18 Apr Nonprofit Spotlight: Oklahoma City Homeless Day Shelter
April’s interview is with Tom Knudsen, the director of the Oklahoma City Homeless Day Shelter.
What exactly does OKC Homeless Day Shelter seek to accomplish?
The OKC Day Shelter is a nonprofit organization that seeks to break the cycle of poverty by providing food and shelter for the OKC Homeless Community. The Day Shelter exists to provide immediate respite, food services and relief to individuals during the day time hours. The Day Shelter also offices a number of social service agencies in Oklahoma City under the same roof to offer collaborative care and a centralized point of contact for individuals to seek the various resources that they need to move forward with dignity and hope.
That need is huge, but the impact made by the Shelter cannot be overlooked. Between 300 and 350 people are served by the organization every day, and nearly 6,000 unique individuals were touched by the Shelter last year alone. While these individuals struggle with a variety of issues, homelessness is typically the common denominator – roughly 90 percent of all individuals seen struggle with finding permanent shelter of any kind.
The Shelter staff seeks to display the Gospel in word and deed. This belief, according to Tom, shapes the culture of the organization and informs how they treat people and affirm their dignity. However, he realizes that the need is one on which both faith-based and secular organizations can coordinate because “we can agree on what it looks like to take care of those that are struggling in our city.”
What strategies does the Shelter use to find and keep volunteers?
The OKC Homeless Day Shelter recently hired a volunteer coordinator who is now bolstering up the formal volunteer onboarding and retention process. The day shelter partnered with Restore Strategies and the 405 Center in 2016 and is now receiving additional volunteer inquiries from local church members that learned about service opportunities through their churches’ websites.
Once a volunteer has expressed interest in serving, Tom said, he/she will attend a training and tour the shelter. During the training, they will be presented with the mission and values of the organization, told how their contributions are specifically contributing to the mission of the nonprofit, and encouraged to sit down with someone at the shelter during a meal that day. This comprehensive orientation not only helps the volunteer learn more about the OKC Homeless Day Shelter but to understand the value they bring and gain real exposure to the population served.
How do volunteers enhance the work you do and expand your capacity to care for others?
In February 2018, the day shelter had 58 non-duplicated volunteers. The organization’s partnership with the 405 Center also proved to be particularly advantageous last winter. After realizing that many night shelters in the metro area did not have enough capacity to let everyone off the street in when the temperature dropped below freezing, the organization coordinated with the Salvation Army to provide additional room for those trapped on the streets without the resources needed to stay warm. Volunteers played a critical role in coordinating the preparation of cots, and many took overnight shifts to make sure their new friends would have a resource nearby should something come up.
“The Day Shelter operations are built to run off the help we receive from our volunteers. We have volunteer opportunities ranging from serving in the lunch line, to sitting at the front desk to managing the dog kennel to sorting clothing donations,” Tom said. “Our volunteers are incredibly valuable and help sustain us tremendously. I’m always blown away at the number of people who are willing to give of their time, talent and resources for no other reason than because they care. As I have family of my own and know how busy life gets, I appreciate our volunteers more and more.”
“I’m always blown away at the number of people who are willing to give of their time, talent and resources for no other reason than because they care. As I have family of my own and know how busy life gets, I appreciate our volunteers more and more.”
How would you describe your team’s organizational culture?
Tom said that at CityCare, the day shelter’s parent organization, the goal is to “look for situations that elevate relationship.” He lamented the fact that some people that want to serve simply come to look for “projects to plop food on a plate.” The most meaningful way to serve, he said, was to approach the interaction with deeply humility and “sit down and have lunch with somebody, to get to hear their story…For many homeless individuals at the shelter, this is the only time they will interact with other people.” The organization tries to create an environment in which individuals receiving service feel like more than ‘just another problem to solve.’”
Tom wants every staff member and volunteer to feel the weight of their responsibility and understand the privilege it is to work with the families and individuals served at the day shelter. “Many people that come in don’t believe that change is yet possible in their own lives. We get the honor and privilege to believe in the possibility of change for them until they can believe in it themselves…We want to be an organization that sees the intrinsic value and worth of people.”
Tom made sure to note that nonprofits like his are a channel through which people can serve, but caring for the image of God on others is not an activity confined to the context of a particular nonprofit. “There’s nothing special about what we do here,” he said, “We don’t have any special calling. Anybody who just cares enough to step into someone’s life can make a difference.”
How does the Shelter train, equip, and encourage new hires and volunteers to stay on and grow both personally and professionally?
Tom suggests that the process of retention starts as early as training and orientation – it is during these early days that new volunteers and staff members are acclimated to the culture and procedures of the organization. He and the staff also work with individuals to put them into roles where they can use their gifts and talents well. “We want to quickly recognize people’s gifts and strengths and give them platforms where they can use and develop those gifts,” Tom said. “For example, one woman’s life was saved by an animal, and consequently, she has an incredible passion for animals. We wanted to empower her in that and gave her an opportunity to start and then lead a dog kennel at the shelter for homeless folks with animal companions.”
Nonprofits like the day shelter attract a wide variety of prospective staff members and volunteers. In order to make sure the team and clients are being served as well as possible, Tom tries to first make sure they are serving for the right reasons and are living healthy personal lives. “Lots of people have the right heart but are running from something personally – some may just want to serve to fill a space in their lives with ‘social justice’ or ‘altruism’. Our goal is to get people to separate that and remind them that their family and their home are their first calling.”
Steps have also been taken to bake self-care into the organization’s culture and policies. “We don’t ever want to use employees or volunteers to ‘feed the machine,’” Tom said. “We want to create a workplace where employees are built up and can leave their work at the door at 5 o’clock.” Because of the nature of the work, this is often much easier said than done. “The people that work with us know the names and faces of those that sleep on the street when it’s freezing outside. At the end of the day, we simply have to get on our knees and pray, ‘God, these people are in your hands and I’ve done what I can as a limited human being. Your plan is bigger than mine. Today is done and I’m going home.’”
In Tom’s experience this type of self-care is actually critical to the organization’s progress. “It’s not selfish to care for yourself. When you do this well, you’re actually able to care for others more effectively.”
“At the end of the day, we simply have to get on our knees and pray, ‘God, these people are in your hands and I’ve done what I can as a limited human being. Your plan is bigger than mine. Today is done and I’m going home.’”
What have you learned from the people your organization serves? How has this changed the way you approach serving that population?
Tom has been humbled by the homeless community in Oklahoma City – in many ways, they have shown him a deeper beauty of relationship, community, and devotion to one another. “What I have learned from the people we serve is that there is a very unique sense of community that they have that we might not necessarily have in the world of the suburbs, where you can commute to work in a car by yourself or go to work in a cubicle,” he said. “While the street life might not be the healthiest sense of community, it is still, in other ways, more real than the community many in suburbia experience.”
The reality of homelessness also tears away any façade of “having it all together” and forces those on the outside to come in with deep humility, patience, and grace. “There are no masks for them to hide behind,” Tom remarked. “They don’t have that luxury. So in terms of how we serve them, I think it means coming in as a learner and a partner, rather than being seen as a ‘provider.’ Yes, in a practical sense, we are providing them with a service, but we need to do that in a way that honors their dignity and recognizes them as a person and not a project.”
What advice/encouragement could you give to those that are also passionate about this line of work and want to see communities restored?
In the nonprofit space, change doesn’t come easily or quickly. To see real community development, those seeking to serve must approach others with a willingness to learn, an openness to feedback, and a commitment to the human flourishing of those in the community. “Recognize that you’re not going to see change overnight,” Tom stated. “People are never going to change the way you want them to change, so let go of standards and expectations that you have for how you think people should change and be willing to see yourself in the people you serve.”
It is only when we realize how much we too need redemption, restoration, and saving that we experience personal and spiritual growth ourselves and come to recognize the dignity of others unlike ourselves.
Self-reflection and an awareness of our own brokenness are also critical to success in the social sector. It is only when we realize how much we too need redemption, restoration, and saving that we experience personal and spiritual growth ourselves and come to recognize the dignity of others unlike ourselves. “When you see someone making terrible decisions over and over and over again, instead of being frustrated, be willing to ask, “How is this me in some areas of my life?” Tom suggested. “If you are willing to learn about yourself through the work that you do with others, you will go exceedingly far.”