Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis: How Scott Ackerson of Prospera Housing Community Services is helping to address the root causes of homelessness

Whenever you’re making decisions about an individual or a group you’re working with, include the people who are affected in the planning and decision making. I worked with some young adults emancipating from foster care who put this very clearly: Nothing about us without us.

As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Ackerson. Scott Ackerson is the Executive Vice President of Strategic Relationships and Services for Prospera Housing Community Services in San Antonio, where he oversees resident support services, fund development, and strategic relations. Scott was previously a Principal for Health Management Associates, a national healthcare consulting firm, working across the country on homeless systems of care, Social Determinants of Health, supportive housing, and infant mortality and worked for Haven for Hope, a large homeless campus, prior to that. Scott has extensive experience in direct services, continuum of care coordination, and clinical and programmatic oversight. Prior to his career in homeless recovery services, Scott worked for 15 years in child welfare services, including opening a trauma-informed residential treatment center in San Antonio.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?

I grew up on the east side of St. Paul, Minnesota in a predominantly tough, working-class area. It was a pretty typical inner-city upbringing where after school fist fights were almost as common as sports practice. I was an athlete growing up and played basketball, football, and baseball.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?

When I was in middle school, a teammate of mine invited me to go to a downtown boys’ club, because they had a great basketball program. The draw for this boys’ club was all of the housing projects in St. Paul, which were, at the time, predominantly African American. At the time, the city was pretty segregated, so I was the only white kid in a group of more than 100 kids. The boys’ club was in the basement of the Union Gospel Mission, then St. Paul’s main homeless shelter, which is ironic given the path my career would take.

There was a guy who worked at the Union Gospel Mission named Stevie Randall. He was the “jack of all trades”: bus driver, janitor, snack vendor, and basketball coach. He was also a father figure to all these kids, many of whom didn’t have fathers at home.

I decided quickly that I wanted to be like Stevie when I grew up. He’s the one who influenced me to choose the path of social work, especially to work with children. In college, I majored in social work and after graduation I began my career in child welfare for 15 years. After moving to San Antonio, I worked for Casey Family Programs working with young adults exiting the foster care system and then ran programming at The Children’s Shelter. Unexpectedly, I received an offer one day to transition into homeless services as the Vice President of Programs for SAMMinistries (SAMM), an interfaith homeless services provider. SAMM was slated to become the largest service provider in the greater San Antonio area at a brand-new homeless facility that was under development, Haven for Hope of Bexar County. I’d done a lot of program development through my career and was interested in doing more. This opportunity to expand programming at the largest service provider in the area, I had to say “yes.”

Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

A big part of the current crisis stems from unintended consequences of the 2009 HEARTH Act, which repurposed emergency shelter grant dollars into emergency solution grant dollars. We went from providing funding for emergency shelters to focusing on only permanent housing and supportive services. Theoretically, this is not a bad way to approach homelessness — but housing first is only effective if you have the housing capacity to make sure people have a home and the necessary resources to provide wraparound services.

In reality, it meant that many cities either downsized or eliminated shelters, because there wasn’t federal funding available. That, coupled with extreme rises in housing prices in major urban areas and increasing occupancy rates, meant the market dictated rental costs, effectively pricing a lot of people out of their homes.

When you have a dual phenomenon with the lack of emergency shelters and housing becoming out of reach for even the middle class, the only alternative after a point is the street.

For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?

The problem with this proposed progression is that, even though we often treat it as one, homelessness is not a homogeneous phenomenon. When we peel back the onion, we discover that the causes of homelessness are broad and varied. And because of these variations, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. There is no one path into or out of homelessness and if we try to treat it that way, we set ourselves up for failure. Homelessness is not a homogeneous phenomenon; thus, we can’t expect homogeneous, one-size-fits-all interventions will be effective.

There are, however, trends we can infer to inform the kind of care and systems-level policies should put in place.

Causes of homelessness are often attached to trauma and we know there is a high correlation between trauma and mental health issues. For example, women experiencing homelessness often experience high rates of violence and/or childhood sexual abuse. And if we were thinking about a progression, you can imagine what likely happens next: That abused child is removed from their home, placed in a broken child welfare system until they turn 18, and then are thrown into the world with very little support, where they face new stressors at once. Underlying all of that, we likely have not effectively treated the original trauma, which then causes snowball effects.

Of course, this is just one progression and isn’t necessarily a typical case. Other progressions into homelessness could involve other types of childhood trauma, hospitalization later in life and other health issues, losing resources, or becoming financially homeless. But we can start to draw lessons from this.

And the big one is that homelessness in itself is not the problem; it’s a symptom of larger systems-level problems. And because of that, we need to enact systems-level solutions to truly address the root causes of homelessness.

A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?

I have a couple answers to this. Firstly, fewer and fewer cities even have cheaper housing, so the feasibility of this is questionable to begin with. And then if you factor in that this person may not have the resources to fund the necessary transportation to arrive somewhere new, this becomes an even less workable solution.

But more importantly, this is similar to asking any one of us to leave our social networks, our communities, and everything we know, to start over. Picking up and moving to another city doesn’t bring community. In fact, it likely means having to start all over to build support networks, which compounds the issue. People need community — asking them to leave one to be able to survive is not a tenable solution.

We need to create and bolster the support systems in all communities, not foist responsibility onto others.

If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?

Acknowledge a person experiencing homelessness as a human being and say “hello” like you would do with anyone else. Treat them with respect and dignity, not disdain and judgment.

To that end, I would encourage us all to think long and hard about who and what we’re referring to when we speak about people experiencing homelessness. Homelessness is a state, not a trait, and none of us should be defined by our current living situation.

What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?

I think people have to make their own judgments about how they respond to someone asking for money. For the 14 or 15 years I worked in direct services, I would hand out my business card, which had my cell phone number on it, to panhandlers and tell them to call me when they were ready to get off the streets. Over the years, I probably handed out over 1,000 business cards. I literally got only one phone call for assistance.

If you do choose to give, it shouldn’t come with strings. Your contribution ultimately might not be going to what you think it’s going to, and you have to be okay with that.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?

Broadly speaking, I hope my work helps people to see the entire spectrum and system that homelessness is part of. We often look at homelessness as a discrete phenomenon: it begins when someone becomes homeless and ends once they no longer are. But there is a lot that happens both before and after that contributes to homelessness and sustains the solutions. As someone overcomes homelessness, there is a huge need for permanent supportive housing and affordable housing at the end of the spectrum. But not only is access to affordable housing a backend solution, it’s also an effective front-end prevention mechanism.

I recently transitioned from working in direct homeless services to working at an affordable housing and supportive services provider. As I see it, homelessness is a symptom of a larger problem rather than the problem itself. Availability of and access to affordable housing is a key part of that system. Unless we address the root, system causes, we’ll just be treating symptoms and not solving the actual problem. I hope my work drives more urgency and action around upstream prevention tactics, which are more easily accomplished than downstream interventions.

One of my other goals is helping people recognize and begin to address the more profound societal issues that contribute to homelessness, including poverty, unemployment, underemployment, affordable housing access, as well as the impact of institutionalized racism and historical oppression. People of color are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, child welfare system, and as recipients of homeless services. Systemic problems require systemic solutions, but if we invest in those broad and overarching solutions, we’re investing in long-term wellbeing that perpetuates strength and progress.

On the direct services side, I am continuing to expand the use of evidence-based practices like person-centered planning, peer support integration, trauma-informed care, or motivational interviewing instead of behavior modification approaches. Behavior modification can be effective in altering behaviors, but does not address the core issues associated with behaviors.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?

COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on homelessness, those experiencing homelessness, as well as the people and organizations who provide services. What we know about COVID-19 is all it takes is one person for it to spread far, wide, and quickly. Emergency shelters are congregant living, which in this current situation means that staying in a shelter means you’re highly susceptible to the virus. At this moment, not only is it uncomfortable to stay at a shelter, it’s dangerous to your life. That’s a pretty big impact.

In my current position, our service managers are providing services like telephonic wellness checks but there is a significant portion of our work that necessarily remains face-to-face, such as on-site food pantry/distribution. For our property management team, there are essential maintenance repairs within apartments and on property that need to be addressed. The reality is, our service and maintenance providers are unheralded essential workers. Like medical professionals, they’re putting their lives in their own hands when they go to work. Rightly, medical workers are at the top of the list to get access to PPE, and even they are struggling to procure enough. Think, then, of the homeless service providers who are not at the top of the list to protect themselves and the people living in facilities, but who must still do their essential work in person.

I think COVID-19 has also shown how many of us live facing economic instability or precarity every day. These struggles are shared, and we have an opportunity to build a path to recovery that lifts entire communities.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

During my tenure at Haven for Hope, I spearheaded a direct services transition from behavior modification practices to the evidence-based practices (EBPs) I previously mentioned. It was not a wildly popular idea when the work first began. One thing I learned in my social work college courses is that system change is difficult and Haven for Hope, as a large institution, was no different. Moving the organization from the belief that we need behavior modification to recognizing the importance and efficacy of evidence-based practices was both the most difficult thing I’ve done and the work I’m most proud of. Where Haven for Hope is now, with integrated EBPs implemented throughout its culture, is due to my team, me, and the organization’s leadership.

I’m also incredibly proud of the people I worked with. When I started at Haven for Hope, we didn’t have peer support programs. Over the course of 18 months, we worked with a local Texas organization to train and certify peer supporters, who are able to offer support and connection based on shared experiences. The enormity of that can’t and shouldn’t be discounted.

Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?

There was one young man I worked with who had multiple addiction issues and had attempted suicide a few times. He’s been clean and sober now for several years and is now working with people who are currently experiencing the things he experienced. He’s using his story and skills to help people around him turn their lives around.

His is just one story out of hundreds of people who used their own strength to change their lives. Any time someone comes up to me and says, “you saved my life,” I always say back to them that “I don’t have the power to save your life. You saved your life.”

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

Some generic things people can do to address the causes of homelessness include getting involved, volunteering, and donating. Resources are always needed. Most of these programs nationally are underfunded. We can’t have the impact we need without resources. For people who are looking to volunteer, it’s great to volunteer to stock or sort through a warehouse, but there’s so much value in interfacing directly with people who are experiencing homelessness.

When I was an adjunct professor of social work at a local university, my students had a service-learning requirement, which they did at Haven for Hope. It’s incredibly gratifying to see the trepidation on day one transform into students not wanting to leave at the end of the semester. That’s the greatest lesson to learn. We tend to be cautious of what is unfamiliar, but people experiencing homelessness are just like us. In the course of working with anyone face-to-face, you learn that they’re a really cool person and they’re just like you and me.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

I would introduce a combination of policies and laws. First, I’d reexamine the HEARTH Act and its impact.

I’d start creating additional affordable housing capacity and build up access to supportive services. Homeless interventions do not end homelessness; it only helps those who have already become homeless. In order to end homelessness, we have to address and solve the upstream issues, including poverty, economic instability, and the historical impacts of institutional racism. If we don’t address those, more and more people will become homelessness. And if we don’t act, we’ll have increasingly more to address.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

When you come home from work, there’s a good tired and a bad tired. The bad tired is stress. Good tired is stress, but you know you’re making a difference. You’re walking with people to help people find their path. That’s extremely rewarding. I experience a lot of the good tired.

I’m an introvert, but I love the human interface. Sometimes people in the lowest points of their life are the most transparent, honest, and real. I appreciate that. Before working in homeless services, I was working in child welfare services. I was a single dad in an apartment and people were telling me I needed a house. Then I started working in homeless services and my little apartment became my absolute castle. One of my early experiences working at an emergency shelter, I was invited to join a nightly prayer. Everyone got in a circle and started praying. I was floored by the people living in an emergency shelter who were praising and grateful for all they had. That was a very sobering and humbling moment for me. It put into perspective how fortunate I was to have what I had. I carry that knowledge with me.

Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?

I’ve occasionally heard people say that homelessness is biblical: It’s in the Bible, so there will always be homelessness. I don’t believe that. I think there is hope. We can overcome homelessness as a nation. But we have to stop dealing with the symptoms and start dealing with the real issues.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Not sure I can come up with five, maybe just a couple. I don’t think I’ve been surprised in my career. I came into this work with my eyes wide open. I knew what I was getting into and have been blessed. But there are a few things that come to mind:

  1. The people we’re working with aren’t clients, they’re people. Even in our education system, when we talk about people accessing services, we label them as “clients” or some other label. This is a way we’re systemically dehumanizing and marginalizing them. I understand that it’s for the convenience of language, but the language we use is important.
  2. Whenever you’re making decisions about an individual or a group you’re working with, include the people who are affected in the planning and decision making. I worked with some young adults emancipating from foster care who put this very clearly: Nothing about us without us.
  3. At the end of the day, whether we are with or without a home, we all want versions of the same things: food on the table, a roof over our heads, and to feel respected and love.
  4. We all have trauma in our lives. The resources that you can access to help overcome or manage that trauma can influence and direct your path in life.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We have great abundance in the US. We have more resources than any nation across the world. Yet, we allow these social conditions to exist. Is this acceptable for who we are as a nation? I think we need to look closely at that and examine it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have two:

  1. When I was working with children in residential treatment, some of the children at this particular treatment center occasionally exhibited extremely aggressive behavior and would become physical. I had this colleague named George, who, when he would walk in, all of the kids would immediately calm down. They would do what he asked them to do. When I asked him how he did it, he responded, “I look for the Jesus in every child.” I took it to mean to look for the good in anybody. If you look for goodness in people, you can find it.
  2. The second is, “You can’t start where the person is until you know where they’ve been.” You have to meet people where they’re at. Understanding where they’re at is understanding what’s happened to them, not what’s wrong with them. And from there, you can move forward together.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Breakfast or lunch would be fine, but I’d rather have a beer and a game of H-O-R-S-E with Barack Obama. He was a great agent of social change and a great leader. I would love to hear his perspective in a casual one-on-one conversation.

How can our readers follow you online?

Follow Prospera Housing Community Services on Facebook: facebook.com/prosperaHCS

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis: How Scott Ackerson of Prospera Housing Community Services is helping was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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