by John Kelly, columnist
The Washington Post
December 16, 2014
With an undergraduate degree from Harvard and an MBA from Georgetown, Kelly Sweeney McShane would not be out of place in the executive suite of a Fortune 500 company.
It is such an impressive background that when Kelly was job-hunting after earning her MBA, an interviewer told her: “I almost didn’t interview you because you have Georgetown and Harvard on your résumé and you would never want to work at a nonprofit.”
Said Kelly: “I was like, ‘What?!’ ”
In fact, the nonprofit world is where Kelly is making her mark — and making a difference. She’s president and CEO of Community of Hope, a charity that provides housing and medical care for once-homeless families in the District. Community of Hope is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand.
There was a time when Kelly thought she’d apply her talents to the developing world. After Harvard, she served with the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. (Later, she and her husband would adopt their daughter Memuna, orphaned by the war, from there. Memuna joined sister Molly and brother Michael.)
But, Kelly said, “I felt there was so much need in the United States I could work on.”
At 23 she moved to Washington to work for a small nonprofit that provided housing for women recovering from substance abuse. Two years later, the top job came open. “And they gave it to me,” Kelly said. “I was 25 years old.”
Kelly worked at the charity — Hannah House — for seven years. Then she embarked on her MBA at Georgetown, attracted by what she saw as the Jesuit school’s commitment to social justice.
Why not go for a degree in nonprofit management?
“There are too many nonprofits with great ideas and great vision and they can’t manage the money,” Kelly said. “And if you can’t manage the money and the people, then you can’t really achieve anything.”
She graduated first in her class and in 2001 took over the helm of Community of Hope. At the time, the budget was $1.5 million. Today, it’s about $16 million.
“It’s been quite a progression,” Kelly says.
At Community of Hope, Kelly oversees an operation that offers a variety of services. The charity matches children with mentors. Employment counselors help clients find jobs. A clinic sees to health needs. Housing specialists help clients find a place to live once their time in Community of Hope housing is finished.
I gingerly raised a topic: I’ve heard from a couple of angry readers who feel families such as those served by Community of Hope have brought their woes upon themselves.
“The families we serve are incredibly strong,” Kelly said. “I don’t think they’re lazy. I don’t think they’re trying to get over. They’re just trying to do the best they can to care for their children. How do you nurture and encourage that and build on that?”
Those are the questions that Kelly addresses every day.
A lot has changed in the two decades Kelly has worked in the field of homelessness. Agencies now embrace the “housing first” model.
“It used to be: You don’t get housing till you’re ready — and you need to prove it to me,” Kelly said of the old approach. “You need to never take a drink and take all your medications every day for six months and then we’ll think about giving you housing. If they don’t do it, they’re going to be warehoused or sleeping on the street somewhere.”
Leaving aside how inhumane that is, it isn’t cost-effective, either. As with our other Helping Hand partners — Homestretch and Sasha Bruce Youthwork — the idea is to get the client off the streets. That can mean rapid rehousing, a place to live for a year or so, or permanent supportive housing, which is long term and for seriously broken families.
“Once they’re housed, everything gets a little bit better,” Kelly said. “I think you need a little bit of everything. Every family’s different. There’s not like a cookie-cutter solution. It’s a more complicated, nuanced system we’re working towards.”
Like other Helping Hand partners, Kelly is active on the District’s interagency council on homelessness. She said, “The thing I like is that I’m working both at helping individual lives, but I’m also thinking how do you make larger system change to help the next person who’s coming?”
And, sadly, there’s always a next person coming. The District expects there will be 840 families homeless this winter, up from 720 last year.
Help for Helping Hand
However you feel about the poor, I hope you will agree with me on this: Children don’t deserve to be homeless. But that’s what happens every winter in Washington. Community of Hope works not just to find a place for families to live but sets them on a path to employment and competence.
Please make a tax-deductible contribution by visiting www.posthelpinghand.com and clicking where it says “Donate to Community of Hope.” To give by mail, send a check payable to Community of Hope to: Community of Hope, Attn: Helping Hand, 4 Atlantic St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20032.
This article first appeared in The Washington Post on December 16, 2014.