This tough economy has hit Americans hard around the nation, some harder than others. For the Rhode Island Family Shelter in Warwick, a bad economy means more residents and less funding.
Patti Macreading, the shelter’s new executive director, has big plans and she’s already making headway. Macreading took over this past January when Janis Fisher retired.
The shelter, formerly the Warwick Homeless Shelter, is located on Beach Avenue in the former St. Benedict Church convent.
The shelter opened 25 years ago in the basement of the Norwood Baptist Church as a completely volunteer weekend shelter and about 20 years ago, it moved to its current location.
The facility consists of two floors and a basement. The first level contains the kitchen, dining area, four offices, food storage room and nine rooms for residents. The second floor contains an office for one of the shelter’s two caseworkers and seven affordable housing apartments. The basement holds showers and bathrooms, along with an impressive child care room, which offers child residents a safe atmosphere to play and learn in. The room is adorned with children’s toys, learning aids and books. The area, said Macreading, gives new families an opportunity to relax and enjoy a safe space before interacting with other residents.
Last year, the shelter helped 43 families with 76 children. On average, the shelter supports about 60 families annually. That is less than past years due to the economic and housing crisis. Families stay three to six months on average, which has increased from six to 12 weeks a few years ago, and it is the only shelter in Rhode Island to admit families with teenaged boys.
Macreading said that the longer stay is due to families having a harder time finding affordable housing, but it also means that while at the shelter, families receive more case management sessions and save more money (the shelter requires its residents to save at least 60 percent of any income they receive). As a result, families ready to leave the shelter have enough money to put down the first and last month’s rent on a place of their own.
While at the shelter, residents receive three hot meals a day, their own room (depending on the size of the family and availability of rooms) and full use of bathrooms (females on the first floor, males in the basement).
Before Macreading accepted the position as associate director under Fisher in February of 2011, she was a vice president and branch manager of Coastway Community Bank (formerly the Warwick Credit Union, where she started 32 years ago), but she won’t miss it.
“I really wanted to get out of banking,” said Macreading. While she worked for Coastway, she volunteered at the shelter for 16 years, and for the last seven she was a member of the board of directors.
Macreading took over for Fisher in January of 2012. Fisher had been on medical leave for some time and ultimately stepped down as executive director and retired.
“[Janis] was really a mentor inspiring me that I could do this,” said Macreading, “Thanks to Janis, hundreds of Rhode Island families on the brink of disaster found a place of safety and support when they needed it most.”
Macreading was worried about filling Fisher’s shoes,
“I don’t have a degree [in human services],” she said, “but I knew my heart was in [it].”
She is holding her own. Recently, the Shelter has been the recipient of several grants, including a $25,000 donation from Wal-Mart presented this past Friday. Macreading hopes to use the money to buy new coolers and to update their pantry.
“It is just a matter of finding the time to investigate and write the grants,” she said.
Macreading was not always so enthusiastic about grant writing,
“Grant writing was my biggest fear,” she said. But after consulting with Fisher, Macreading was sending out as many grant proposals as she could muster up, and it paid off.
“All of a sudden we are getting money in,” she said, “any grant I have applied for, we’ve got!”
Unfortunately, the government grants only support about 40 percent of operations; the shelter relies on contributions from private foundations, like Wal-Mart, and the community for the majority of its expenses. One generous family, the Igliozzi family, has built an outdoor picnic and play area and furnished the shelter’s living room in honor of their daughter Sandy, who passed away in 2002.
“A generous community makes all this possible,” said Macreading.
When people think of shelters, Macreading explained, they tend to imagine the worst possible conditions, but “sometimes people just need help to get through a crisis.”
She uses the comments of former resident Patty Baxter to express the shelter’s mission,
“It’s the best bad situation to be in. No one wants to be homeless, but if you get into the right situation, you can just keep moving forward. The Shelter helped us a lot,” she said. “I see a lot of good … and the staff is encouraged that we are moving forward and things are getting done.”
Macreading has a staff of five.
Selena DeNomme is the shelter manager and sees to many of the day-to-day responsibilities of the shelter; Kate Soulliere is the shelter’s case manager and provides sessions and support to the families who temporarily call the shelter home; Nathan Law is the IT and facilities manager and is responsible for the Shelter’s new website to be launched this month; Sylvia Kennedy is the volunteer and child care coordinator; and Eiman Hegazi is the Beach House Apartments case manager. Macreading also keeps two overnight managers and approximately 80 volunteers.
However, “we could always use more volunteers,” says Macreading.
When asked about the new management of the shelter, Jeff Gofton, president of the shelter’s board of directors, said,
“Janis just about took [the shelter] from a part-time operation to a full-fledged facility, and Patti is more than continuing it.”
He added, “Patti’s real skill is in management, and she really professionalized the shelter … she was a perfect fit for us.”
With additional funds, Macreading has plans to convert her office and the office of one of her case mangers into additional free housing (upping the number of families they can take in from nine to 11). She wants to purchase metal bed frames so families have more room and to keep the mattresses off the floor. She hopes one day to expand the shelter to the vacant building across the parking lot, formerly St. Benedict’s Elementary School, in an attempt to supply more affordable housing.
The shelter holds several fundraisers, such as their annual Fashion Show at Quidnessett Country Club on Sept. 12, but Macreading hopes to hold additional, smaller fundraisers to augment donations. The shelter’s first benefit concert was one such fundraiser. It took place in June of this year and gathered young local musicians whose performances helped raise money for the Shelter.
“We can provide hope,” declared Macreading, who called her new position her “dream job.” Her optimism and perseverance has taken her staff by storm and is bringing the Rhode Island Family Shelter further to achieve its goal to bring assistance and dignity to Rhode Island’s homeless.