After overseeing operations at Westside CARES for the past 15 years, Stephen Brown, executive director of the ecumenical and interfaith nonprofit, will step down at the end of June. Brown has been instrumental in the organization’s growth, including its move from a cramped church basement into a building of its own facing a bustling Colorado Avenue. The growth is bittersweet. While resources grow, Brown said, so does the number of the needy in the region, despite the concentration of local nonprofits.
Brown spoke to the Business Journal this week about caring for those who cannot care for themselves and leaving the organization he has come to love in the hands of a yet-to-be-determined heir.
I’m a preacher’s kid and was born in the Yakima Valley in Washington. I lived in Seattle and Boise and Spokane, which is where I met my wife. We got married and moved to Kentucky, where I went to seminary.
I had been a respiratory therapist and had gotten dual bachelor’s degrees in health services management and health education. I thought I’d be going into health care. But instead I went to seminary and afterwards I was a pastor at a church in Idaho. I then moved to Germany with my wife, who had a civilian job with the Army. That job moved us to Fort Carson in 1998.
What did you do for work?
I drove a food truck for [Colorado Springs School] District 11 my first year here. I also worked as a half-time chaplain at [senior living facility] the Village at Skyline.
I came across this position with Westside CARES, which was for 30 hours a week, in 2002.
Talk about the organization.
We’re interfaith and that’s a pretty unique marker in this county. … We’ve been in existence since 1983 and were pulled together by a number of churches to provide basic emergency services to people in need on the west side of El Paso County. … We do a lot of help with food. We have six food pantries that, all told, gave about 24,000 people four days of food last year. … The most expensive things we do are around housing — we got a grant from Colorado Springs Utilities and its [Project] COPE program. We’ll spend $170,000 to $180,000 of [CSU’s] money to help people keep their power on.
We’ll also spend above $50,000 from other sources in helping with housing and rental assistance. We help up to 12 households a month with not more than $300 towards next month’s rent.
Do you provide any other services?
We have a nurse from Penrose-St. Francis [Health Services]. They pay for her but she functions as a member of our staff, so we can provide medical assistance like copays on medical visits, prescriptions and referrals to specialists. We do significant work with helping people with clothes. … We get a nice pile of vouchers each month from Discover Goodwill that amounts to about $40,000 [annually]. We also give away about another $40,000 in clothing from in-house donations.
What’s your budget?
Last year our cash income was about $340,000 including grants. … But an enormous amount of food in our food pantries is donated. And we can’t monetize it, but we do express a monetary value of volunteer hours. It was about 27,000 hours of volunteer time last year. We have a pretty modest cash budget, but from it we’ve leveraged about $2.5 million in value.
Who does Westside CARES target?
I’d say, probably 10 or 15 percent of the people who come in here are homeless. The rest are poor, chronically poor and living on the edge of financial viability, or we see a significant amount of people who never thought they’d be in a position like this but are because of job loss or sickness.
How has this position changed in 15 years?
I didn’t imagine when I started and was working 30 hours a week that we’d be in our own building, that we would have as many paid staff. There are five of us. … I did not start this work with the intent to grow it to this size or position. It’s just kind of moved that way.
But I’ve learned to be single-minded in focus on the mission and attentive to how we shape the mission. I’ve learned to claim it and own it and make it memorable and concise and repeatable — and to never waiver from it.
With lots of nonprofits, there’s often a shiny thing over here, if they just do ‘this’ program.
I consider that to be detrimental to stability and only with stability can organizations grow well.
How would you assess the community’s progress in addressing poverty?
This is true of Colorado Springs and I believe it to be true of the nation as a whole, and that’s that the middle class has been eroding in the last 30 years.
It’s partly why we see folks who never imagined being here having to come in now. Their security has been eroding.
As a society we’ve found ways to compensate so we haven’t felt it as much, but that ability to compensate, I think, has hit a limit.
In the ’60s, a lot of households had one earner. Then, in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s families were becoming two-income families and that allowed for stabilization and prevented further erosion.
Why is it still an issue?
The two sectors in society with the most dramatic cost increases are higher education and health care. … Some of health care has been addressed, although I’d say inadequately and incompletely. … But perhaps the most pressing issue in this town is affordable housing.
I just heard we need more than 6,000 housing units … and a lot of the permits being pulled aren’t for affordable housing. We have downward pressure on the affordable housing that is available. We have apartments that are $800, but someone who can afford $1,200 a month might take it. And then what about the person who can only afford $800 a month? And what if that $800 is 60 percent of their household income? Those people are in an untenable and unstable situation.
Do you think nonprofits should collaborate to reach the underserved?
I think there could be better coordination. I think, informally, we know each other very well. … But coordination could be improved. … One thing that chronically worries funders is a duplication of services. Our answer to that is, if you sum up all of the services in the community, duplication is not the issue. Volume of services provided is the issue.