only a handful I’ve met really want to be in this circumstance,” says Daniel. “I could count them on my fingers and toes.”
In actuality, most people without housing found themselves in the situation due to what the Austin Street Center calls the Formula for Homelessness. “Financial need, plus a crisis—and COVID-19 is a perfect example—minus social support equals homelessness,” Daniel says.
“People can struggle financially, but maintain a roof over their head because they have strong social support, or they’re able to avoid one crisis or another,” he continues. “For others, their social support is not strong, but their income stream is—and they can avoid a crisis.
“We also have situations where the crisis is so big, like a hurricane! It doesn’t matter what your support system or income stream is. You can find yourself without a home.”
Daniel encourages us to avoid assumptions about why unhoused people are in their situation. “Every person that finds themselves without a home didn’t imagine that they’d find themselves there,” Daniel says. “There is so much more to every person’s life besides their homeless experience,” says Daniel. “Their homeless experience doesn’t define them.”
That’s why Daniel wants us to rethink phrases that define people by their homelessness. After all, we typically don’t refer to others based upon their housing. “We don’t call somebody an apartment dweller or a two-story homeowner,” says Daniel. “But when someone is without a home,” he says, “We call them homeless as if that’s who they are.”
Instead, everyone should be defined by their character and the countless things that make up a person’s unique life. Listen to their entire story. “Sometimes when I hear their story,” Daniel says. “I think ‘You know what? I don’t know if the decisions I would or wouldn’t have made would have been different if I had been through all that they had.”
Leading Together Through Crisis
The unprecedented COVID crisis could have easily sent some leaders and their organizations into a panicked tailspin. Although the pandemic indeed sent shockwaves through their community, Daniel, the Austin Street Center, and Dallas’ other programs serving the homeless came together to fight for a common goal. Today, they’re dedicated to serving a client base who are perhaps struggling now more than ever.
“Obviously, they can’t shelter in place,” Daniel says. Experts say that the safest place right now is at home. So, what do you do if you literally don’t have one? Whether you’re on the streets or in a shelter, places where the homeless end up are often overcrowded. “Social distancing is extremely challenging,” says Daniel
“People who are homeless are also more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19,” he continues. From drug use to lack of adequate health care, many people without homes either have preexisting conditions or fewer resources to prevent or better treat the illness.
On top of these factors, Daniel and his team still have to maintain their typical services. “In October, we’ve helped 30 people transition out of homelessness and into their own place,” says Daniel. “We’re trying to maintain that part of our work even while we’re also increasing space between beds, adding medical staff, and pivoting our entire operation.”
Once the pandemic’s severity was apparent, Dallas’ organizations for the homeless began supporting each other and their central mission. “We all have to come together during times of significant need,” Daniel says.
Soon, every leader within the homeless support community, including fundraisers and facilities, began talking with each other every day. Daniel says, “We started a daily call. We’d get together and say, ‘What did you learn yesterday? How can we work with each other? Who needs to take what piece of this pie so that all of our communities are safe?”
For one, they broke down any barriers to sharing information and critical resources. By opening up all communication lines, the organizations could quickly grasp what was working, what wasn’t, and collaborate on creating the best solutions possible.
One colossal win was when the fundraising nonprofits came together and created a single, streamlined application. Previously, separate forms had to be filled out for each request. Now, places like the Austin Street Center could submit a single funding request, and it would automatically go to dozens of foundations. Whichever one was suited to their particular needs would respond.
“That was huge!” Daniel says. “When you’re figuring out how to respond to a crisis—and then you have to figure how you’re going to fund it—filling out 100 different applications would be a challenge.”
Success also relies on more than leadership and their staff. They need buy-in from the very people they serve. “We have a regular town hall where we gather all of our clients together,” Daniel says. In addition to outlining new policies and procedures, it’s a time to reflect on what’s succeeding and what needs improvement.
“I’ve been so impressed by the grit, determination, and resilience of those coming to us for help,” he says.
Supporting Those Who Need It Most
During trying times, it’s also critical for those within the greater community to reach out to those most in need. However, with social distancing practices likely in effect for some time, many traditional ways to show support simply aren’t options.
Thankfully, there are still so many ways to give back and offer support. Daniel suggests, “a regular pair of dry socks or a bottle of water—something that’s highly utilized and easy to carry around in your car.” Even when COVID is just a memory, handing out these small things can mean the world to someone experiencing homelessness.
And sometimes, the most powerful gifts don’t cost a penny. For those often ignored and pushed to society’s fringes, small gestures can make all of the difference. “Just acknowledging that they’re a person and that they matter is a huge thing,” says Daniel.
“A smile and a wave can go a long way,” Daniel says. “I’ve heard stories from people who say, ‘I didn’t believe that I was ready to make any changes. Then, this person was kind to me and I decided to give it a shot.’” This split second of genuine care changed a life forever.
“The most valuable thing that you can give,” Daniel says, “is human kindness.”
The conversation with Daniel Roby continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast. You’ll hear more about those experiencing homelessness and how Daniel is working to support them. Don’t miss an article or episode of the podcast by signing up for my mailing list. You’ll also get a free guide to my favorite mindful resources. Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and keep up with my company imageOne.